[1970 anti-war meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago, photographer unknown, scanned from a print in my possession.]
For geezers much like myself, the covid lockdown is still pretty much in place. I spend a lot of time, days on end, at home. Far too much of that time has been spent as a couch potato in front of this computer screen, though in fact I’ve not owned a couch for at least a few decades. Whatever. Somewhat less time has been occupied by re-reading books from my own library. (The Chicago Public Library has reopened but in an understandably not-so-user-friendly format.) I find the non-fiction to be more engaging.
Right now, I’m re-reading Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. The dust jacket bills it as a “study of Richard Nixon and a deeply troubled America.” This was originally published in 1969, and neither Wills nor anyone else really knew how the next several years would work out, but it was pretty commonly felt to be a time of crisis (for the United States but also for much of the world) not unlike this time of Trump.
I don’t mean this to be a review of the book but maybe something of a reminder about our history.
Wills is at his strongest as an observer and describer. As a political analyst, he mostly reflects the commentariat of the time: the “politics of resentment” for example. It’s an individualistic, psychological approach, so it should be no surprise that Wills began his career as a public intellectual as a conservative. Covering the civil rights movement of the time moved him to the political center, at least, though a 21st Century conservative might consider him a flaming lefty. That said, for all those who feel that 2020 U.S.A. has become a strange, foreign land, it’s a worthwhile to pause to read chapter 2 of part I: “The Center Cannot Hold.” It begins:
“There was a sense everywhere, in 1968, that things were giving. That man had not merely lost control of his history, but might never regain it. That palliatives would not serve, and nothing but palliatives could be found… The cities were in danger, and the college campuses, and the public schools.
“And the President. Lyndon Johnson traveled nowhere, toward the end, for fear. He was allowed to run out his term because he had, in effect, abdicated. It was the year of the Secret Service men, their faces variously angled out across the crowd as it faced in, each trained pair of eyes raking an assigned arc. A time of mutual surveillance, when those of different races, when young and old, when policemen and ordinary citizens passed, if possible, on opposite sides of the street, warily; or — too late to cross over — went by each other with eyes down. A time of locking up and closing in, of “How to Defend Yourself.” Michigan housewives pushing baby buggies down to the pistol range for practice.”
Wills goes on to describe George Wallace’s independent campaign for President as “a weird ‘third party’ — no party at all. It lacked platform, personnel, history, future, or program. It was a one-man phenomenon… Wallace offered neither palliative nor real cure; just a chance to scream into the darkness.” Wills asserts that a “nihilist vote is something new in America, the home of the boosters.” I’m not convinced that was true even then. Any political system that customarily presents the electorate with just two viable choices will have “kick the bums out” as a major motivation for voters. That’s not a form of nihilism?
Well, okay, creeping nihilism perhaps. Wills goes on to write:
“…In 1964, many thought it shocking that, at the Republican Convention, delegates turned to the press booths and shook their fists in anger after Eisenhower’s criticism of reporters. But by the 1968 convention, cops beat newsmen and broke their cameras… Meanwhile, newsmen who followed Wallace said they felt like patsies, straight men for the candidate’s act, so much did he use them to elicit boos and jeers from his crowds. Spiro Agnew got a similar response when he held up a copy of the New York Times and mocked it.”
It was all so very familiar and far more violent than today, including state-sponsored terrorism in places. And there were periods of U.S. history that were so much worse.
Having said that (and yes, I also said that back in the 1970s), one uses the past as a template for the present and the future only at a pretty fair risk. 2020 is not 1968 nor is it the 1933 Weimar Republic. Crisis? We may be standing in the middle of one, but it’s our crisis not the demons of the past come to do battle. History rarely really repeats itself. It may have rhythm. It may rhyme. Just what that means is irrelevant except to invoke a vision of parading historical actors, ranks hands in hands, marching down the avenue (This is Chicago. It’s an avenue.) on trochees and iambs.
Google Books has 60 pages of Nixon Agonistes available as a “preview” so you may be able to read the chapter if you wish.
On the other hand, if music is more your thing then here is “John Flip Lockup” by the Daughters of Albion, a bit of cultural commentary from that same time that is every bit as apt as anything Wills ever wrote about it: