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November 09, 2005

Gary Wills's Nixon Agonistes

This past weekend I read Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes for... the third... or is it the fourth... time in my life. Each time I read it I feel that I have learned--and been reminded of--an enormous amount. But I also have a very hard time putting what I have learned into words: this is not a "one big thing" kind of book, for Garry Wills knows many, many things.

So let me just do two things below the fold. First, let me give you John Leonard's original review of Nixon Agonistes. Second, let me give you extensive quotes from one of Wills's many magnificent set-pieces: in this case, the long twilight struggle between Richard M. Nixon and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Here's the review:

Books of the Times: Mr. Nixon as the Last Liberal. By John Leonard: Garry Wills (1970), Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (New York: Mariner Books: 0618134328) http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/asin/0618134328/braddelong00

Before plunging into a synopsis of Garry Wills's astonishing book, one must give some account of Mr. Wills. To say that he is a contributing editor at Esquire, a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of "The Second Civil War" is inadequate. "The Second Civil War" was about America's racial agony. In his newspaper column, Mr. Wills has opposed our role in Vietnam and Attorney General John N. Mitchell's role in Washington. His contributions to Esquire include a dissection of Spiro Agnew. And yet this same Mr. Wills took his Ph.D. at Yale in classics, is the author of a book on G. K. Chesterton and has written regularly over the past decade for William F. Buckley Jr.'s conservative journal, National Review. Only by keeping these apparently contradictory impulses and interests in mind is the reader likely to be prepared for "Nixon Agonistes," which reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus.

Mr. Wills achieves the not inconsiderable feat of making Richard Nixon a sympathetic--even tragic--figure, while at the same time being appalled by him. But superb as it is, his "psycho-biography" of Mr. Nixon is merely prelude to a provocative essay on political theory. "All our liberal values track back to a mystique of the earner," says Mr. Wills, whether the "market" is personal (self-regulation leads to individual success) or economic (those Joneses we've got to keep up with) or academic (ideas fighting it out for the allegiance of young minds) or political (if the system works, the best policies and people win).

But we have learned in the nineteen-sixties that not everybody can "make it," and that many of those who do are injured, diminished. That the "race" is never won because it never ends. That the promulgators of ideas have to take the responsibility for their consequences. That the best policies and people don't necessarily win. "Belief in the competitive triumph of excellence," says Mr. Wills, "was bound to be shaken." We must abandon the "market" mentality," the "earning mystique" and the "race metaphor," and find some substitute.

How does Mr. Nixon fit into this analysis? For Mr. Wills, Mr. Nixon is the last liberal, the embodiment of the self-made man, who has been diminished by his making it, the "least 'authentic' man alive, the late mover, tester of responses, submissive to the discipline of consent.' A survivor. There is one Nixon only, though there seem to be new ones all the time--he will try to be what people want. He lacks the stamp of place or personality because the Market is death to style, and he is the Market's servant.... Nixon does not exist outside his role, apart from politics: take his clothes off, he would be invisible."

Harsh words. Mr. Wills comes to them after traveling with Mr. Nixon's campaign entourage, after visiting Whittier (which is "heavy with moral perspiring"), after interviews and much pondering of "Six Crises." He seems both angry and sad at what the Market has done to the man, and he is not any kinder to Mr. Nixon's competitors than to Mr. Nixon himself. Of Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, he writes: "First-generation millionaires tend to give us libraries. The second and third generations think they should give us themselves. Naturally, some people want to look this gift horse in the mouth--which may be the reason Rockefeller keeps his teeth on display."

In fact, one is tempted to quote constantly from "Nixon Agonistes" because Mr. Wills writes with a scalpel, to wound in Technicolor, drawing on literary sources both apposite and various. The reporter in him is as eager for the revealing detail as the theorist in him is eager for the abstraction. His analyses of the thinking of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Hofstadter and others are marvelous critical essays in their own right. Mr. Nixon's relationship with "President Eisenhower--which "was like a Calvinist's relation to God, or Ahab's to the whale--awe and fascination soured with fear and a desire to supplant; along with a knowledge, nonetheless, that whatever nobility one may aspire to will come from the attention of the "Great One"--gets considerable attention, to more effect than any other account I've seen.

Finally, there is the question of what to substitute for the Market. Mr. Wills is a little vague on this, talking about "community." Not power to the community, but the building of communities that are social structures with their own identities and interests, instead of markets of individuals and ideas. He is talking in a sense about our souls, and he doesn't know how to save them. But he sees them being lost daily in his country, a nation of Nixons, of Whittiers, "undefended by coherent taste," at the mercy of our past "without quite possessing it." His book is a stunning attempt to possess that past, that we may all of us escape it.

And here's the set-piece:

The leader of [Nixon's] own [California] delegation [to the 1952 Republican National Convention], Earl Warren, had aimed at the presidency four years earlier, but only reached the second spot [on the ticket].... This year he still had a chance, if Taft could tie up Eisenhower.... Nixon was pledged to [Warren], his state's favorite son, and he kept the letter of the pledge. But... he did something no senator had tried in California--sent out a questionaire asking 23,000 California voters who their first choice for President would be.... The result... was a clear majority for Eisenhower.... As the [California] train rolled into Chicago and Warren was given his favorite-son reception, there was a notable absence.... Nixon had left the train at a suburban stop....

[The] Warren people's resentment... sought out newsmen and suggested they check these private moneys collected in [Nixon's] name.... There had been warnings.... A newsman in Washington asked Nixon about the fund on Sunday. Monday, three other reporters checked facts.... Thursday [September 18, 1952] it broke, the New York Post had a story with the headline: SECRET RICH MEN'S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE FAR BEYOND HIS SALARY. The story did not justify that sensational summary, and neither did the subsequent investigation. The fund was public, independently audited, earmarked for campaign expenses, and collected in small donations over two years by known Nixon campaign backers. It was neither illegal nor unethical. And the press soon discovered that the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, had similar funds, only larger in their amount and looser in their administration. Why, then was so much made of Nixon's fund and so little of Stevenson's?

Nixon's offical explanation, at the time, was his standard charge: the commies were behind it all.... "You folks know the work that I did investigating Communists... the Communists and the left-wingers have been fighting me with every possible smear.... I was warned that if I continued to attack the Communists in this government tahey would continue to smear me.... They started it yesterday. They have tried to say that I had taken $16,000 for my personal use." The they is conveniently vague throughout. They... published the charge... the antecedent is... "the Communists in this government."... The explanation is beautifully lucid and inclusive (if a little unspecific about the machinery that makes the nation's press perform the communists' bidding)....

Behind this funny explanation, there are scattered but clear indications, in [Nixon's Six Crises], of the true story, a sad one.... Nixon asks why his own statement of the "basic facts" about the fund received so little attention. His ansewr ignores the conspiratorial explanation [he had] given eight pages earlier, and supplies four reasons.... [Last," "the big-name, influential Washington reporters cover the presidential candidates while the less-known reporters are assigned to the vice presidential candidates."

This last reason, the real one... we ask why that should matter. The answer, in Nixon's own words, is that his own press release "got lost in the welter... over whether General Eisenhower would or would not choose to find a new running mate." That was the news on Eisenhower's train.... [T]he Nixon fund was a big story because Eisenhower, by his silence and hints and uneasiness, made it one. For no other reason.

It was natural for Eisenhower to acquiesce in a staff decision to drop Nixon. That staff had presented him with Nixon in the first place.... As the fund story broke, Nixon wondered where Ike stood. Thursday went by, and Friday. No word.... [T]he very thing that had mad Nixon good "for balance" made him unpalatable... [in Republican] Establishment eyes. He was there to draw in the yokels... no one would feel compuction at his loss: Ike was too valuable a property to be risked with anyone who migh thurt him. This was the attitude on Eisenhower's train....

The machinery of execution made itself visible Saturday morning, when the New York Herald Tribune... asked for Nixon's resignation from the ticket. It was, Nixon realized, an order... Despite his studied deference toward Eisenhower, Nixon [in Six Crises] makes it clear that he was not dense: "The publishers and other top officials of the Tribune had very close relations with Eisenhower and" (for which read, I mean) "with som eof his most influential supporters. I assumed that the Tribune would not have taken this position editorially unless it also represented the thinking of the people around Eisenhower. And, as I thought more about it, it occurred to me" (the little light bulb above a cartoon character's head--Nixon must play this role straight) "that this might well be read as" (obviously had to be) "the view of Eisenhower himself, for I had not heard from him since the trouble began, two days before."...

Saturday... with newsmen plaguing him for his decision,[Nixon] had to brace himself for defiance of the Establishment.... He asked Chotiner and Rogers to get the ultimatum spelled out... from Ike's inner circle.... They got no direct answer. But the indirect command was growing more insistent.... Eisenhower had finally spoken too, off the record. The newsmen on his train had taken a poll that came out forty-to-two for dumping Nixon... the newsmen's opinion [was] that Ike might be stalling to arrange a whitewash job for Nixon. Ike did not like such talk; it questioned not only Nixon's honesty but his.... [Eisenhower said:] "Nixon has got to be clean as a hound's tooth."...

By Saturday night, then, the issue was clear: knuckle under, or defy the closest thing modern America has had to a poiltical saint. Nixon, here as in all his crises, claims the decision was made on purely selfless grounds: he was thinking of Ike's own welfare--switching men in mid-campaign might make the General unpopular. (This is like worrying that the Milky Way might go out.)...

But Nixon does not feel obliged to present his friends as men crippled by nobility. Chotiner... plays straight man [in Six Crises,] saying all the "natural" things Nixon is too lofty for: "How stupid can they be? If these damned amateurs around Eisenhower just had the sense they were born with...." Not even good old Murray, though, blunt fellow as he is, can be described in this book as attacking the Big Man himself--just the little men around him.... Nixon himself would never dream of questioning his leader: "What had happened during the past week had not ashaken my faith in Eisenhower. If... he appeared to be indecisive, I put the blame not on him but on his lack of experience in political warfare... equally inexperienced associates."...

By five o'clock Sunday morning, he had set himself on a course... he would not resign.... Dewey called.... Nixon must plead his case before the people. If the rsponse was big enough, he could stay. And... Dewey... meant the impossible--near unanimity.... It is no wonder that Nixon--or, rather, "some of the members of my staff"--felt wary of this offer.... The whole plan... started with the presumption that Nixon was through, and with feigned generosity gave him a chance to climb back onto the ticket.... It was a brilliant way of forcing resignation on a man who was determined not to resign....

[Nixon] knew this contest was not what it appeared--Nixon against the press, or the Democrats, or the people. It was Nixon against Ike--a contest that, as Stevenson woul dlearn twice over, no one can expect to win. Candidates simply do not get 90 percent victories... and Nixon was being told to produce that figure or get lost.... Eisenhower had been presented... as... a purgative honesty meant to remedy corruption. The very fact that this arbiter of morals was silent... was an implied judgment against [Nixon]....

Nixon asked Eisenhower if he meant to endorse him. The response was put in a particularly galling way: "If I issue a statement now backing you up, in effect people will accuse me of condoning wrongdoing" Ike knew, and Nixon knew he knew, that the results of a vast survey of Nixon's affairs would be available in a matter of hours.... Fifty lawyers and accountants [had] worked on a round-the-clock basis.... No wrongdoing would be found. The objective evidence would soon be in Eisenhower's hands. But he refused to make his own judgment.... He wanted the people, who could not know as much as he did, to decide whether Nixon was honest, and he would follow them....

[Nixon] tried to strike a bargain: if Eisenhower was satisfied with the TV broadcast, would he at that point make a decision to endorse Nixon?... But Ike was not making bargains: he said he would need three or four days... for the popular reaction to be accurately gauged--uring which time, Nixon would... be stalled... his campaign tour all too noticeably suspended. Nixon finally blew: "There comes a time when you have to piss or get off the pot!" But Seraphim piss not, neither Cherubim. The great Cherub sat blithely there, enthroned on his high pot. Nixon sculpts and prettifies the unyielding refusal: "One of Eisenhower's most notable characteristics is that he is not a man to be rushed on important decisions."...

Tuesday, after a mere four hours of sleep, [Nixon] kept at his outline resolutely... [W]ith less than an hour [to go].... Dewey on the phone again, with a last demand: "There has been a meeting of all of Eisenhower's top advisers. They have asked me to tell you that it is their opinion that at the conclusion of the broadcast tonight you should submit your resignation."... Nixon asked if that was the word from the General's own mouth. Dewey answered that [he]... would not have [been] commissioned... to make such a call [if not].... (But, as usual, Ike was well protected: afterward he could write, "Just before the broadcast Governor Dewey telephoned him from New York reporting the conviction of some of my supporters there"--two can play at that "some of the staff" game--"that he soul dresign, which the young Senator later said he had feared represented my views." Poor Senator, so fearful, so young, so avuncularly cared for in this restrospective benediction. Those who have called Nixon a master of duplicity should contrast his account... with the smoothed-over version in Eisenhower's book....

One of the criticisms made of Nixon's television speech [that night] is that the hoarse voice and hurt face, hovering on the edge of tears, were either histrionic or (if unfeigned) disproportionate and "tasteless." But no one who knows the full story can suspect Nixon of acting, or blame him... it would be like blaming a recently flayed man for "indecent exposure."...

Stewart Alsop, in his useful little book Nixon and Rockefeller, quotes... one who watched Eisenhower's reactions throughout [Nixon's braodcast].... [Eisenhower's] entourage, predominantly opposed to Nixon, was touched... some wept openly. But Eisenhower was calm, tapping a yellow pad with his pencil, ready to jot down comments.... [T]he tapping stopped twice. Nixon... issued a challenge: the other candidates must have something to fear, unless they followed his example [of detailed financial disclosure]. He devoted much of his half hour to this challenge, dictating terms to his accusers....

Eisenhower stopped tapping with his pencil--jabbed it, instead, down into the yellow pad--when Nixon said any candidate who did not reveal his finances must hace something to hide. Of course, Nixon did not mention Eisenhower.... But the overall force... could not be missed. All candidates, he was arguing, should act as he had. That meant Eisenhower too.... After this all the candidates did make their statements.

There were reasons why it was inconvenient for Eisenhower... e.g., the special tax decision on earnings from his Crusade in Europe. Besides, as Alsop delicately puts it, "the military rarely get into the habit of making charitable contributions."...

Yet an even defter stroke followed. Dewey had been vague on how the speech would be judged.... The real decision would be made by the General, assessing news reaction. Nixon would be left to play games with his switchboard and his mail, unable to vindicate himself if Eisenhower decided the show had not cleared him.

But when it came time... [Nixon] said: "I am submitting to the Republican National Committee tonight... the decision it is theirs to make.... Wire and write the Republican National Committee whether you think I should stay... whatever their decision is, I will abide by it."... The General stabbed again, pencil into pad.... Nixon had always been a party man.... Now, by a cool disarming maneuver, Nixon was taking the matter away from the Eastern Establishment and putting it into the hands of men sympathetic to the regulars to grassroots workers--people who respond in a partisan way to partisan attacks... peole most vulnerable to the planned schmalz and hominess of the Checkers [the dog] reference, people with small debts of their own and Republican cloth coats. If the decision was theirs to make... it was not Ikke's. It is no wonder that, while others in Cleveland wept, the man who had directed OVERLORD... made an angry stab. He knew... he was outflanked. Alsop's informant said: "Before that, I'd always liked and admired Ike, of course, but I'd often wondered how smart he really was. After that, I knew Ike got what Dick was getting at right away."...

[...]

Eisenhower's own first comment was to [Party] Chairman Arthur Summerfield, about the $75,000 [spent buying TV time]: "Well, Arthur, you got your money's worth."... After praising Nixon for courage, Ike added that he had not made up his mind.... "It is obvious that I have to have something more than one single presentation, necessarily limited to thirty minutes, the time allowed Senator Nixon." But if Eisenhower... could not make up his mind after watching the TV show, then how could anyone in the public do so? There is only one explanation.... Ike as determined not to let Nixon take the decision out of his hands.... Eisenhower read... his telegram to Nixon, which shows the real thrust of his remarks: "While technically no decision rests with me, you and I know the realities of the situation require a pronouncement which the public considers decisive." (Or: Get your National Committee support, and see how far it carries you without me.) "My personal decision is going to be based on personal conclusions." (Or: I won't judge you by the reaction to your talk--which is what he had promised he would do.) "I would most appreciate it if you can fly to see me at once." (Or: Here, Rover.) "Tomorrow evening I will be at Wheeling, W. Va." (Or: Tomorrow you will be at Wheeling, W. Va.) Not only was Eisenhower reasserting the personal jurisdiction Nixon had challenged; he wanted a public dramatization of the lines of authority.... Nixon could not submit... [yet] he could not go further in public defiance either. He gave in. Rose Woods took down his dictated telegram of resignation.... He addressed it to the National Committee!... Chotiner... tore off the top sheet.... Rose said she could not have sent it anyway....

Chotiner... persuaded him... [that if] he just resumed his interrupted campaign schedule, the General would have to back down. The wave of public response was already seismic.... Chotiner set terms [to Summerfeld]: Nixon will not come unless he is sure of a welcoming endorsement.... This was, of course, a demand that Eisenhower back down on the stated purpose of the summons.... Eisenhower, realistic about cutting his losses... let Summerfeld give Nixon's camp the proper assurances.... Ike was at the [Wheeling] airport, to throw his arm around him and call him "my boy"--looking gracious, kind, and generous.... The only thing that could resolve the crisis--Ike's blue-eyed smile of benediction--had been bestowed.

But they did not forget the night when they touched swords. There would never be any trust between them. And Nixon had begun a tutelage that would gall him and breed resentment through years of friction and slights....

[...]

Nixon had to live for years as the acolyte to a living miracle of popularity... praise the light that shown indifferently on just and unjust, but never (or rarely) on him. He rose in Miami, to accept his on nomination, and asked that he might win in another man's name: "Let's win this one for Ike!"

That Pat O'Brien line was excised from the acceptance speech as printed in the new edition of Six Crises. Such delicate touches... occur regularly.... The balance threatens to swing decisively one way, but always tilts back in time.

  • Ike seemed cold when Nixon met him (but of course wasn't): "Despite his great capacity for friendliness, he also had a quality of reserve which, at least subconsciously, tended to make a visitor feel like a junior officer coming in to see the commanding General."

  • Ike seemed to disown Nixon (but of course didn't): "The impression I got was that he was really trying to tell me he wanted me off the ticket when, in 1956, he said Nixon shoul 'chart his own course'.... 'That's not what he meant at all', said [Len] Hall. He declared that I was judging Eisenhower's statements which should be applied to a political sophisticate." This implies, of course, that...

  • Ike seemed unsophisticated (but of course wasn't): "He would sometimes make what would seem to be completely outlandish and politically naive remarks, just to test them, perhaps even believing in some of them momentarily."

  • Ike seemed to neglect Nixon's advice (but of course didn't)...

  • Ike seemed not to be supporting Nixon's 1960 campaign (but of course was)...

  • Ike seemed... to be selfishly calculating (but of course wasn't)...

  • Ike even looked slippery (but of course was not really)...

Of such careful tightrope-walking Nixon made a political career....

[...]

What... is one to make of [Eisenhower's] famous meanderings at press conferences? They were a proof of Eisenhower's sense of priorities.... He went into each session with certain things clearly in mind--things he was determined to say, and the way they should be said; things he was determined not to say, and ways to circle around them. And he got the job done. The rest was fluff and flutter.... Eisenhower revealed his conscious strategy... during the... Quemoy-Matsu crisis. His press secretary... advised him to take a no-comment.... "'Don't worry, Jim', I told him as we went out the door. 'If that question comes up, I'll just confuse them'." An example... occurred in 1952.... Senator William Jenner... had called Ike's old friend... General Marshall a traitor. Journalist Murray Kempton, trying to put Eisenhower on the spot.... Eisenhower... no one should even mention such false charges. he seemed almost to swoon with pious detestation--yet he was careful not to mention Jenner. All the onus of slander was shifted to the journalist for raising such a question. After the conference, Ike grinned and shook hands with Kempton, making him realize what a skilled performance this was.

Eisenhower's relations with Nixon cannot be estimated until we realize that his remarks, his silences were, on key matters, conscious and chosen.... The "hounds tooth" remark might have looked like a slip at the time.... At each of the next two points where Nixon was scheduled to step up... Ike "let slip" a sentence that helped drag him down.... 1956... Eisenhower fed the "Dump Nixon" movement with his "chart your own course" remark... 1960, when Eisenhower was asked what what decisions of the administration Nixon was responsible for. Nixon had to spend precious minutes in his first debate with Kennedy trying to explain away the answer Ike gave: "If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don't remember." Nixon could only argue lamely that the words were "probably facetious" (quite a card, that Ike). He spent many years paying for the secret victory he had won in the Checkers episode....

James Reston wrote, during Nixon's last year in office with Eisenhower, that the Vice President watched football games while the President was making his decisions on a summit metting. Eisenhower simply was not interested in Nixon's view of things....

[...]

Eisenhower's periodic deflations of Nixon did not arise from mere vindictiveness. It seems clear from his actions, and from things he told many intimates, that he did not consider Nixon a statesman.... Eisenhower has been recorded... remarking that Nixon did not grow or mature in office; that he was not presidential timber; that he had no roots; that he was "too political".

That last phrase... best sums up Ike's attitude.... The one thing Eisenhower regularly entrusted to Nixon was housekeeping work in the Republican Party... campaigning for every Republican in Ameirca in the off years.... If Eisenhower needed Right-Wing support, Nixon was dispatched to round it up.... It was especially true when the White House had to deal with Joseph McCarthy....

Nixon did not want to attacxck McCarthy openly.... But [Eisenhower's] staff knew there would be little impact if a liberal Republican attacked Joe. The denunciation had to come from the right, so Eisenhower himself gave Nixon the job.... When a select committee of the Senate was appointed... Nixon chose its personnel and... "arranged McCarthy's humiliation by appointing hanging judges." Roy Cohn listed Nixon among the severest critics of McCarthy to show up for his funeral.

NIxon realixed that these were dirty missions.... His complaint was that Eisenhower did not seem to... value the man who could accomplish them.... Nixon, not understanding Eisenhower's standards, thought he could ingratiate himself by doing all the regime's dirty work. He thought this was the way to rise. All it did was convince Ike that he was not made for higher things. His one chance of growing in the president's esteem might have come from a refusal to run such errands....

Posted by DeLong at November 9, 2005 02:45 PM