Commentary Magazine


Nixon Agonistes, by Garry Wills

An End to Liberalism?

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.
by Garry Wills.
Houghton-Mifflin. 617 pp. $10.00.

Attacks on “liberalism” are nothing new in contemporary America. The neo-conservative heresies of a few years ago have become almost the clichés of current radicalism. Nor have we lacked descriptions and analyses of the political scene. Campaigns, candidates, conventions, elections, administrations have been exhaustively covered by Theodore White, Norman Mailer, and a score of others.

What is new in Garry Wills’s richly congested book is the attempt to combine a close look at Nixon et al. with an ambitious critique of the whole American value system which Nixon is seen as exemplifying. The effect is sometimes awkward. Mr. Wills is fond of cinema-images and his book makes you think of a “big” film, idiosyncratically and insufficiently cut, by a clever if wayward director. There are abrupt shifts from near to far: close-ups, with the bumpy immediacy of the hand-held camera, alternate with long-range panoramas. Motion is frozen in stills, then jerked into comically frenetic activity. There is plenty of dialogue, and on top of that the director’s own eloquent monologue, which ranges from the mischievously precise to the grandiloquently scarifying. The author is a humorist as wittily modish as Tom Wolfe and as blandly omniscient as H. L. Mencken (the latter evidently a favorite mentor for Mr. Wills, or Dr. Wills as his fellow-Baltimorean might have called him—he holds a Ph.D. in classics from Yale). But he is also a moralist, with a serious point to make, and he deserves a hearing on both counts.

The wit of Nixon Agonistes is a constant delight. Heckling, breezy, allusive, given now and then to forgivable flourishes of newspaper-baroque (as in the title?), the author is a born reporter, a cartoonist in words, master of a tradition of tongue-in-cheek sassiness that goes back well over a century in American political journalism. The personalities of dozens of public men are evoked with deft irreverence. Thus, George C. Wallace:

He radiates a gritty nimbus of piety, violence, sex. Picked-on and self-righteous, yet aggressive and darkly venturous, he has the dingy attractive air of a B-movie idol, the kind who plays a handsome garage attendant.

Or Governor Romney:

The blue eyes burn toward you under that low white cap of hair; the block of athletic face is rigid with fresh seizures of sincerity. . . . His trouble is not simply that he makes mistakes, but that they are meant mistakes (because everything he says is, with his laser eyes and acetylene faith, intensely meant).

Or the Vice President:

Agnew has a neckless, lidded flow to him, with wraparound hair, a tubular perfection to his suits or golf outfits, quiet burbling oratory.

Or the President, as he looked in 1968:

And the Nixon on the podium that morning, so exhaustively prepared, turning on well-oiled hinges from question to question, pointing to all his old friend-foes of the press . . . arm lifted from his slight Ed Sullivan humpback, his eyes testing response to each joke before his mouth gave its belated jerk, eyes and mouth in perpetual counterpoint . . . this Nixon was the soul of hard-earned competence, but he had no touch of greatness.

Excellent Menckenesque (acutely observant too on Everett Dirksen, with his “scrambled-egg hair, collapsed bike-tube lips, and winding wine-cellar voice,” or on Nelson Rockefeller, down in Miami to test his luck: “his eyes disappear in the crinkling, his face one wide-doomed rictus”). Here, in convincing detail, is the low-down on the politics of the 1960′s. But Wills’s purpose is not to guy the politicos, even if he draws a devastatingly bleak picture of the Nixon home town, or notes with amused horror the atmosphere of “topless Quakerism” in the wedding ceremony of Julie and young David Eisenhower. Nor certainly is he partisan in his distastes; in line with other recent commentators he finds a good deal to praise in the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower—more by far than in the brief administration of John F. Kennedy. Indeed his whole argument rests on the theory that Nixon has virtues—dogged, earnest, striving—and that Nixon is in this respect mediocre and synthetic merely because he represents the archetypal self-made American. He is the end only in the sense that he is the end of the line, the ultimate outcome of the now-decayed native heritage—a heritage blending the pieties of Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill with the success-gospel of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger, the covenanting fervor of Woodrow Wilson with the diluted, inspirational religiosity of Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale. In other words, the final wilted flower of American liberalism.

So we come to the main thesis. Liberalism is dead, and deserved to die because it has rested on false or contradictory premises. The moral-economic aspect of liberalism, according to Wills, assumed that—to put the matter harshly, in Mandeville’s formulation—private vices would produce public benefits: individual effort formed character and virtually guaranteed success, and the sum total of all these individual endeavors, self-centered though they might be, would be a prosperously open society. The significant metaphor, as Wills nicely observes, is of a race in which those Americans primarily interested in accomplishment emphasize the competitive element, while those more concerned with equality emphasize the need to insure that everyone has the same chance at the starting line—and that there may be occasion to introduce handicaps and new starting lines. The actual and logical consequences are—Wills says—deplorable. The self-regulating market is inefficient and inequitable; and the liberal myth has obscured this truth.

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As for the political myths of liberalism, they have persuaded Americans that each citizen can through the ballot box influence the composition and the conduct of his government. But at the national level at least—the only one Wills discusses—the liberal mechanism simply does not work. Presidential politics leads to a situation in which the voter must in effect choose between two men, instead of the several who would be needed to represent a proper spectrum. Worse still, neither major candidate stands for anything clearcut; and even if he did, his own Presidential options are miserably restricted; and even if they were not, his freedom of maneuver might well be dangerous.

The universities likewise are built upon the notion of a free play of ideas. But they are the servants of the state, and in practice permit only a small oscillation between each received truth and its nearest neighbor. Here Wills is particularly hard on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the one figure in the book against whom he shows animus. Schlesinger is treated as a glib spokesman for the liberal tradition, ready to accommodate its weary truisms to each change of the Zeitgeist. To Wills, the efforts of Schlesinger and of all academic liberals are futile, indeed purblind: they just do not see that it is itself both an “ideology”—a closed system—and an intellectually fraudulent one.

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This bare summary does not do justice to the verve of Nixon Agonistes. The author is a good logician; he pushes his points home with cheerful ferocity, and contrives to build up a formidable bill of charges against the American liberal tradition. He is surely correct in suggesting that the tradition has depended upon a series of myths, that these have never corresponded exactly to the real situation, and there is widespread disaffection inside contemporary America: the myths, that is, are now perceived to be myths. In this respect the volume is an admirable statement of a current mood in the United States, much more thoughtful and detached in tone than most other disaffected treatises of our era.

The difficulty comes with Mr. Wills’s last chapter, when he addresses himself to the question of what should and might be done to put things right. He is of course not compelled to do so. An accountant who reports a bankruptcy is under no obligation to explain how the firm could nevertheless turn a profit in the next trading year. Even so, Mr. Wills’s concluding remarks weaken the force of his previous argument. For he now insists that “criticism of liberalism does not lead logically to the destruction of its many achievements.” Liberalism did apparently develop “marvelously improved regulating devices.” It is only, he says (mark the only), “the pretense that these are self-regulating . . . that must be abandoned. Not the machinery, but the rationale behind it, has proved untenable, and has embittered men.” So elections in themselves, he goes on, are good; private enterprise has distinct advantages; “thrift, prudence, industry, and self-discipline are components in any balanced approach to human virtue” (a balanced statement worthy of the pros who concoct party platforms); and free speech is a noble ideal. In short, “the historical achievement of liberalism is a great one.” The trouble is apparently that its latter-day interpretations are wrong: the liberalism of 1970 is anachronistic, or timid, or both.

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At this juncture one begins to wonder, in retrospect, what the author really means by “liberalism.” Many of his criticisms are on target, recognizably valid descriptions of past and present America—but on which target? There are grave weaknesses in the American system. The society has become imprisoned in attitudes that breed complacency and selfishness. Some of these may be traced back to classic laissez-faire liberalism. But, as he acknowledges, many Americans in practice have been incompletely “liberal” in outlook, in not believing with more than half their minds that the self-regulating mechanism operated, or that one man was as good as the next. Was this proof of the inadequacy of the system, or of its failure entirely to dominate the scene, of human wisdom or of the inveterate inability of human beings in all societies to live up to their moral codes? Mr. Wills illustrates the confusions that link classic liberalism with 20th-century statist liberalism, but surely this is in part only a confusion of terminology: the word has here two very different meanings. Though he is merely following Louis Hartz and others, he widens the meaning still further in using “liberalism” to cover the Puritan moral code.

In some passages he seems rather to be talking about democracy: namely, the belief that all men ought to be presumed equal for as many purposes as possible. In these passages logic is apt to slip into logic-chopping. It is easy to show that there has been a gulf between theory and performance. It is likewise easy to poke holes philosophically in some of the contentions of democratic theory. Treated as a statement of fact, rather than as a moral imperative, the assertion that “all men are created equal” is close to nonsense, as a host of conservative polemicists have been swift to demonstrate. There is considerable comedy to be derived in a Willsianscholastic way from a scrutiny of the semantic tangle of the manifold American pronouncements that try to reconcile equality and achievement. In a strictly logical sense, no doubt, the effort is close to absurdity: one cannot “reconcile” rival principles. But even in more humane societies than the United States, not to mention those that are less humane, the tension exists between the two; and as a matter of social reality, as distinct from logical rigor, it can only be mediated, or compromised. There are bad muddles in American social thought, bad because they gloss over disagreeable realities. There are also consolatory, somewhat artificial “liberal” pieties (the young see farther than the old; there are no black criminals, only black victims) which sound dishonest because those who say them feel they ought to say them; but this hypocrisy is of a relatively harmless order and may indeed be socially desirable. And then there are dilemmas fundamental to all societies that try, however imperfectly, to uphold an ideal of participatory existence. To insist on total compatibility of language and actuality, in these circumstances, is to ask for the impossible. Having discovered that it is impossible, the theorist may prove, as H. L. Mencken did to his own satisfaction in Notes on Democracy (1928), that democracy is per se a fraud. Which would leave us where?

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Wills clearly dislikes “myths.” Part of his objection to what he calls liberalism is that it is a collection of myths. He also takes Schlesinger to task for seeking to distinguish between “ideas” (good) and “ideologies” (bad), in other words between open, unsystematic thinking and closed, systematic thinking. But a myth, unless we confine our definition to the notion of myth as falsehood, is something believed in, a form of faith, a construct. In this light, an ideology is a myth; and so, by playing with words a little, one might show that Wills and Schlesinger were on the same side. More importantly, I think Wills fails to see that every society has need of myths. To be sure, they should be beneficial myths, in leading men toward a better society; they should be in advance of reality, at least in expectation, not behind it. Here Wills seems to me correct, and wise. His dilemma is one to sympathize with, not to try to score off. Anyone who wishes to shake up the United States, as it needs shaking, is liable to reduce his indictment to insignificance once he starts to accept the various “given-nesses” of the society. He surrenders his own argument: he is back, as Wills would say, with “liberalism.” But there really are no conceivable alternatives for the United States, at any rate not within the spectrum of illiberalism. Excellent though many of Wills’s points are, his tendency to Menckenian ruthlessness may render some of his analysis as barren as (his estimate of) conventional liberalism.

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