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A NECESSARY EVIL: A History of American Distrust of Government.

A NECESSARY EVIL: A History of American Distrust of Government By Garry Wills Simon & Schuster, $25

GARRY WILLS TELLS US THAT he undertook this project in the wake of the 1994 midterm elections--the "Contract With America" elections that brought about the apotheosis of Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay. That was only five years ago, but already the moment is beginning to seem impossibly distant. It's worth recalling: Predictions that the Democratic Party was about to suffer the fate of the nineteenth-century Whigs were almost the conventional wisdom. Books like E.J. Dionne's They Only Look Dead and James Carville's We're Right, They're Wrong were daringly titled. President Clinton seemed to have been struck dumb. And strangest of all, the word "government"--denoting, literally, something every one of the world's hundreds of societies has--was so negatively valenced that it could no longer be uttered openly in American politics. The mood was all-powerful--it swept everything before it.

The list of specific events that triggered the change since then would have to include Gingrich's disastrously unpopular shutdown of the government at the end of 1995, the Oklahoma City bombing, and Clinton's hiring of Dick Morris to reposition him. But the public also seems to have made a more general shift, from finding the idea of government profoundly scary to finding the idea of no government profoundly scary. In 1996, Clinton won going away. In 1998, Republican candidates all over the country found themselves having to assure voters that they didn't want to dismantle the public school system. In 1999 the almost certain Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, is running on the central promise of starting new government social programs for the poor. Things are startlingly different.

Wills' new book is titled, or subtitled, a little misleadingly: Rather than being a full-dress history of the idea of government in this country from the beginning to the present, it is a series of inspired, essay-length riffs, somewhat recalling his great early book Nixon Agonistes. The bulk of the material concerns colonial times--Wills makes no attempt to tell the story of the rise of the anti-government tide of the 1980s and '90s. He wants to refute not the idea that government is bad or nonfunctional in the present, but the idea that suspicion of government was a founding principle of the United States, deeply woven into the fabric of the country.

To accomplish this, Wills gives us a series of wildly contrarian (but persuasive) takes on a wide variety of anti-government propositions. One of the most interesting is his insistence that the Founders, in drafting the Constitution, did not intend to limit the powers of government through the system of "checks and balances" that you learned about in civics class. Instead, they had in mind a simple division of labor, and they intended the Congress, staffed by professional legislators rather than citizen-amateurs, to be the controlling branch of government. The whole reason for the Constitution, Wills reminds us, was that the government under the preceding Articles of Confederation was too decentralized to work. The most famous of the Federalist Papers, James Madison's Number Ten (one of the overall effects of Wills' book, by the way, is to glorify Madison and reduce the more anti-government Thomas Jefferson) is, Wills argues, really an eloquent case against the devolution of government power to the states.

One of the more eccentric, but fascinating, of Wills' contrarian points is that guns, especially pistols, played a much lesser role in American history than we now believe--this by way of arguing against the idea of a traditional right to keep and bear small arms. On the frontier, he says, gun technology was so poor that it was impossible for people to conduct the kind of quick-draw shootouts that are a staple scene in Westerns. During the legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral, nine men fired freely at each other in a constricted space for quite some time, and only three were killed. Another inspired riff is an attack on the sainted (and government-hating) Henry David Thoreau for being a self-involved weirdo. Another is a debunking of H.L. Mencken, whose cynicism about government has greatly influenced journalists because it was so charmingly put.

What Wills doesn't do is lay out a coherent theory of what role government should play in contemporary America. We still need a book that would do that, but in not writing it Wills has avoided the difficulties that would have arisen from his arguing in detail against a position--the Newt Gingrich position from 1994--that has become outdated more quickly than anyone could have predicted. He has, however, accomplished something else of great value, which is to disable the claim that a substantial, professional, powerful central government represents a betrayal of the American tradition. That clears the way for the discussion of what government should do next to take place.

NICHOLAS LEMANN, a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His new book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy is just out.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Lemann, Nicholas
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1999
Words:845
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