HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 19, 2009
From Liberty Street

Nixon Agonistes

John Turner


I just got back from a local library when I went to talk about Garry Wills's study from the early 1970s titled, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. If you read the book without knowing when it was published, you would probably assume that it was drawing on the events of the Bush administration to make its points. That it was written twenty-five years before Bush took office is testimony that it was not impossible to see what was coming, that is, if you paid attention.

It's a curious book, not a biography, not a political history, but a kind of political character sketch of the country in the late sixties and early seventies, using Richard Nixon as the central symbol. As a consequence, for long stretches, Nixon almost completely disappears from its pages. But he reappears at the end as the capstone on all the lessons that Wills is trying to teach. By being exactly who he was, Nixon, in Wills's mind, teaches us that our American myths are no longer vital; they are dying. But guess what? We didn't learn the lesson, so we had George Bush to make it unmistakable. Or so we can hope. But you can never know for sure about things like that.

What are the myths that are dying? The ones deriving from classical liberalism, those that say it is possible to make oneself, and that being self-made is the only true definition of freedom. We have no need of community, or kindness, or mercy, or anything of that sort. That's all being taken care of for us. But, in order to hold on to the freedom, you do have, you've got to be running every minute, there's no slowing down, no relaxing, and, certainly no counting on anyone else to help you out. That's what America is about, according to the myth; that is the glory of competition, which delivers everything.

All this is nonsense, says Wills, based only in the stories we tell ourselves and not at all in the reality of the past. His basic theme is that in the American progression myth is always taking the place of history, and, therefore, making us think we're doing what we're not. I guess his solution to the procession of mistakes is to have history replace myth.  He says at the end that we are more than our myths told us we are, but I'm not sure he explains how we are more, or why we are more, or where we are to find the self that can help us to rise above our former selves.

I guess he thinks that by facing the truth we can come to see that there are no self-regulating mechanisms -- which we like to call markets -- for example, the money market or the market of ideas or the market of politics, that will allow us simply to barge ahead, seeking our own advantage, and still create the best of all possible worlds. And the decision to call that restless striving, freedom is probably the main reason it is leading us not into paradise but into a sterile captivity.

It's a fairly subtle argument, but it is buttressed by many anecdotes to show us exactly what the results of our peculiar kind of American freedom is. One of the most effective is Wills's report of a visit to Nixon's home town of Whittier, California on the eve of the election of 1968, and his assessment of the kind of freedom he found there. You'll have to admit, Wills is graphic:

Even one day in Whittier, spent imagining the America of Nixon's childhood, is suffocating.
That world has a locker-room smell, of spiritual athleticism. As I drove back towards Los
Angeles that night, along Whittier Boulevard, wide lane enscrolled on either side with
continuous neon scallops, the sulphur of Los Angeles seemed a better thing to breathe
than the muggy air, heavy with moral perspiring, of Whittier.

In short, we have not only convinced ourselves we are free, but we have it mind that we have the right to kill people all around the world to make them free just like we are. Just how it is that dead people can be free is a question we're too busy to think about. We have to keep racing forward in our desperate lurch to stay ahead of everybody else, letting mindless mechanisms like markets, competition, and vague idealism resolve the issues we are too myth-bound to think about.

Wills doesn't believe that's good enough, and neither do I. Here at the beginning of a new presidency I hope we have someone in the Oval Office who can at least fathom what a person like Wills is saying. It's not pleasant to think of the new occupant turning into a Nixon.


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