Wills goes after ‘mystique of secrecy’

By Patrick Smith

Northwestern emeritus professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills told a group of about 70 people at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., that so far, President Barack Obama has failed.

In a 50-minute talk centered around the thesis of his newest book “Bomb Power,” Wills explored the history of American politics since the Manhattan Project which developed the atom bomb.  According to the thesis, the power of the U.S. president grew to an unconstitutional and dangerous level after the bomb was developed. Wills argues that the Manhattan Project marked the first time the president authorized an extensive secret operation, and the office was repaid with unprecedented power in the form of a finger lingering over the trigger of nuclear holocaust.

In his speech, Wills argued that since the Manhattan Project, the unconstitutional militarized power of the presidency has combined with the secrecy of the national security apparatus to create a rogue, unchecked “commander-in-chief” that was never intended by the founding fathers.

“The bomb, which was supposed to end the war, started another one,” Wills said. “We had to keep this secret and we had a very good model of how to do it: the Manhattan Project. [It was decided] the power to use the bomb should belong to only one man, the president of the United States, and to this day the president is the only person with the power to deploy a nuclear weapon without any checks … this has led to the increase of the majesty of the president as the commander-in-chief, but the president is not the commander-in-chief of any civilian.”

Obama’s failure, according to Wills, has been an inability, or unwillingness, to scale back the militarism and secrecy surrounding what the Constitution deemed a civilian office: the presidency.

And Wills said the “immense discipline of secrecy” required by the national security apparatus has led to a troubling marginalization of the U.S. citizenry.

“We created a mystique of secrecy,” Wills said. “Only the people ‘in the know’ can decide what to do, and that means my opinion is worthless and your opinion is worthless.”

While Wills expressed disappointment over Obama’s willingness to accept the status quo in his first year as the leader of the free world, he saved his most vitriolic comments for the administration immediately preceding him. Wills traced a direct line from the build-up of the “mystique of secrecy” to the actions of former President George W. Bush, many of which he called illegal and unconstitutional.

In his talk, and in his book, former Vice President Dick Cheney was painted as a villain, constantly advocating for the extreme power of the executive office that Wills finds so troubling.

“I think, in fact, there has been over time a restoration, if you will, of the power and authority of the president,” Cheney said in a December 2004 interview with the History Channel.

And that, according to Wills, is exactly the problem. Wills blamed that “restoration of power” for illegal torture and faulty intelligence leading to war.

“That’s what happens,” Wills said. “The secrets, they become a way of protecting and hiding blunders and lies by the


Wills took questions from the crowd after he was finished.  All of the questioners expressed agreement with Wills’ theory, but it was during the question and answer session that the author turned some of the audience members against him.

Wills’ response to a question about the difference between the two political parties upset some attendees.

“If you are in favor of big business and racism then you should vote Republican,” Wills said to the questioner.

Library member Heidi Massa said that response lowered her opinion of Wills.

“The manner in which he answered the questions turned me off,” said Massa. “When someone says if you vote Republican, then you’re really in favor of big business and racism, I can’t agree with that.”