Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Prophecy from 1970

To remain intellectually active and interested in essentially the same subjects for four or five decades opens up a broad field of rare pleasures. The books that moved you 40 years ago not only retain their original value, but add new dimensions in light of subsequent events. One such, which I finally picked up again a couple of weeks ago, was Gary Wills's Nixon Agonistes, which grew out of reporting Wills, then a recent convert from National Review conservatism to liberalism, had written for Esquire. Wills had a good Jesuit education,a doctorate in Classics, an eye for character and detail, and a flexible mind. I have been amused to note some slips that got by his editor--Woodrow Wilson died in 1924, not 1921, and Senator Millard Tydings lost the general election, not the primary, to a McCarthy-backed candidate in Maryland in 1950--but Wills has indeed filled the gap left by the modern historical profession since the death of Richard Hofstadter at about the time Nixon Agonistes was published. Despite his lack of formal historical training he became a history professor at Northwestern University in 1980, and has written long books of varying quality on Ronald Reagan, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams, and John Kennedy.

The theme of Nixon Agonistes, which I remembered well, was that Nixon was entering office just when the Awakening (Wills did not use the word, but much of the book is about the phenomenon) was destroying the values of his America once and for all--that Nixon's self-discipline, iron control of his negotiations, and belief in very man as master of his fate had become obsolete in the dawning Age of Aquarius. And I thought the point of this post would be how wrong Wills had turned out to be--that in fact, Nixon, following up on Goldwater's doomed campaign of 1964, had begun the revival of those values that has continued almost without let-up ever since, and that threatens today to return us to the late 19th century. I may develop that idea in a later post, but as it turned out, the first few chapters of the book, about the campaign of 1968 and Nixon's campaign in particular, gave me more than enough to talk about.

It is clear, reading Wills, that Nixon and those around him--who in 1968 included both William Safire and Pat Buchanan--were the founders of modern Republican campaigning. Drawing on Nixon's early campaigns and even on his own words in the first of Nixon's three autobiographies, Six Crises, Wills notes that Nixon always thrived upon the attack. He was elected to Congress in 1946 by tying incumbent Jerry Voorhis to Communism, and to the Senate in 1950 by doing the same to Helen Gahagan Douglas. He was the Republican attack dog in 1952, referring to Adlai Stevenson's Ph.d from Dean Acheson's "Cowardly College of Communist Containment," and he complained bitterly in Six Crises that he lost the election in 1960 because he had to defend, rather than attack, an Administration's record. "Every campaign had taught Nixon the same lesson: mobilize resentment against those in power," Wills wrote. Three subsequent generations of Republicans have taken that one to a new level, railing ceaselessly against "the government" even when they are running it.

More subtly, Nixon in 1968 actually articulated the strategy subsequently adopted by Karl Rove, who, let it be remembered, was already a leading Young Republican by 1972. (One of the keys to recent American political history, by the way, is that while the Young Republicans were spawning Rove, Abramoff, and later Grover Norquist, the Young Democrats had essentially ceased to exist, read out of existence by Lyndon Johnson because of their opposition to the Vietnam War.) In May 1968 Nixon gave a radio speech announcing his plan for "A New Alignment for American Unity"--an alignment, not a consensus. Nixon actually claimed that 1968 would be for the Republicans what 1932 was for the Democrats--and while the temporary allegiance of southern whites to George Wallace hid the magnitude of what had happened for another four years, he was right. Nixon explained that his new alignment would include five groups: 1) traditional Republicans, 2) younger liberals who wanted "participatory democracy," 3) the new South, "interpreting the old doctrine of states' rights in new ways," 4) black activists looking for opportunity rather than welfare, and 5) "the silent center, the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly"--in other words, older Americans disturbed by black militants, student protests, long hair, rock-and-roll, youthful premarital sex, and all the other manifestations of the Awakening.

What was critical, as Wills noted, was that these groups had nothing in common. The second and fourth, indeed, were included for show--Nixon never drew significant support from either--but the other three were united by different resentments against the establishment, now symbolized by the Democratic Party. Nixon nearly lost the election because the New Deal coalition was not yet dead and because Wallace took away so many votes in certain key northern states--but had Wallace won enough electoral votes to deny him victory, we know now that Wallace would have offered them to the candidate who promised concessions on school desegregation, and Nixon, not Humphrey, would surely have found a way to pass the test. Karl Rove later raised this strategy to a high art, looking for angry groups of undiscovered voters who could be won over by coded appeals about their favorite issue.

The book also opens with a description of a Wallace rally in Maryland. (I attended a Wallace rally myself later that year on Boston Common, where the protesters far outnumbered Wallace's supporters, moving him to suggest that Massachusetts needed a busing program to bring some balance to the political scene.) And Wallace, too, emerges a founder of key aspects of modern Republican politics. "The press says we're some kind of uncivilized racists," Wallace said, prompting his supporters to shake their fists at the press section. "Oh, not these boys," said Wallace. "They're hard-workin' reporters. I love these folks. It's their editors, back in offices, that write all that stuff." Wallace supporters came out because they thought they had no voice in the mainstream media, which in those days truly had power. This, too, was the start of something big.

Yet let us not rhetorical similarity blind us to the very real changes that have transformed the Republican Party and our politics since then. Nixon was always looking for effective political tactics. "Let's get a woman on the ticket," he said to William Safire just before his death in 1994. "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us." That was Nixon the pro, who fought dirty campaigns in order to govern. In office he went with the flow on domestic policy, signing the bill that created the EPA, and his pursuit of detente resembled no other President so much as his great rival Kennedy. He neither attacked nor tried to undo the New Deal or the Great Society--indeed, he made social security benefits high enough to live on for the first time. For today's Boomer and Gen X Republicans attacks upon government are a religion, not a tactic, and they will not rest until they have either undone a century of American history or been marginalized by a change of opinion. They also lack all self-discipline--they will do anything to serve their cause and beliefs and pay no attention to the consequences.

Wills did not confine himself in his great work to Nixon and the right; he discussed the new left at great length as well. They would be equally influential in other spheres--but that's a topic for another week.


Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for this essay.

I have been reading "Russia and The West under Lenin and Stalin".

Shows the long lack of competence, and of a sense of centeredness, and of reality, in US domestic politics, also infecting foreign policy, throughout the turbulent 20th Century.

The 'right' and the 'left', in the US, were often deluded about many things, throughout the period, unfortunately.

All the best,

galacticsurfer said...

OMB director under Reagan explains here in long interview last 30-40 years of fiscal and monetary policies. Says Nixon tried but gave up on conservative fiscal policies in 1969 and gave up gold standard and that since then right left are just the same welfare vs. warfare, borrow and spend or tax and spend but we are now seeing Keynesian endgame. Noone will buy debt US reserve currency debt (Chinese, etc.) and Fed is just screwing up free market (savings bring no interest for pensioners, etc due to ZeroInterestRatePolicy). Politics now paralyzed as problems are too big to handle. It all looks bad. No real options left.

I got a lot from your post today. Tricky Dicky, Slick Willy(Clinton). How do you get elected a second time in America for Prez? Be real smart or have really smart people on your staff or idiots on the other side. Maybe Obama will get lucky with the Repubs being idiots-Perry too far right for example (So evil or sly like Clinton and Nixon Obama is not and a Reagan/Bush II economic boom or a good war he can't show) but nobody can save the situation as it is now, whoever gets elected if I follow what David Stockman is saying.