“Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man” by Garry Wills was published in 1970, about a year after Nixon’s inauguration as president. Wills is a journalist, former professor of history and classics and a prolific author. His book “Lincoln at Gettysburg” won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and his most recent book “What the Qur’an Meant: And Why it Matters” was published in 2017.
Evident by its publication date, “Nixon Agonistes” is not a comprehensive biography. And obvious during its earliest pages is that it is not a biography at all. But exactly what it is proves difficult to explain.
Its 546 pages are organized into five major sections which eventually yield the author’s overarching thesis: that America is essentially liberal at its core. But Wills argues that classic liberalism is dead and Richard Nixon is the political heir to whatever remains of its ideals. And while Nixon is never the primary subject of the book, he is always at its center. America’s political life is really under the microscope but Nixon is the glue Wills uses to bind everything together.
Although this book spends a great deal of time analyzing political, social and cultural trends, it also carefully observes the most important political and cultural figures of Nixon’s era. Wills is an incredibly astute observer and a gifted literary artist. His character portraits – covering subjects such as Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Strom Thurmond, George Romney, George Wallace, Spiro Agnew and Richard Goodwin – are crisp, witty and often biting.
More generally, Wills’s writing style is erudite and complex, clever, sometimes baffling and often brilliant. It feels a bit like the literary convergence of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Tom Wolfe and Timothy Leary. Like most “deep” writing of substantial value, this book is not geared toward neophytes. Anyone new to Nixon – or political philosophy – will spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what is being discussed.
In addition, this book is often cumbersome and unwieldy. The author frequently bounces between discrete moments in Nixon’s political life (most of them occurring during his presidential campaign of 1968), highbrow philosophical discussions and digressions into Nixon’s early life. And at various times the book seems to serve different functions: history text, biography, political science treatise and political philosophy thesis.
But even readers who are expecting traditional coverage of Nixon’s life and times – and who are able to persevere to the end – will uncover countless pearls of wisdom and insightful nuggets. I discovered (and recorded for later consumption) more incredibly penetrating, shrewd and memorable one-liners in this book than in perhaps anything I’ve read over the past five years. These treasures alone made this book worth the effort.
Overall, Garry Will’s “Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man” is far less about Nixon than the political and social culture in which he operated. Published five years before his presidency ended, this book is an unusual confluence of historical observations and intellectual reflections. Readers familiar with Nixon and his era who also possess an interest in political philosophy will find it enormously rewarding. Others may simply find it difficult to finish.
Overall rating: “Unrated” as a biography