Could there be a more interesting book about Nixon than Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes? It was written in the early 1970s, before Watergate, and understandably concerns a lot of figures who have receded into the darker corners of political history, but the book showcases both Wills’ literary flair, and his insight into… well, all manner of things.
Like many painters, writers, as they age, are likely to shed some of the technical flourishes of youth. Wills’ style has become more lean, but the way he wields his pen (or typewriter) here is dazzling. He understands language thoroughly – in its subtleties and also in its capacity for playfulness. But the best of the book is his penetrative analysis of Nixon, in a kind of psychological (and almost physiological) profile. He analyses the way Nixon speaks, stands, dresses. He also pays close attention to his history, which drove the formality, the guardedness, the paranoia.
Beyond this, Wills has insightful things to say about the American political system, much of which remains spot-on after 40 years, despite being out of synch with many on both the Right and Left. Unlike most caricatures of Nixon, Wills sees him as a thoroughly liberal figure. He analyses the American phenomenon of the “self-made man” (sic) and its importance in the context of youthful protest of the late 60s and early 70s. His interesting conclusion is that despite the noise of Kennedy hagiographists like Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen, “the kids” didn’t feel any more sympathy for liberal politicians like JFK than for conservative ones. It was the entire system of money and power that they, in their naivety but perhaps also understandable frustration, rejected. In Wills’ eyes, there is something deeply suspicious about the American ideology, embraced by both JFK and Nixon, that, in the famous metaphor, everyone is equal at the starting line, and good ol’ fashioned hard work will get you (and America) over the line. Wills pulls this apart and shows how confused and nonsensical this notion is. And he suggests that “the kids” picked up on this. He also describes the danger (embraced by JFK as much as Nixon) of thinking of the US as a global light on a hill. This may not be an insight exclusive to Wills, but his explanation of how it weaves through American political history, and why it is problematic, is magisterial.
This grand American story of the American way, this liberal story of everyone having their chance, that the protesting, counter-cultural youth of the 70s rejected, is, says Wills, all about the journey rather than the destination. And Nixon embodied this as much as anyone. Which is why, as some have pointed out, despite the trips to China and the like, he got caught up in the entanglements of Watergate. He forgot that the destination of his journey was the White House. He could never quite accept that he had “made it”.
The most remarkable thing about this book is that, before Watergate has happened, Wills describes Nixon as like a character out of a Greek tragedy – a sound and eerily premonitory assessment.