Gary Wills finds the insincerities attendant upon Nixon's passing quite fitting

MAGAZINES

June 26, 1994|By Mark Feeney | Mark Feeney,The Boston Globe

Garry Wills is the Nixon aficionado's Nixon aficionado: the man who charted that 5 o'clock shadow down to its nubbiest bristle. A quarter of a century after its initial publication, Mr. Wills' "Nixon Agonistes" remains the best book written on the 37th president. Anyone wondering about Mr. Wills' hold on the franchise now that the Trickster has joined the Great Silent Majority in the sky need only turn to the July Esquire for reassurance.

"He contrived to die in the odor of statesmanship," Mr. Wills begins his assessment of the reaction to Nixon's passing. "He used his death, as he used other setbacks, to advance his cause." Ah, just so, and advance it he did, though Mr. Wills perhaps overstates the (not inconsiderable) case against the recently departed as he attempts to dispel the incense that, as mysteriously as an 18 1/2 -minute gap, appeared once Nixon left us. Still, who can resist the rhetorical brio -- let alone the patent truth -- of Mr. Wills' conclusion: "The orgy of amnesiac celebration around the man's funeral was a salute from one hypocrisy to another. . . . We matched his insincerities with our own. It was an altogether fitting end."

That last sentence has a certain sad application to the death of Kurt Cobain, whose suicide had its own grim logic. Stephen Wright's article on the grunge hero, also in this issue, may well be -- we pause to take an exceedingly deep breath -- the ultimate bit of deep knee-bending inspired by the Nirvana leader's

passing. No way, you say? "In the war between light and dark," Mr. Wright declares, "Kurt Cobain was an unattached scout on permanent patrol beyond the wire." There's more, much more -- so 'nuff said.

On the other hand, there's never enough said by Roy Blount Jr., so far as some of us are concerned. Esquire wanted to know how he'd envision a first date with Princess Di. Mr. Blount "would pick her up at the airport and drive south, listening to Ray Charles and Patsy Cline and talking about things, until we came to a place on the highway that smelled like it had good barbecue. I wouldn't want to get more deeply involved until I saw what she was like with grease on her mouth." Looking back, mightn't she now say something similar about Charles?

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The New Yorker (June 27 and July 4) has a double issue devoted to fiction and such. Even all the cartoons are reading-related. Roger Angell addresses the question, "What makes a New Yorker story?" Among those providing examples are Alice Munro, Nicholson Baker, William Trevor and Elmore Leonard (that's right: Elmore Leonard in the New Yorker). Eighteen fiction contributors get the full Avedon treatment, and the result looks "like a police lineup," as one of the participants, John Updike, nicely notes, with Edna O'Brien easily qualifying as toughest moll in the lineup. You'd almost think she'd escaped from -- where else? -- an Elmore Leonard story.

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National Geographic (July) has a longish piece on Boston. Joel Sartore's photos are as postcard-predictable (a night game at Fenway, Harvard commencement, a North End festival) as they are postcard-pretty. William S. Ellis' text is like something your Aunt Ginny would write your Aunt Nora describing her vacation: fluffy, cliched, poky. Home of the bean and the cod? Bean and the well-trod is more like it. Oh well, the cover story on recycling has a gatefold of a mountain of discarded tires in California that's really pretty cool: It's where the rubber left the road.

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Wired remains the magazine of the moment. Partly, that's attributable to having such an of-the-moment subject, computer culture, and partly to being so hey-look-at-me (with its hard-to-read layout, its Miami-on-acid colors) while not being too hey-look-at-me. Mostly, though, being a magazine of the moment reduces to making the banal seem hip, and the hip seem accessible, which is what Wired does. It's a neat trick if you can pull it off, but few publications do (just ask Entertainment Weekly, which, though it puts out a consistently stronger product than Wired -- savvier and slicker and less self-conscious has never achieved m.o.t.m. status, though it has striven for it ardently).

In the July issue David Byrne discusses, among other things, his lyrics being downloaded from the Internet and what type of video game he'd design if he designed a video game ("I would attempt to make it more human -- it would cheat and it would lie and it would make mistakes"). We find out that of the 10 most popular car models among Apple employees, only three are American -- all Fords -- and the rest Japanese.

One question, though: How come last week's New Republic (in the person of Robert Wright), not Wired, came up with such an elegant coinage as "dataway" for replacing "information superhighway"? Circulations may rise and fall, designs inevitably get redone. But it is by controlling the nomenclature that magazines of the moment stay in possession of the present tense.

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