• Email
  • Print

Nix

Nixon Agonistes

by Garry Wills
Houghton Mifflin, 617 pp., $10.00

Garry Wills has got Nixon’s number and it adds up to less than one. Keeping count of Nixon is so exasperatingly dull that you’d think only Nixon could do it.

Will’s tally reveals that even the early Nixon possessed a meticulous determination to assemble large amounts of useless information in an orderly way…as lawyers and accountants do. As a boy he used his cast-iron ass to outstudy his fellow students and graduate with distinction in order to apply for a job as a G-man. He was turned down.

Nixon still collects information, assembling data on his own Presidency as the small boy Nixon probably once assembled his grammar school batting and fielding averages. There are people who can give you from memory the earned run averages of the 1938 Pittsburgh Pirates. Surely Nixon is one.

The studious Nixon has recently released a report on his first two years in the White House. It tells us that during that time the President has

…met or talked by phone with leaders—both individually and in groups—from every area of American life: from labor more than 30 such contacts, racial minorities, almost 30 such contacts, campus representatives, more than 50 such contacts, businessmen, more than 150 such contacts…worship services in the East Room of the White House, more than 8,000 guests attended…. More than 13,000 guests enjoyed the Nixons’ hospitality at 132 dinners…and more than 40,000 additional guests enjoyed an ongoing series of breakfasts, luncheons, teas, coffees and receptions.

It is also estimated in this publication, subtitled “Balance, Direction and Forward Thrust,” that he shook 200,000 hands in that space of time.

Only a man who can’t stand to be around people would allow such a figure to be compiled about himself. Garry Wills has caught that quality in Nixon Agonistes, which must be the best book so far about the man, the best written, the best thought out.

Many of us who live in Washington get so annoyed with Nixon, so bored by him, that we fail to exercise the charity that’s needed to understand another person, even a President. Wills doesn’t do that. While his verdict is a depressing, but probably correct, condemnation of the man as an obsolete exemplar of old and morbidly weakened ideas, he’s never cruel, and he never loses the sympathy necessary for insight.

The only objection you can make to the book is that it’s about Nixon. Wills has such a good mind you wish he’d chosen a subject that could keep it occupied. There’s so little of Nixon to grab onto, so unlike his yeasty, chesty, feisty predecessor. This wafer thin, nearly tasteless personality is hard for a writer to nourish his words with. Wills is constantly forced to write about all the qualities the man doesn’t have:

Nixon’s background haunts him, yet does not show—not, at least, in helpful ways. Eisenhower, a virtual exile to exotic places most of his active life…could still make his grin hazily fulgurant with Kansas, with the dust-prismed sun of his childhood afternoons. All recent Presidents have had the stamp of place on them—patrician Roosevelt of upper New York, raffish Harry Truman from Missouri, Boston-Irish Kennedy thinly veneered at Harvard and Johnson out of Texas like a walking tall tale…. Nixon alone, though deeply shaped by Whittier, has no attractive color of place to him.

If Wills’s Nixon lacks grain and texture, he’s also not the man a lot of detractors take him to be. Less vicious, more intelligent, and not so unprincipled, a portrait that serves to explain the dreary person we see on TV.

America is a bother to the President, a pain in the neck. The Presidency is a foreign policy job, so much so that Nixon gives the impression that domestic cares are an intrusion on his real work. He’d like to strike a deal with us—you run the country and I’ll run the world. Wills has caught this part of the man perfectly:

He feels—mistakenly—that the country can run itself through local and congressional machinery, but only a President can make and carry out policy toward other nations. Nixon cannot admit the importance of presidential style and presence in easing domestic fears…arousing confidence in the young…assuaging racial bitterness…. To admit this would be to recognize his own incapacities. Better to insist that the President is on hand to steer the ship of state…. This is not a matter of charisma, but for detailed work and study—just what Nixon excels at.

You don’t have to reveal much of yourself if you live in the White House—the power of the Presidential role obviates that, but least of all do you have to permit people a peep at who lives behind your eyes if you’re doing foreign policy. It’s so formal, and, as Wills says, Nixon loves hierarchy, form, and uniform, not because he’s a militarist or a fascist, but because he’s scared to let anyone get up too close:

His rigid wall of decorum, in dress and manner, is one of the means he uses to fend off the world, avoid participation in it…. Nixon restored the white-tie ceremony to the White House. Some, it is true, took the toy hats and tunics added to White House police as a sign of Nixon’s imagination…. Quite the opposite. Each added symbol of uniform, function, office makes man’s role in the social chess game clearer, his place marked, moves limited. Clothes structure a situation….

Still Wills penetrates the distance and the formalism to find a man who does believe in something, who’s other than a shady operator. That’s easy to forget when you’re watching the day-to-day Nixon, the bring-us-all-together Nixon of two and a half years ago; the Southern Strategy Nixon, the Phoenix tough guy Nixon, and now this new character, the recently arrived reconciler of youth and age, the Nixon who turned up to make the University of Nebraska speech and now talks of “ecology” and “revolution.”

The substances of all these seemingly disparate Nixons are pretty much the same. For Wills this coherent and ultimately consistent Nixon is the last free-market, laissez-faire liberal, the sort who finds justification for the soul in the justification of fetching a high price on an open, competitive market. “Nixon’s victory,” he writes,

was the nation’s concession of defeat, an admission that we have no politics left but the old individualism, a web of myths that have lost their magic. We cannot convincingly proclaim that where we stand is a “vital center.” Our “mainstream” is a sludge.

This is our Nixon, an anemic descendant of Teddy Roosevelt, a hemophiliac child of Woodrow Wilson, trying with deficient strength to restore localism and competition at home and to bestow our peculiar American self-determination abroad. “Nixon is emphatic about the traditional moral assumptions of our foreign policy because he believes in them…. He does not woo the Forgotten American cynically: he agrees with the silent majority. Those who misunderstand him, trusted him or what he says.” (Wills’s italics.)

It’s hard to know exactly what people mean when they use hypothetical notions like the silent majority, but Wills is certainly right in not regarding Nixon as the anything-goes used car salesman, the Tricky Dick of liberal execration. Sure, he’s tricky—politics is tricky—but not any shiftier than many another recent occupant of his office. What Wills knows is that Nixon believes; he believes in opposing communists, believes in Teddy Roosevelt’s interventionist America, in the Wilsonian God-given and global responsibility to put down Bolshevism.

When he came into office, the Washington know-it-alls explained that “Dick Nixon is too smart a politician not to end this war. He knows he’s got to do it if he’s going to win the off-year Congressional elections and be re-elected in ‘72.” They forgot they’d said the same of Lyndon.

Well, Nixon’s been in office twenty-six months now, two years and two months, and it isn’t ended. It isn’t ended because he’s not going to end it except on his terms: a staunchly implanted anticommunist government in Saigon.

You’re not going to pick up many votes anywhere in America by continuing this war. Even the hawks are sick of it; but Nixon isn’t and that’s why we’re not out. He shares Johnson’s obsessional desire to win, as well as his tactics. Johnson started out thinking he could win with bombings; Nixon the same, except that he’s more dangerous because he’s more rational. It’s doubtful Johnson knew why he ought to stay out of Cambodia and Laos; he must have just had a feeling. Nixon doesn’t operate on feelings. He thinks that he thinks. So he reasons that if you smash ‘em good, stun ‘em, then Thieu and that whole mob of armed houseboys and currency-swapping madams will have the chance they need to dig in deep enough to stay. The same goes for Laos. They’re even saying in Washington that one of the reasons for this latest violation of the neutrality of the Belgium of the Far East is to ensure Thieu’s re-election.

For Nixon, America has the license to smash in anywhere, the right of hot pursuit after the Red Peril. We are the twentieth century’s freedom fighters. As he reads the Constitution, it is he, the President, who alone determines the national interest and foreign policy because, outside the twelve-mile limit, he is the United States of America. Very dangerous, but very Wilsonian as Wills shows.

Since Hoover, Ike has probably been the only American President not infected with an overblown definition of the job. The Elective Kaiser. The Embodiment of the National Will. The Supreme War Lord and Commander in Chief. The Pontiff of Patriotic Self-Sacrifice. There was John Kennedy daring to say—and Nixon must have been applauding—Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!

The people at the service of the state. Monstrously antithetical to the popular idea of what the government is for, but it’s a job description that seems to go with whoever has the office.

Yet while the Embodiment of the National Will presses forward, the nation leaves him. His armies are beginning to break up with sliding discipline, race riots, slot machines, corruption, alcohol, and dope. A full chicken colonel in the Air Force is cashiered for smoking pot.

In civilian life everyone rushes to get his. Nixon’s appointees are compromised before they take office—Haynes-worth and Carswell. Stans is involved in the Penn Central affair, but more unnerving is the general attitude to screw it, screw the job, grab and get it, cops, teachers, electric utilities, doctors, oil companies, trash collectors. The virtues and probities which Nixon honors the most are more despised in his reign than in Johnson’s, when this drift in our behavior first accelerated into visibility.

In the face of this endemic conviction that if nobody else cares why should I, the National War Lord, Priest Embodiment calls us to a collective purpose which is meant to raise us above our increasingly destructive individualism, but who’s listening? We don’t want a foreign policy and that’s what he’s got most to give.

Although Wills has an accurate sense of the President’s values, he perhaps makes a mistake in underestimating the Keynes-New Deal influence on Nixon. In addition to being a very old liberal (TR-Wilson), he’s a new old liberal, a New Dealer in so many ways. Thirty-five years ago the New Deal hadn’t failed yet; it was the best thing anybody could think of, a program a reasonable man could put hope in. Not that Nixon’s that far back. He’s at the end of the New Deal, the ADA circa 1957, same platform at home and abroad. Negotiate disarmament with appropriate safeguards, national health insurance, desegregate the schools, deficit spending, all that. If he’d been President in 1957 with his 1971 program, Hubert Humphrey would worship him.

In 1971 it’s a gloppy, unworkable mess, like Nixon and the railroads, a stop-gap saga of semipublic corporations, loans, leasebacks, rentals, here a strike, there an emergency, neither private nor public nor a partnership, a programmatic mish-mash, not muddling through, just muddling. And Nixon’s stockbroker insurance law, so characteristic of the New Deal, allows these guys to stay in business by letting them gamble with other people’s money while government promises to make good the losses. This isn’t the reconstitution of the free market—Wall Street is a monopoly in restraint of trade anyhow—it’s the maintenance of an unreasonable, free market illusion, this gluey blend of old, wilting values and virile statism.

Nixon is all the time trying, looking for ways to create the free market which Wills points out never existed in this country, except as men like Nixon recall their own competitive experience; it endowed them with a price and for them a man without a price is worthless. It’s this that explains why he doesn’t want to use the Presidential power to jawbone prices and profits into line, and why, finally, he’ll most likely have to use wage and price control, saying, as a good New Dealer does, that the Nixon NRA will restore price competition.

Since that January two years ago when he returned to Washington and killed Camp by giving us too much of it, he’s been tenacious against price control, but the unseen hand of the market has arthritis. The hardhats are biting the pampering hand that pins the medals on their chests; his adored cops, all his forgotten Americans, are making a run on the treasury, the doctors won’t stop reaching for the extra dollar, and inch by inch he’s forced back to the methods that the liberal Keynesians prepared for him. He knows no other way.

He also knows and says out loud that the country wants Washington off its neck, so he’s bringing government to the people with flying visits to the mayors and metropolitans and, dearest of all, revenue sharing. Give the money back to the people and let them decide. True decentralization. But it isn’t. True decentralization, something more than an administrative reshufflement, would mean returning the taxing power to the states, or some significant proportion of it. Let the people of the states and localities tax themselves or not, let them make their own mistakes and achieve their own solutions.

But in the New Deal system, the control of taxation, the sluicing and channeling of moneys is how the economy is run. There can’t be local autonomy without a new and different kind of planning, and there can’t be planning because the Nixon New Deal rests on the premise that you plan a free market economy without admitting it, even to yourself.

Instead, let’s have revenue sharing which, if it ever comes to pass, means government will be made even more complex. For at the center of the revenue sharing proposal is an elaborate mechanism to disguise categorical grants in aid and make it look like the people down below want the money spent the same old way of their free will and choice. Failing that, let’s reorganize the government. Make all the departments that don’t work now, because they’re too big and too demoralized, bigger and cry out, “Accountability!”

Fewer and fewer people in Washington think it will work because fewer and fewer people in the capital think anything will work. As it used to be said that New York’s ungovernable, it’s coming to be said that the whole country is, and as that conviction grows, Nixon appears more and more acceptable. Not in the infuriated manner of two years ago when there was all the foot-stomping and yelling he and Humphrey were alike.

This is the resignation that comes from a loss of energy and knowing what probably needs to be done requires too much effort and will cause too much strife. Maybe Nader can keep going, and Proxmire can talk himself hoarse opposing the SST, but so many more accommodate to Nixon on the supposition that the time’s not right for anything better, and what would be better?

He’s President Not-So-Bad, not so vindictive, not so stupid, not so repressive, not so dangerous except when he goes off on his tears—Cambodia and San Jose. So he savaged Cambodia, so he trashed Laos. It might have been (and may yet be) worse but it’s so far not so bad as it could have been. There are still some people left alive. Unless he accidentally destroys the world playing macho across a line drawn on the ground, with some other insecure leader, he’s not going to do much, except kill thousands of Asians and make more homeless. We know that about him now. If he’s in there two more years or six, it’s going to be pretty much the same. He’s shown us what he really is and it’s not quite so bad as was feared.

But still bad enough. Wills knows this:

…it is only a calm realization that our main myths are dead or dying that can make us, as a nation, live on. We are shaped by those beliefs, but we are something more than they ever were, we can outlive them…it is comforting—needed comfort—to reflect that this is so, that we can survive our own creed dissolution; for Nixon, by embodying that creed, by trying to bring it back to life, has at last reduced it to absurdity.

  • Email
  • Print