Monday, July 01, 2013
Nixon Agonistes", a book I've been meaning to get to for-- I don't know, 25 years? So far, good as it is, it isn't telling more about Nixon than I already knew. The problem is that Nixon tends to be viewed as either a symptom or a symbol. He was a complicated guy, and even though everybody thought they understood him I'm not so sure anybody did. Wills, maybe the last Catholic intellectual, seems to be doing a great deal of projecting here: the book is controversial because his Nixon is a sort of thwarted liberal, in the classic sense-- a believer in free enterprise, free markets and individual achievement. This has very little to do with any Nixon I am familiar with, and Wills' evidence is not very persuasive. This is the 1968 Nixon, the man who seemed to have risen fast, from Red baiting Alger Hiss prosecuting congressman to senator, to Vice President. Did Nixon invent the VP as attack dog? If not he certainly perfected the role. And then, a collapse into ignominy. The Kennedys had a way of doing that, but what looked like the end was Nixon's failure to attain the governorship of California. What that narrative overlooks is that this is how it always was for Nixon. I hadn't known it, but after he graduated from Duke Law (of course), he'd been turned down at Sullivan & Cromwell, then John Foster Dulles' firm. He managed to bounce back from that early disappointment, and demonstrated the capacity for resiliency that carried him through to the Presidency. Who were his friends? Who was his rabbi? It looks to me like he never really had any. There were people like John Mitchell who projected their own ambitions on him, but if Nixon believed that he was entirely self-made, I'm not so sure that the belief was misplaced. With very few exceptions (Rose Woods, Pat Nixon....) nobody seems to have liked him much, and it isn't hard to see why. He seems to have occupied a universe that had room for Dick Nixon, and Dick Nixon's ambition, and very little else.