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Does Garry Wills on Nixon Lend Insight into Obama's Mojo? Indeed!

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For those of you who have OD’d on political commentary and yet crave more—my Google Reader is dry as a bone!!—The New York Review of Books has assembled its usual cast of smarties to weigh in on Indecision ‘08.

Seems a good a place as any to mention the best book on politics I have ever read, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man, by Garry Wills. For those of you preemptively weary of Watergate and the twitchy Nixon of the second term, fear not: the book was written in 1969, before all of that.

I particularly recommend chapter 6, “The Hero,” which is a defense of Nixon’s old boss, Dwight Eisenhower. The chapter is a compelling brief for the political virtues of charisma, shrewdness, and moderation; much to my astonishment, it (the chapter) is available in full at Google Books. (Actually, looking at it again, it’s probably necessary to read the previous chapter, “Checkers,” too; it’s also very good.)

This recommendation does not arise purely by chance. You see, I see a lot of Barack Obama in Wills’s description of Eisenhower, which could be a very good sign indeed. Wills emphasized Ike’s uncanny ability to win political battles deftly, with a minimum of overt conflict. What the pundits and the pols sometimes forget about politics is that winning isn’t the only thing; one must win well, win and leave the other players involved devoid of rancor. I think Obama has this quality.

I was reminded of this trait of Obama’s during that brief interlude about a week after the Republican convention, when McCain, riding a wave of Palin-mania, managed to eke his way into the lead. Ever the optimist, I made two bets that week, one with a McCain supporter and another with a nervous Obama supporter, on the premise that Obama’s good times were far from over. There were many such bets to be made at that moment.

We forget it now, but there was ample discussion to the effect that McCain’s momentum had definitively established that Obama was too recessive, was not sufficiently capable of attack, and—naturally—should have chosen Hillary Clinton to be his VP. In one of his two-handers with John McWhorter that made 2008 such a delight, perpetual Obama skeptic Glenn Loury expressed this view (start at about 29 minutes in) on a bloggingheads.tv “diavlog” recorded on September 14.

Loury made reference to the “knife fight” Obama had suddenly found himself in and observed that the Clintons would surely be mighty helpful in such a context. A few moments later, Loury used the words “elegant, articulate, intelligent” to describe Obama and generally left behind the impression that Obama might be too much of a Nancy boy for big-time politics.

Allow me expand on that: the person Loury was describing in such terms had very recently waged a six-month battle with the accepted heir apparent to the Democratic nomination—a battle that ended, of course, in his own triumph. It was this person that Loury could profess to describe as somehow weak or lacking steel or nerve.

It is useful in politics to win knife fights; it is even more useful in politics to emerge from tense confrontations with one’s adversaries and not leave all of the other players feeling as if a knife fight has just occurred. To describe a political … warrior like Obama in such terms is ridiculous; it’s like saying that Greg Maddux displayed too much finesse to be a “really” effective pitcher. Yes, the Clintons often win knife fights—do they engage in anything else? How about someone who can play the Jedi mind trick on an adversary and leave nobody thirsting for blood?

My view of Obama’s deftness with regard to avoiding traditional political battles—that’s straight Nixon Agonistes, chapter 6. If you read it, you might even recognize a shrewd Hawaiian-born pol between the lines.


One of my all-time favorites as well, with an able and equally pertinent successor in Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland!

I would never have thought to pair them, but you’ve definitely got a point, Perlstein is regarded as the best guy around for political writing (Caro excepted). I haven’t read either that one or the Goldwater one. I had the first one but I’m in the process of divesting my books, so it might be a while. I tried to read it but found the subject matter (rise of the nasty right) too depressing.

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