It was Proust, I think, who was observed listening with so much concentration to Anatole France discoursing upon the Almighty that a bystander was impelled to remark, “Marcel, I did not know you were so interested in God.” Proust replied, “I am not especially interested in God, but I am very interested in M. Anatole France.” In that spirit, we are less interested in President Nixon than we are in Mr. Philip Roth.
It has to be said that Our Gang is a very lame journey indeed for someone we have grown used to see running across the rooftops. The final effect is not seriously disturbing: talent has every right to indulge itself and retains every promise of recovering from distractions. Still, this is a dreary interlude. The parodist is here defeated by an original who is endlessly capable of inventing parodies of himself that are far beyond the imagination of even the best of us. Roth’s point of departure is so perfect a fragment of Nixonry that it is enough to be grateful for the eye that has preserved it without demanding too much from the hand that tries to imitate it. Mr. Nixon declared the day after he ordered Lieutenant Calley released from the stockade:
From personal and religious beliefs, I consider abortions an unacceptable form of population control. Furthermore, unrestricted abortion policies, or abortion on demand, I cannot square with my personal belief in the sanctity of human life—including the life of the yet unborn. For, surely, the unborn have rights also, recognized in law, recognized even in principles expounded by the United Nations.
That passage so perfectly traces the peregrinations of this little wandering soul that it leaves the imagination too small a range for going beyond it. For Mr. Nixon seems to be one of those cases where only the person himself can describe himself. He is certainly not the first of our Presidents to perfume the brutal with the pious; most of us, I suppose, would put Thomas Jefferson among those who said the fewest things that could leave a gentleman embarrassed. Yet here is Henry Adams, vindictive but just, reminding us of President Jefferson’s first message to Congress:
The Message began by announcing, in contrast with the expectations of Republicans, that while Europe had returned to peace the United States had begun a war, and that a hostile cruiser had been captured “after a heavy slaughter of her men.” The Federalist wits made fun of the moral which the President added to soften the announcement of such an event: “The bravery exhibited by our citizens on that element will, I trust, be a testimony to the world that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace, but a conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race, and not to its destruction.”
What makes Mr. Nixon unique is the way he can on occasion replace the normal complacency of Presidents by a hygienic kind of desperation. It is a mind that may seem to calculate, and no doubt does, but that sometimes just reacts. It is one thing to recognize that such a man will in most cases act meanly, but quite another to know precisely how, because none of us can anticipate the next situation that will challenge his mind’s meanness and summon it to new flights. Yesterday it was bombing North Vietnam, the day before the Supreme Court, and tomorrow…? In such a case, the past is insufficient evidence and inadequate inspiration for the parodist.
The impotence that can afflict the most fertile imagination suggests itself in Roth’s fancy of a press conference where one of his questioners asks Mr. Nixon if the unborn constitute quite so noncontroversial an element of the population as his proclamation of their sanctity suggests:
MR. DARING: But what about those fetuses, sir, that the Vice President has labeled “trouble-makers”? I believe he was referring specifically to those who start in kicking around the fifth month. Do you agree that they are “malcontents” and “ingrates”? And if so, what measures do you intend to take to control them?
TRICKY: Well, first off, Mr. Daring, I believe we are dealing here with some very fine distinctions of a legal kind. Now fortunately (impish endearing smile) I happen to be a lawyer and have the kind of training that enables me to make these fine distinctions…. I think we have to be very careful here—and I am sure the Vice President would agree with me—to distinguish between two kinds of activity: kicking in the womb, to which the Vice President was specifically referring, and moving in the womb. You see, the Vice President did not say, despite what you may have heard on television, that all fetuses who are active in the womb are troublemakers. Nobody in this administration believes that….
But as for this other matter, I assure you, this administration does not intend to sit idly by and do nothing while American women are being kicked in the stomach by a bunch of violent five-month-olds. Now by and large, and I cannot emphasize this enough, our American unborn are as wonderful a group of unborn as you can find anywhere. But there are these violent few that the Vice President has characterized, and I don’t think unjustly, in his own impassioned rhetoric, as “trouble-makers” and “malcontents”—and the Attorney-General has been instructed by me to take appropriate action against them.
But when we turn from the imagined to the real Mr. Nixon, we move from that secure place where our prejudices are comforted to a swarming pit where our alarms are aroused. Here is the real Mr. Nixon engaging with those journalists dubious about the mass arrests of the May Day antiwar demonstrators:
Q: I wonder with that perspective of a month whether you think the police handled it properly….
THE PRESIDENT: Let us separate the question into what we are really dealing with.
First there are demonstrators. The right to demonstrate is recognized and protected…. But when people come in and slash tires, when they block traffic, when they make a trash bin of Georgetown…and when they terrorize innocent bystanders, they are not demonstrators, they are vandals and hoodlums and lawbreakers and they should be treated as law-breakers. Now, as far as the police were concerned they gave…those who were engaging in these activities, approximately 15,000 in all, an opportunity to disperse. They did not. They said they were there to keep the government from operating….
And I must say that I think the police showed a great deal more concern for their rights than they showed for the rights of the people of Washington.
Q: Mr. President, if I may follow up, if that is true, why are the courts releasing so many of the people who have been arrested?
THE PRESIDENT: It is because, of course, Mr. Ter Horst, as you know that arrest does not mean an individual was guilty. The whole constitutional system is one that provides that, after arrest, an individual has an opportunity for trial…. I think that proves the very point we have made.
Q: Mr. President, they are not being released on the grounds that guilt isn’t proved. They are being released on the grounds that they weren’t properly arrested.
THE PRESIDENT: It seems to me that when we look at the whole situation, we have to look at it in terms of what the police were actually confronted with when those who contended they were demonstrators, but actually were lawbreakers, came into Washington.
The most striking difference between these two exhibits is that the imagined Mr. Nixon gives the impression of control while the real Mr. Nixon just rushes past us in ill-concealed flight. The literary model for Mr. Nixon, when such fits are upon him, is not Tartuffe but Peter Rabbit running from Mr. McGregor. Yet the Nixon imagined by Roth in contempt often ends up sounding curiously like the Nixon imagined, in pride, by Nixon himself. The dream of the rabbit shows itself in pretending to be the fox.
For that sustaining image we have only to look at the President’s interview in the year-end Time, the freshest evidence at hand of the ease with which the original can remain ahead of the most heroic strainings of the parodist:
I don’t worry about the press…. I tell the staff to leave out the puff pieces and the personal criticism. I am an issue man…. I wouldn’t start [the morning] by looking at Herblock. I know that, when I have to make a decision, I must be disciplined…. Great decisions, if they are to be good decisions, must be made coolly; and, if you respond in hot blood, you cannot make good decisions. And I like a clean room. This desk is always clean. Of course, if I’m writing a speech, I’m surrounded by a pile of papers as I sit stiffly thinking and concentrating.
I have an absolute rule: I refuse to make decisions that somebody else can make. The first rule of leadership is to save yourself for the big decisions. Don’t let your mind become cluttered with trivia. Don’t let yourself become the issue.
But what could have seemed more trivial than the May Day arrests to the cool, detached central figure of these tableaux, where the chief actor is also his own court painter, seeing his imagined self in every fantasy of admiration “surrounded by a pile of papers as I sit stiffly thinking and concentrating”?
Yet these questions, raised a month after a crisis that at its height scarcely could heat the blood of even a normally susceptible person, had only to be asked to disorder Mr. Nixon’s mind and to start him running now to the dustbin and then, when detected, to some too shallow hole in the garden, and then at last in a wild and desperate dash homeward. The Mr. Nixon who progresses, in Roth’s fancy, down a logical path, however ridiculous, turns out, in reality, to need only a faint breath of alarm to scurry here and there, the function of his mind not directed at argument so much as surrendering to the naked compulsion to escape.
Roth is, of course, too perceptive not to have noticed this and he has tried to engage Mr. Nixon’s tendency to panic. He illuminates it in a section in which the President rages at a Boy Scout protest march in Washington. Still even here Nixon’s mind continues to calculate and to consider logical alternatives, ridiculous as each of them is; the parody retains more sense of control than the real Nixon manages at such moments to convey. Even their enemies cannot resist describing Presidents as they, in their moments of fondest illusion, like to describe themselves. Mr. Nixon wants to think of himself as riding events when events are really riding him: therefore he focuses fixedly on how things look in order to avoid thinking about how they are. Any untidiness is at once a cause for wild disturbance to him because it suggests disorders that can be considered nonexistent so long as they can be kept out of sight. Ceremonial incantations—price control, Viet-namization—become the reality: you see the illusionist but where’s the illusion?
That Mr. Roth failed should finally interest us less than why he chose to run. But then he is particularly interesting as a novelist just because his good fairy kept his bad fairy from inflicting upon him one of those guardian angels who protect the writer from unseemly adventures and therefore from redeeming risks. Roth has continually striven, from love or hate or a bit of both, to explain America to himself; and that is why he has so steadily managed to give us work that, if it cannot always be judged as satisfactory, has been unexpected and, what is more to the point, exhilarating.
If his comic gift seems so meager here the reason must be that the necessary accompaniment by his tragic sense is lacking. Portnoy’s Complaint is of course, just as painful as it is funny. Something more than the comic spirit lies, I suspect, behind Roth’s designation of Alexander Portnoy as Mayor Lindsay’s Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity. Since Portnoy seems immune to that itch for higher glories we associate with many of those who scratch about the mayor, we may assume that the office describes a chosen vocation, the particular star from which the dirt distracts him. What we are proffered is not Roth’s comic fancy but the serious aspiration that is withheld from Portnoy by the flesh, just as matter barred his father from connecting with the spirit.
The recollection may explain why Mr. Nixon is just not up to what Roth requires from nature. Barbara Garson, with sensibilities much closer to normal, was able to get away with MacBird more cleanly than he has with Our Gang, largely because Mr. Johnson was so outsized a figure that, when Stacy Keach cried out, “So cracks a noble heart,” and fell like some great tree, we could believe in the association. Mr. Nixon presents an intractable problem: he claims he has aspirations but we cannot believe he has them, except to be President. Consequently there is no way to make him larger except by imputing to him the qualities of a deceiver of just about everyone except himself. But far from making Mr. Nixon larger, the imputation of such qualities seems to make him too small finally to hold our belief. The characters we remember are almost always those who do not know what they are doing; their power to reveal depends very much on their ignorance about themselves.
One might wish that Roth had not made this effort; still one understands his need. His charm has always made it hard to take him as seriously as he deserves; we do not tend to think of Isaiah as being quite so attractive. Our first impulse, here as so often before, is to trivialize his intent and to assign Our Gang motives of mischief rather than morality. It fits the easier image of Roth to assume that he is making fun of Mr. Nixon’s strictures on abortion for no better reason than to show that he is a broad man and Mr. Nixon a narrow one. But then one thinks back on Letting Go and the wound Libby Herz’s abortion was always to be for her; and one begins to understand that Mr. Nixon is conventional mostly in his banality, and Roth is unconventional especially in his awareness of the limitless reaches of hurt.
Letting Go is Roth’s Jamesian novel, although Jamesian only in an essence that broods over the inescapable responsibility for the suffering of others. That sense of responsibility could be what makes Roth seem so unsuited to satire, a form that usually rises to its not-too-appetizing best from a disgust with all mankind.
Roth is so incapable of sweeping disgust that he must isolate Mr. Nixon from all other Americans, except the official ones and their incense bearers, even to the point of having the rest of his countrymen come to the bier of their murdered President in thousands, each proclaiming himself the assassin. It is the kindness behind that image that fails most to persuade; for Roth, with a sudden innocence as admirable as his sensibility, insists on acquitting all the rest of us and arraigning only public institutions. But is not the ceremonial indifference of the rest of us, after all, a substantial prop for Mr. Nixon?
Still we cannot resist a certain awe at the grandeur of Roth’s act. It has been enough for other writers to sign petitions; but he has rendered up to the resistance a sacrifice of his art that is the more glorious for being so nearly total.
January 27, 1972