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Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made…

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man

by Garry Wills

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This is one of the most searing analyses I have read of Richard Nixon. An equal assessment might be when Hunter S. Thompson said in 1994 that Nixon was the death of the American Dream and that his body should be burned in a trash bin. This coarse yet logical analysis of the 'most artificial character in politics' also serves as a greater indictment of the contradictions of classical liberalism, as well as a view of the state of American society in the late 1960s, and how a Richard Nixon could come to power at all.

The first part of the book is a more biographical analysis. His Quaker upbringing. His saintly mother, temperamental father, his brothers dying young. Early senatorial career and elections, uniquely vicious. His resentment of the entrenched Northeastern power structures, later blossoming into conspiracies of the liberal elite, soldiers in the university system. His early struggles for power against Eisenhower, whom he resented, and later outmaneuvered in that brilliant display of political whoring known as the 'Checkers speech'.

The summa of Nixon's arguments includes not only resentment, but also the idea of classical liberalism - not to be confused with modern social liberalism. In today's world, the free hand of the market as seen in classical liberalism can be a strong and powerful force, but it does not know what it does, nor can it foresee what harm is causes. We see free exchange of moral ideas, with began with Ralph Waldo Emerson and confused contradiction of the university system then and the 'free media' now. Economic classical liberalism which began with John Stuart Mill and presently exists through the profane incarnations of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. And finally, the political and moral liberalism of Woodrow Wilson, Nixon's idol of foreign policy. Although the author then did not know of Nixon's secret peaces, bombings, and reconciliations with Mao, he could, strangely enough, be characterized as both a brutal realist and a woolly idealist.

Yet it was not necessarily these elements which led to the primary cause of his downfall. Nixon was the one with his hand caught in the cookie jar, spying on too many people. His paranoia might have got the better of him then. But executive privilege has existed long before him, and long after. And the contradictory elements of his policy, and those who helped him carry it out, continued to exist long after, in Reagan's movie-star presidency, the deranged crusades of Bush administration, in Fox News, in Romney and the Tea Party as a pale, geriatric, age-spotted imitation of the previous. This pernicious blend of characteristics continues because there is a large segment of the population which thirsts for them. It still believes in the primacy of the market, of economic social Darwinism, of resentment against a previous ruling elite.

We have seen the enemy, and he is us. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Wills convincingly argues for the view that Nixon was really a liberal in the modern political sense. His approach to Nixon, based on this premise, is both enlightening and intelligent. Richard Nixon was certainly a national enigma, our president of polarization--I personally saw that happen in my family. Considering the policies initiated by Nixon; for example, going off the gold standard, expanding major government programs like the EPA, and opening ties to Red China, the view of Nixon as a liberal is not unreasonable. Wills absolutely nailed Nixon's character, and not unsympathetically. He noted, for instance, that Nixon revered Woodrow Wilson, the only Democrat whose picture hung in Nixon's oval office. Although Nixon was "not a convincing moralist," Wills explained, he was nonetheless (like Wilson) a moralist by conviction: "He does not woo the Forgotten American cynically; he agrees with the silent majority." The result is an unbiased portrait that has the virtue of avoiding some of the excesses of Nixon's many detractors. Combined with his always excellent prose this book is one of Wills' best and in my experience one of the best analyses of Richard Nixon. ( )
  jwhenderson | Sep 9, 2012 |
This is a reissuing of Will's pioneering work of political psychology, the examination of perhaps the most interesting figure (in a host of different ways) of late 20th century American politics. But Nixon really requires the talents of a Euripides or a Shakespeare.
  Fledgist | Dec 3, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0618134328, Paperback)

From one of America's most distinguished historians comes this classic analysis of Richard Nixon. By considering some of the president's opinions, Wills comes to the controversial conclusion that Nixon was actually a liberal. Both entertaining and essential, Nixon Agonistes captures a troubled leader and a struggling nation mired in a foolish Asian war, forfeiting the loyalty of its youth, puzzled by its own power, and looking to its cautious president for confidence. In the end, Nixon Agonistes reaches far beyond its assessment of the thirty-seventh president to become an incisive and provocative analysis of the American political machine.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:35 -0400)

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