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Nixon Agonistes: The Triumph of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills, Houghton Mifflin, 602 pp.; $10.00
HAD BARRY GOLDWATER won the 1964 election, Garry Wills might well have written a book praising him; until a few years ago, Wills was a regular contributor to National Review, and one of the most erudite of the Right Wing theoreticians. He was an ardent supporter of Goldwater, William Buckley, and all the hopeless causes of the American Right. Safe in his ivory tower (he was Professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins), he wrote learned essays about the evils of Liberalism, and monographs on the Servile War.
Something has happened to Garry Wills. None of his old colleagues quite understands what, although Buckley has noted, with his usual bad taste, that "Garry has taken to the Left with alcoholic gusto." Buckley is trite, of course, but also inaccurate, for, Willis has rejected just about every coherent political philosophy- from Fascist to radical- in this book. In six hundred sprawling pages of not very lucid prose, he has condemned almost every politician he comes across.
Nixon Agonistes is about Nixon the way that the Odyssey is about Odysseus- the title character appears at the beginning, shows up for a grand finale, and occasionally gets mentioned in the middle. The author has used his title character as a pretext to talk about what he really wants to explore, which is America, the American way of life, and American politics. Nixon is the model, the archetype, but America is the species under study.
The major thesis of the book, and the most intriguing, is that Richard Nixon is the logical heir of the American Liberal Tradition. Wills may have rejected the Right Wing, but his hatred of liberals remained intact in the course of his conversion. The liberals, and their hypocritical philosophy, are the cause of, among other things, war, imperialism, and economic instability, he says. Nixon is their heir, both because he considers himself the ideological descendant of the great liberals, and because his administration has inherited all of the mistakes of its liberal predecessors.
When Wills deigns to comment on Nixon, in the course of his pseudo-philosophical ramblings, his descriptions are revelatory. Nixon, we discover, does not consider himself an Eisenhower Republican. In fact, he distrusted Eisenhower, at times almost hated him. Eisenhower, in turn, tried to dump Nixon from the ticket in 1952, and ignored his Vice-President until well into his second term. Nixon's real ideological allegiance, if he has one at all, is not to the businessman's Republicanism of the 1950's, but to the Democratic liberalism of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is his hero, the man he most frequently quotes, especially in times of crisis. Nixon seems to have a schoolboy's fascination with the scholar-president.
This admiration for the liberal Democrat, Wills points out, is not misplaced in the man who presides over the Vietnam War. Wilson, after all, sent raiding parties into Mexico, to hunt out bandits he considered morally reprehensible. Wilson was the first man to convince the American people that they were at war, not for their own self interests, but for a Cause- and led them to battle to make the world safe for democracy, in a war to end all wars. Wilson said "When men take up arms to set other men free, there is something sacred and holy in that warfare. I will not cry 'peace' as long as there is sin and wrong in the world," and Nixon has used these words to explain the war in Asia. The Messianic complex of the American Liberal, the self-confidence with which liberal politicians have meddled in foreign affairs, is a mantle which fits perfectly on Nixon's broad shoulders.
But if Nixon has inherited the liberal philosophy, he has also inherited the Liberals' mistakes. The Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, the First World War, all are liberal creations. Wills places the blame for Vietnam squarely on the liberal intellectuals- specifically (and deservedly) on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., whose theory of universalism started it all in the first place. Schlesinger believed, and still believes, that the United States has legitimate interests in the affairs of every nation on earth. Even today, he holds that United States intervention in Vietnam was justified, that only the degree of American involvement is improper. Wills points out the total hypocrisy of this quantitative approach to morals with deadly accuracy.
BESIDES describing the situation which the liberals have left for Nixon, Wills explains the climate which has produced the man. Nixon's early life, like his character, was dull. Even today he does not lead the most exciting of personal lives. But Wills would have the reader believe that Nixon has been nurtured by a country and an intellectual climate that is incredibly intriguing. Nixon, as we see him now, is the product of four markets: the moral, the economic, the academic, and the political. The moral market made him a self-made man, created him in the image of Emerson's reborn man. The moral market put Nixon through the fire, in the Checkers incident, in his other crises, in the California gubernatorial election. Nixon was forced to outgrow his former self, to earn his way in the world- and earning, after all, is the American way. The sanctimonious Nixon we see today is smug because he knows that he has earned what he has, and earned it the hard way. But Wills believes that this smugness is really a cover for an inner self contempt. The self made man, he says, are really "cramped full of pretense, diminished things- Dick Nixons." Men who have lived the Horatio Alger myth and found that they are just as hollow as they were before.
The other markets which have produced Nixon are equally corrupt. The economic market is the free enterprise system, which Nixon and Wilson both praise. This is the system which theoretically guarantees every man an equal start, but allows the strong, in the end, to oppress the weak. Likewise the academic market promises a free exchange of ideas, and teaches that any idea merits consideration. Thus, Vietnam is the "Professors' War," for the professors have given their ideas and the scholarship to the government, arguing that the use to which their work is put is not their concern. Finally, there is the political market. This is much like the moral market, on a national scale. It has produced a smug, self-assured nation, confident of its own superiority over all other forms of government, knowing that it has earned the right to be free, and to interfere in other countries' affairs.
WILLS succeeds, in the end, in making his point, about Nixon, and about America. The book is too long, and at times disorganized; Wills is forced at the end, to include a summary of the major arguments in the book, just to remind the reader of what he's read. But the topic is fascinating, and Wills has ideas which never occurred to other writers. This book is the product of his disenchantment with America, and with its politics. Unfortunately, its length, and the fuzziness of its writing, seem to guarantee that it will not be widely read. Most of the people described in the book would benefit by reading it.
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