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,…

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