Know Your Enemy: Nixon Agonistes

Know Your Enemy: Nixon Agonistes

Matt and Sam discuss Garry Wills’s 1970 masterpiece of political reporting and analysis, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man.

Richard Nixon on the campaign trail in 1968 (© Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)

Know Your Enemy is a podcast about the American right co-hosted by Matthew Sitman and Sam Adler-Bell. Read more about it here. You can subscribe to, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, and receive bonus content by supporting the podcast on Patreon.

“What is best and weakest in America goes out to reciprocating strength and deficiencies in Richard Nixon.” It’s difficult to think of a more electric meeting of author and subject than Garry Wills and Richard Nixon, a meeting that produced what might be the best book ever written about American politics, Wills’s Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. What begins as reporting from the campaign trail during the 1968 presidential contest—where Wills introduces us to Nixon, George Wallace, Nelson Rockefeller, and more—eventually becomes a profound meditation on the fate of liberalism in the United States. Wills found in Nixon the key to unlocking the reigning—but by then faltering—myths of their country’s history and self-understanding, and what they reveal about each other.

Along the way he discusses the complex psychological dance between Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower; takes us on a tour of Nixon’s hometown, Whittier, California; describes the Republicans’ “southern strategy”; examines the roiling anger and protests over the Vietnam War; and offers on-the-ground reportage from the 1968 conventions (the GOP’s in Miami, the Democrats’, infamously, in Chicago). Matt and Sam try to make sense of it all and ponder what Nixon Agonistes might say about how we got here and where we’re going.

Sources and further reading:

Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970)

Confessions of a Conservative (1979)

Outsider Looking In: Adventures of an Observer (2010)

Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (1968)

Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism (1973)

Know Your Enemy, Joan Didion, Conservative, with Sam Tanenhaus (January 13, 2022)

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