Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man

by Garry Wills

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From one of America's most distinguished historians comes this classic analysis of Richard Nixon. By considering some of the president's opinions, Wills comes to the controversial conclusion that Nixon was actually a liberal. Both entertaining and essential, Nixon Agonistes captures a troubled leader and a struggling nation mired in a foolish Asian war, forfeiting the loyalty of its youth, puzzled by its own power, and looking to its cautious president for confidence. In the end, Nixon Agonistes reaches far beyond its assessment of the thirty-seventh president to become an incisive and provocative analysis of the American political machine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451623997
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/01/1971
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

GARRY WILLS, a distinguished historian and critic, is the author of numerous books, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Saint Augustine, and the best-selling Why I Am a Catholic. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he has won many awards, among them two National Book Critics Circle Awards and the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities. He is a history professor emeritus at Northwestern University.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA


St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt


The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

"All I knew was that you had to run, run, run, without knowing why you were running, but on you went through fields you didn't understand and into woods that made you afraid, over hills without knowing you'd been up and down, and shooting across streams that would have cut the heart out of you had you fallen into them. And the winning post was no end to it, even though crowds might be cheering you in, because on you had to go ..."

Smith (The Runner)

February 1968: It is early morning in Wisconsin, in Appleton, air heavy with the rot of wood pulp. This is the place where Joe McCarthy lived and was buried — a place, once, for Nixon to seek out on campaign; then, for a longer time, a place to steer shy of. He has outlived both times, partially. And it is too late to care in any event: the entire American topography is either graveyard, for him, or minefield — ground he must walk delicately, revenant amid the tombstones, whistling in histrionic unconcern.

Not that Appleton wishes to remind him; the townspeople are busy pressing wood into paper, and all they want from Nixon is a boost for the local product. Fair enough. Romney, after all, is milking cows in the cheese towns of Wisconsin. The least Nixon can do is fiddle with wood pressings.

Appleton's Conway Hotel is offering coffee on one side of its banquet room, but the crowd has already curdled to a standstill half an hour before Nixon's scheduled "remarks." Those standing on the floor cannot see Nixon when he edges through the crowd onto a low platform and says, "Good morning." I am off to one side, where I see nothing but shadow bent distortedly onto the wall by insistent television lights — shadows, rather, since the angled lights give him one dark silhouette and a lighter "ghost" askew of it. Doubled hands rise and dip beside the haloed body, or flail in ghost gestures through it — six dim grades of shadow weaving elusive canons, visual echoes like the sound of "Tricky Dicky," fiction pictures. Six crises endured — six Nixons, which do not seem to add up or solidify. The hands move in jerky quick apparitions, dark ones unable to escape the haunting light ones, nimble pianist fingers, prestidigitating shadow.

His speech is the standard one of this campaign, but with a bit more partisan bite in it than those delivered in frosty New Hampshire. "Give 'em hell," someone shouts from the floor. "I don't need to," Nixon snaps back. His right hand shadows out, shaking nemesis: "They have given themselves hell." His pitch is to party loyalty: "I have been campaigning twenty years" (it is twenty-two). "I have campaigned in seven national elections" (three times for himself). "I have never campaigned against another Republican, and I'm not going to start it now. The way for a Republican to win is not to show how he can take on other Republicans, but to show how he can take on Lyndon Johnson." (Translation: "I will not accept yesterday's challenge to debate George Romney.")

He goes briskly toward the morning's business. "I'm glad to join the papermakers; but "— his right forefinger waggles its double plumes of shadow — "I want it understood that when we get to Washington we'll cut down on the paper work!" He moves to the papermaking gadget, presses a plunger, "couches" the excess water out of his paper disc, then dries it in a curved toaster. The master of ceremonies, meanwhile, tells him he will be the second President of the United States to have made paper (George Washington was the first). Appleton applauds. On to Stevens Point.

Each of Nixon's stops today will be in different congressional districts — Appleton, eighth; Stevens Point, seventh, largely Democrat, Polish, Catholic. I make my way up the press bus, to Charlie McWhorter, a custodian of Republican lore and ask why this district was put so high on Nixon's list of places to visit. "Well, it's Mel Laird's district." (Laird, who will be Nixon's Secretary of Defense, got a federal water-pollution laboratory for the university — Wisconsin State — where Nixon will be speaking today.) McWhorter, a veteran of earlier Nixon campaigns, is riding the bus because there is still no press secretary at this stage of Nixon's campaign. Pat Buchanan, acting press secretary, has other duties which make him fly with Nixon in the rented DC–3 while our bus pants along on the ground. "I'm here on pretty short notice myself," Charlie says. "I got the call last Wednesday" — two days before the campaign began. McWhorter is a good mixer — one of the mainstays of the Newport Jazz Festival, a bachelor who lives in the Village. On a first-name basis with hundreds of party regulars everywhere, he is supposed to be Nixon's guide to the local situation at these stops.

I used to have a friend in Wisconsin politics; I ask Charlie if he remembers the man. "No. But I'll bet Dick would." (I asked him later; he did.) "There's not much I can tell that man about Republican politics." McWhorter, who has an elfin pinched nose and chin, pushes his glasses up onto his bald head, perches them behind a tongue-of-flame wisp of remaining hair, and lifts his left eyebrow in a tight circonflexe: it is his trademark expression — the wise old Kewpie doll: "Dick knows almost everything there is to know about the party's inner workings and geography."

12 noon, Stevens Point: An hour before the talk, the school's gymnasium is almost full. It has the fresh-staleness of lacquer, basketball, young bodies. About half of the university's six thousand students will eventually squeeze into the gym or be clotted at its entries. I ask a dozen students, here and there, if they ever heard of the Hiss case. "Hess?" One thinks she heard something about it. What? "I don't know; just something." The sophomores were born in 1948. Here, at least, Nixon should be able to shed his past. But he isn't. I ask the students what they know about the man. The most frequent answer: "He was the Vice-President, once." (Way back, their voices say.) The second most common answer: "He is called Tricky Dick." Do you know why?" "No." But the ghost is there. The third answer: "He was spit on in South America." Do you know why? "No."

It is typical of Nixon that the indignity inflicted at his most courageous moment should be remembered. He has called his life a series of crises. He might have said a series of disasters. Even the victories hurt. He made his one real charge stick — Hiss was convicted, before Joe McCarthy ever made an accusation. But this charge was mingled with all the wild ones that followed, and his role in the Hiss case gave him the reputation of a proto-McCarthy. He vindicated himself in the "Checkers speech." But to do so he had to violate his own privacy; and the experience left him with a permanent air of violation, not of vindication. No one remembers what he said to Khrushchev, only that he said it in a kitchen. He walked a fine line of reserve and calm during Eisenhower's illnesses; yet that only contributed to the view that he was Ike's errand boy. Kennedy's election in 1960 is attributed to his eloquence and "style," Nixon's loss is put down to bad makeup. There is a genius of deflation that follows Nixon about. He has been strong many times; but fate gets photographers to him when he collapses on Bill Knowland's shoulder in tears, or when he snarls at journalists. There were many attempts to "dump Nixon" over the years, but he would not bow out gracefully, leave well enough alone, disappear.

That gaucheness of a man lingering on when he is no longer wanted becomes, at a certain point, the crazy proof of his importance. He survived. He was often a leftover, but he always found some job to perform in that capacity. He represented the marginally salvageable past. A part of the McCarthy mood, he could contribute to Ike's kind lobotomy of the electorate: Nixon would do the cutting, Eisenhower the curing — gall and honey. He mobilized the party while the General stood above partisanship. And when he was not mere spear carrier in the regime, he could be the hatchet wielder. The symbolism of McCarthy's exorcism was appropriate: Ike had Nixon repudiate him. Above party himself, apparently unaware of storms in the lower atmosphere, the General could still have "his" party, in the person of Nixon, disown McCarthy. Then, when reelection time came around, Ike tried to rise to new peaks on Olympus by disowning the disowner. He told his unhappy running mate to "chart his own course" when everyone knew Nixon had no other course to steer but that traced in air by Ike's elusive coattail, swept up daintily now, a skirt not to be soiled with Nixon's touch. But Eisenhower had made too much use of the identification "Nixon = Party" to get rid of him. That would be not only rising above the party, but attacking it. Again, Nixon's past made him marginally useful — by just the margin that kept him from being jettisoned.

Nixon's people in Wisconsin were trying once again to turn his leftover state to advantage. He was not only a leftover from the Eisenhower administration. The Nixon staff was even calling his defeat at the hands of Kennedy an advantage: there is something glamorous about being a survivor of Camelot, even if one played the role, in it, of Mordred. Nixon's people like to tell the story of the little girl whose memory of the 1960 debate is that Nixon was "President Kennedy's friend." If one must be a ghost, he might as well be the ghost of Camelot past.

But the approach at Stevens Point cannot be ghostly. It is all about the future: he comes down hard on a major theme of his new campaign, the "last third of the century" theme. "You can change the world. By 2000 A.D. we can wage a successful war against poverty, hunger, misery, and most disease. It is a challenging world, yes! But what an exciting time to be alive!" There is a Camelot in your future.

That is the substance. But much of the speech is mere games that politicians play. "Mel Laird told me ..." and "As I told Mel Laird ..." Stroke. Stroke. The president of the university, Lee Sherman Dreyfus, is a swinger, proud of the fact that his initials are L.S.D. "We're going on a trip together," he told students last fall, when he took office. When he rises to introduce Nixon, he warns the students that what they do will be picked up by national TV. "We will be judged by the community of scholars." The meeting is of global concern. (Here he casually puts his hands in his pockets and reveals his own large globe covered with red sweater, a key chain dangling almost to his knees — he must have become a swinger in the forties.) He introduces those on the platform, including his wife: "Cool it," he growls over the applause, "I've got to live with her." The remark is much appreciated by the students — if not by the community of scholars. L.S.D. is as popular with his students as L.B.J. is unpopular.

So Nixon, skilled at this sort of thing, maneuvers deftly onto the president's coattail with his opening words. "I asked your president, who I know is a professor of communications, if that included television. He said it does. Maybe if I'd known him in sixty, I'd be in the White House now." Yesterday in Green Bay he said that if Vince Lombardi had been coaching him in '60, he might be in the White House. At TV appearances he says to everyone, from the makeup man and the camera crew to the producer and interviewer, "If only ..." Much of the population will soon think Richard Nixon needs them, and if only he had known them in 1960 ... When he is not flattering the school's president, during this speech, he works on the students: "In the last third of the century, great advances will be made in fields like automation and cybernetics (on which you know far more than I do) ... You, as students of history, know better than I ..." Stroke. Stroke.

The question period goes well. "Mr. Vice-President," begins the first student. "No, Hubert's coming next week." "I mean Mr. former Vice-President." "That's all right; I've been called everything" (a line he used regularly in the '62 campaign — even his jokes are risen ghosts). A Eugene McCarthy group has passed out hard questions to be asked; when the first of these is brought up, Nixon unfolds a petition the McCarthy group brought for him to sign, and answers its three requests point by point, disposing of the hard questions all at once. A voice shaky with anger says Nixon is a liar unless he is willing to support revolution in Latin America. Nixon, after deploring Castroite violence, calmly ticks off four ways to "revolutionize" Latin America — its economy, agriculture, education, and aid programs. When he finishes, to applause rivaling that of L.S.D., President Dreyfus rises, puts his red globe against the microphone stand, and confirms the success: "Just in case, in November, you're looking for a job — you're a pretty good lecturer; just give me a call."

The students mob him in the corridor, fluttering papers at him for his autograph. The curly black hair, with eroding blunt headland of widow's peak, ducks down as he surrenders that little bit of himself that politicians pay out in ink and energy to every passerby — his name scrawled across I.D. cards, agriculture textbooks, Gene McCarthy questionnaires. When two girls push irritably at the spongy ball of people rolling and breathing all around him, one stops, in mid-struggle, to say, "Boy, he's getting manhandled." The other shrugs loftily, "Let's face it, he likes it," and huffs her way in. The odd thing about this athletic ceremony is that there is so little respect for it on either side — with the hounds or with the hare.

3:15 P.M., Oshkosh: The bus rolls into an improbably luxurious motel. In the press room, typewriters cautiously, oh-so-tentatively meditate student response at Stevens Point. Is there, then, a new new-Nixon — Nixon-Seven, nearing the cat's allotment of lives? Those who have to file stories are on the phone; most of those who don't are at the makeshift bar. McWhorter is there, brooding, under raised left triangle of eyebrow, on districts and registrations and voter margins. Then the "real" (well, pro tem) press secretary comes in, Pat Buchanan. As usual, he has a black overcoat on, with the collar wrapped up around his lumpy raw face — forty-year-old torpedo, hands on the iron in his pockets? No, he is twenty-nine, a writer, one of Nixon's fresh batch of intellectuals. Pat was, indeed, the very first. He climbed aboard in time to make the '66 campaign swing with Nixon and to accompany him on his '67 tour of the Middle East. Earlier, he caddied for the Vice-President at Burning Tree Club when Nixon had to trudge around the links, a glorified caddy for Ike. Pat was nine at the time of the Hiss case. After a turn as editorial writer on the conservative St. Louis Globe-Democrat and some dabbling in the conservative activism of Young Americans for Freedom, he made overtures to Nixon, was invited to New York for a three-hour interview, and became the first of the '68 crop of bright young men. He has proved himself in the interval; he keeps the briefing file on all current affairs, called "the Q and A" (Nixon likes to use lawyer jargon, his talks are full of phrases like "self-serving evidence" and "adversary procedure"). With Ray Price's help, Pat drew up the first version of Nixon's Pueblo statement. But, old-timer that he is on this new staff, he was not with "the Boss" (as the staff calls him) in 1960, the presidential year Pat became old enough to vote — so, while performing a thousand duties by day, he reads up on the '60 campaign at night, using Theodore White's book as his basic text.

Pat has come to the press room to tell me I can ride the plane with Nixon to Chicago tonight; I should get my luggage out of the bus and into one of the staff cars. He also wants to know what the press is making of the Stevens Point performance. Several reporters ask him if the four points Nixon rattled off are part of a position paper on Latin America. "No. He surprised me. I had heard some of that dam-stuff from him in private, but not all put together just this way. That's what's so dam-amazing about this dam-guy; he's got all the dam-information stored up there, and if you touch any dam-subject out it comes." (Pat uses his idiosyncratically turned prefix much as the ancient Greeks scattered particles, to distribute emphases.) Before the campaign began, Buchanan described for me his Middle East trip, during which the Israeli war broke out: "The Boss was talking to all these dam-officials in Israel, and he knew as much of the dam-position of the Arabs and Russians as they did. He sat there sketching all the dam-possibilities, and amazed the officials. That's the way he is. Take any political situation in the dam-world, and he has war-gamed it this way and that, considering every which way it might go."


Excerpted from "Nixon Agonistes"
by .
Copyright © 1969 Garry Wills.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface, 2017,
Introduction to the 2002 Mariner Edition,
I. The Moral Market (Ralph Waldo Emerson),
1. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,
2. The Center Cannot Hold,
3. The Politics of Resentment,
4. The Denigrative Method,
5. Checkers,
6. The Hero,
7. The Common Man,
8. Whittier: First Day,
9. Whittier: Second Day,
II. The Economic Market (Adam Smith),
1. Miami, 1968,
2. Political Philanthropy,
3. Republican Camelot,
4. They, the People,
5. The Goldwater Party,
6. Southern Strategy,
7. The Succeeder,
8. The Non-Succeeders,
9. Making It,
III. The Intellectual Market (John Stuart Mill),
1. Chicago, 1968,
2. Liberals,
3. Radicals,
4. The Establishment,
5. The War on War,
6. Plastic Man,
IV. The Political Market (Woodrow Wilson),
1. "Self-Determination",
2. A Good Election,
3. The Covenant,
4. Universalism,
5. Our Country!,
V. The Future of Liberalism,
1. Saving the System,
2. Refiguring the Calculus,
3. "Left" and "Right" in America,
4. "Beyond Left and Right",
5. Nixon Triumphans: The Self-Made Man,
6. Nixon Agonistes: The Last Liberal?,
Index to Proper Names,
About the Author,

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Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Terry_M More than 1 year ago
A difficult book, it was topical when first published. now many of the references would be obscure to most of us. the political references are to men long departed from the stage, and the men of ideas are also no longer current. i would bet that a 30 year old couldn't get through this at all, unless well schooled in political theory. nonetheless, its a deep book, and maybe the most accurate one on who Nixon really was.