199 of 218 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2008
This is a four-part story of Richard Nixon's reign. Each section is devoted to one of the four elections of 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1972, and thus it is a political history that attempts to capture and make sense of the temper of those turbulent and changing times as seen primarily through Richard Nixon's character. In this sense it parallels Oliver Stone's biopic called "Nixon."
When Nixon prepared to make his second run at the Presidency, Vietnam had ignited a rage in the nation's young. This rage intersected with the cultural cross currents of the quickening pace of the civil rights movement and the rise of leftwing radical groups. Many conservative whites thought the wheels were coming off the nation morally and culturally.
Nixon, seen by many at the time (and since by historians), as a tragic but brilliant figure, wore his deep felt hurt, anger and anxieties on his sleeve for all to see, but despite this he was judged (and proved to be) a smart political tactician. Perlstein's story centers on Nixon's character and how it proved to be a critical factor in shaping both domestic and foreign policy during his reign and in the process being responsible for making fundamental realignments in American domestic politics as well as changing the course of U.S. foreign policy with his ground breaking overture to China.
During the first part (1966), reading the tea leaves left by Reagan who had recently won the California governorship on a new "law and order" platform, and encouraged by a resounding defeat of a host of liberal LBJ legislation -- by essentially the same "law and order coalition" -- Nixon could see where the future was headed and plotted a course that he hope would set the troubled nation on a more even keel and get him elected in the process.
He did indeed win in 1968 (the second part of the book), with a narrow victory ensured only by the reactionary coalition of former Southern Dixicrats and incensed culturally conservative Republicans -- the very coalition he had set his mind on colonizing. Nixon saw that this "new reactionary white power" was going to be the Republican ticket into the future, and the answer to his prayers for a more robust if not a permanent republican congressional majority. So he put his plan into action, and succeeded in effect breaking up the liberal coalition that had existed since FDR's presidency.
Nixon's "so-called" Southern strategy, as immoral and as illegitimate as it may have been (its subtext was clearly to play the race card), lives on even in today's "Red and Blue" political alignments. And although I was not a Nixon lover, Perlstein has given Nixon his just due, and the man, his character flaws and all, reveal that he was indeed a shrewd American politician.
145 of 166 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2008
Perlstein uses the rise of Richard Nixon as a way of illustrating the rise of modern Republicanism, with its populist themes, often faux populist policies, and its relentless negativity. None of these things were invented by Nixon, his circle, or the GOP, but he certainly provided a vehicle for making them central to Republican power since the 1960s. Although Nixon is the central figure of the book, Perlstein also provides a narrative that describes what happened to the Democrats and how they came to fall out of power, even as a majority of voters tended to endorse the majority of their positions.
The book is not a full scale biography of Nixon and some sections show obvious signs of editing which probably excised details that would be important to people not familiar with Nixon's life or major events of the 1960s. The book also relies a lot on secondary sourcing and could have used more aggressive fact checking on key details (e.g., Hugh Scott did not represent Ohio, Wayne Hays was not from Cleveland and, most embarrassingly for a resident of Chicago's South Side like Perlstein, the Dan Ryan Expressway goes no where near the West Side. Perlstein also goes with less credible accounts of Eisenhower's decision to place Nixon on the ticket (Eisenhower wanted Earl Warren) and the sweep of Eisenhower's disdainful treatment of his vice president (e.g., waiting until the last minute to endorse him in 1960) is not fully developed. The phoniness of Nixon's striving also gets a bit lost. Nixon was a poor relation (his mother's family were the local gentry), but never knew real poverty--unlike Lyndon Johnson, who shared many of Nixon's grievances about the world, or George McGovern whose view of life was more optimistic than that of Nixon or Johnson.
The book's these is built around drawing distinctions between the Franklins (the privileged people of ease, people not unlike Nixon's mother's family) and the Orthogonians (strivers, people w/o privilege). These two groups were names of social clubs at Whittier College in Nixon's day. Nixon is credited with organizing the Orthogonians, although some historical accounts suggest the group was already in existence when Nixon came to college. Perlstein notes how Nixon tended to view people in terms of whether they fit one or the other of theses clusters throughout his life and how he built his political appeal around identifying with the Orthogonians (and carefully concealing his admiration for and financing by the Franklins).
Nixon, of course, is not the only Orthogonian president we've had---Truman and Johnson come to mind (and only get eliptical recognition, as such, in the book). The current George Bush would like to see himself in that mold and many would put Jimmy Carter in that category, as well. While this is helpful in seeing Nixon's world view and the construction of various populist appeals within the GOP, Perlstein misses some of the important subtleties of the Orthogonians. For one thing, there are earnest Orthogonians (McGovern, Carter) and people like Nixon (or Johnson). Some people strive, while others embellish and cut corners along the way and both kinds of Orthogoninas thrive with sponsorship. Nixon and, especially, Johnson made much of slim war records, neither could be considered "clean campaigners", and both had less than honest retainers and sponsors. Nixon also tended to embellish his Orthogonian credentials, as in the exaggeration of his childhood "poverty". Another is that while people may identify with the struggles of an Orthogonian leader, their appeal is easily lost, and the public seems to abandon them pretty readily. Perlstein's repeated looks at Nixon's popularity suggest that much of Nixon's peak support was soft and a glimpse at history would suggest that the most Orthogonian figures in the presidency seem to be the ones whose support evaporated the most readily (Truman, John, Nixon, Carter, and Bush II), perhaps because their pettiness showed through easily or because strivers have more difficulty in providing inspiration, especially when they have the many character flaws embodied by Nixon (social awkwardness, paranoia, etc.). People may have liked Nixon, in a pitying way, but he never inspired the kind of admiration or inspiration of Franklin's like John Kennedy or Franklin Roosevelt. Nixon's genius was attracting likeminded people who have continued to stage manage GOP campaigns into the present and helping to construct the narratives that proved so successful for them. OTOH, he lacks a legacy in terms of a mass movement of admirers or even hagiographers. The more earnest Orthogonian seems more capable of redemption, as in the case of Jimmy Carter, but it has required decades of painstaking work to accomplish this (or the earnest efforts of historians, as in the case of Truman's redemption), as opposed to the ease with which a Kennedy could inspire.
The book will dishearten liberals with rose colored eyes toward the 60s (or a lack of first hand experience of that era). The sheer political ineptitude of George McGovern is on full display, along with the shortsighted worldviews of the people who came to cluster around him. The pathetic, if zany, state of the New Left in 1972 is another problem for liberals, along with the lack along with the lack a real vision of how the disorder of the era affected the general public. Even so, Perlstein has difficulty pulling the strands of his book together and, instead, it ends in a rather clumsy, blunt way. Part of the problem is George McGovern. He was, if anything, as Orthoganian as Nixon and a far more decent, modest man. Also, it's apparent that if the Democratic "Orthogonians" such as Richard Daley or George Meaney had had their way, the candidate would have been someone like Hubert Humphrey (presented in all his hammy desperation), who easily could have lost to Nixon by a decisive margin. Moreover, despite their disarray at the national level, the Democrats were far from dead closer to the grassroots and the GOP had its own problems--Nixon had virtually no coattails in 1972. Another problem is that Perlstein fails to identify how the great mass movements of the early 70s--the environmental movement and the women's movement cut themselves off from their own receptive mass constituencies and became increasingly Franklin-like, a perspective that would have helped his overall thesis and provided a better prelude to the Reagan years. The women's movement quickly turned to intramural politics and abortion rather than economic issues, while the environmental movement became a captive of earnest college types who had little appreciation of how to confront the obvious environmental hazards experienced by less well off Americans. Perlstein also tends to exaggerate the appeal of Nixon to union members (as part of an obvious build up to a future book on Reagan which I'm sure will talk about "Reagan Democrats") and fails to put George Meany's role in the '72 election in context. Meany was able to exercise more power than in the past (or future) because of the then-recent death of progressive United Auto Workers' president, Walter Reuther, who had been close to many liberal politicians. Meany had long been viewed as a cretin by many trade unionists, but he had achieved significant power at the AFL-CIO despite never having spent much time on the shopfloor; like Nixon he was a corner cutting, nasty Orthogonian. In contrast, rank and file unionists have proven to be less likely to vote Republican than other parts of the stereotyped "Reagan Democrat" demographic.
Like Perlstein's Goldwater book, this one makes clear that the current Conservative movement is very much the product of people now entering their twilight years. Implicitly, this also makes clear that no figures of comparable intellectual or organizational imagination is in positions to take their place. Nixon saw himself as basically a center-right politician and despite occasional use of the term conservative to describe his outlook, he was far too pragmatic and utilitarian to be a movement conservative, although his authoritarianism would fit well with contemporary conservative postures. Nixon actually feared the Right (something which Perlstein misses) and viewed movement conservatives with the same withering eye as he did liberals, although he lacked the obsessions about the Right that haunted him with respect to liberals.
141 of 172 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2008
I'm 49 years old, not quite old enough to have a first hand memory of the events and forces covered in this book but I still feel like I've been living in Nixonland all my life. I've read hundreds of books about the 1960's (and the early 1970's, often confused with the 60's) and this is the best. If you fell asleep in 1965 and just woke up and wanted to understand politics and culture today, I'd tell you to read Nixonland before I introduced you to "blogs" or even the 1990's. It takes time to make sense of such a defining era. It's a heck of a page turner too, no one ever said that the period between 1965 & 1973 was boring! Perlstein does a great job of weaving 1960's popular culture into the story but not in a trivializing way.
Even if you are, say, 25, you live in Nixonland too. Like me you grew up with music from Nixonland, TV shows from Nixonland, a culture from Nixonland and, of course, politics shaped and defined by Nixonland. I agree with the author that we are still fighting pretty much the same battles that were first thrust upon the national stage in the form of Richard Nixon and others like RFK, Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern who make up the characters in this grand story, all the wierder because its all true. I honestly think, however, that the 2008 election might just mark the beginning of a new era. Some of these battles are getting old. I think we are heading out of Nixonland but we are not there yet. If you want to know where we are and how we, as a country, got here, Nixonland is the place to start.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2008
A lot has been written over the past week about Barack Obama's historic run for the presidency, and Hillary Clinton's historic near-run, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy 40 years ago, and the general consensus seems to be that we are living in historic times, and that this coming election year is shaping up as one of those watershed-type moments in our history---like 1968, or 1932, or 1876---when the nation finds itself at a kind of directional crossroads and confronted by two radically divergent visions of the nation's future, where the choices we make at the polls this time around could affect the political landscape, in many profound ways, for decades to come.
It's a little ironic, then, that I've been ploughing through this way cool book the past few days as it revolves around the pivotal '68 election and the rise of the modern conservative dialectic that has dominated our national politics from the end of the 1960s to the present day. It is a sobering yet fascinating invocation of an inchoate and messy time of mass discontent in the midst of mass prosperity, with lessons to ponder for the present day, and with sparkling insights and novel interpretations for the reader to digest in every chapter.
Not a lot of people come out of Nixonland looking very good. Gene McCarthy emerges as cold, aloof, a single-issue candidate more interested in poetry than politics. Robert Kennedy appears as a polarizing opportunist who, Perlstein strongly implies (using statistical polling data), would likely have lost the '68 election in a landslide had he lived to secure the Democratic nomination. Hubert Humphrey is an insincere groveler, Nelson Rockefeller a Kissingerian double-dealer, Ronald Reagan a narcissistic martinet, and Richard Daley an American Brezhnev. (Perlstein reminds us that Soviet tanks were rolling through Prague at the same time the Chicago police were committing mass muggings in Grant Park at the '68 convention.) And the sins of the usual peripheral wingnuts---the Lester Maddoxes, the George Wallaces, the Max Raffertys---are all revisited in detail, and they are as horrifying as ever to recall.
But a great many folks on the antiwar left, too, are depicted in less-then-flattering terms: Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, and the SDS and Black Panthers in general all come in for some pretty harsh criticism---in Perlstein's estimation, much of their rhetoric and actions in the run-up to the '68 convention were at best examples of immature delinquency, at worst cases of outright thuggery, and needlessly provocative as a rule---and given the wisdom of 40 years' hindsight, it is hard to argue that a great deal of this criticism isn't richly deserved.
And this calls into focus the uniqueness of Nixonland---it's the first detailed history of American politics in the 1960s that I am aware of to be written by someone who was born after its most formative events took place. To the new generation of historians like Rick Perlstein (b. 1969), it's probably a lot easier to wax less subjectively about this mercurial era in our history than folks like myself who actually lived through all this trauamatizing insanity---to create a work of genuinely objective history, in other words, rather than a narrative that's been artificially flavored by the faulty filter of living memory.
Who comes out looking good in Nixonland? George Romney, for one, though his penchant for speaking his mind to the voters renders him quickly radioactive to the national GOP. George McGovern is depicted as a thoughtful and compassionate man whose '72 campaign team is overpopulated by idealistic numbskulls. And Martin Luther King, preaching nonviolence to the end, is seen in Nixonland as a lonely man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, his voice drowned out by the growing number of militants in his own movement.
Above it all is Nixon himself---at turns ruthless, cruel, cynical, depressed and self-abnegating---but always possessed of a chess player's mind, thinking several moves ahead of his opponents and even his would-be supporters. Given the overall scoundelry of the majority of Nixonland's varied cast of characters, one almost---repeat, almost---becomes sympathetic to the man over the course of the book, for no other reason than this: as Perlstein tells it, he was the flat-out smartest guy in the room, who outguessed, outwitted and simply out-hustled everyone else to the presidency in '68. The fact that he was willing to exploit racist sentiment to rip the nation asunder in the process---well, hey, that's politics, right?
Which brings up my last point: the startling theme that's crucial to Nixonland's narrative is that the defining political issue in America during the 1960s was not Vietnam, as commonly assumed, but race relations---specifically, the white backlash against equal-access and open-housing laws that laid the blueprint for the political realignment that Dick Nixon and his gunsels, such as Pat Buchanan and Kevin Phillips, helped to construct. The war did play a contributing role to the ascent of Movement Conservatism, as Perlstein sees it, but more though the antiwar movement it engendered and the excesses of the countercultural left---and the right's Kulturkampf against it, which continues to this day---that followed. It's no accident that the book starts with the Watts riots---which, Perlstein reminds us, occurred only a few days after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Whether you agree with his thesis or not, you will want to read this magisterial work---it's one of the most engaging and thought-provoking of its kind I've ever come across.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on June 19, 2008
When my father was alive, he used to love reading books by people like David Halberstam and Robert Caro because they wrote long, well-written, detailed works that were driven almost entirely by compelling narrative. Rick Perlstein has done this kind of book one-better. Nixonland is just as good as anything David Halberstam ever wrote, but it's also driven by an argument that's highly relevant to today's politics. Perlstein argues that Richard Nixon is the founder of modern attack politics, positive polarization is the way they described it back in the day. [That's positive in terms of the electoral fortunes of the Republican Party.] Perlstein doesn't make that argument explicitly until the very end, but you can see it coming a mile away and by the end of the book it's a very hard point to contest.
In order to make this argument, Perlstein has to do what some historians might deem impossible, examine Nixon without considering Watergate. "Impossible!," you say? Not if you cut off the story with the 1972 election. Of course, some of the stuff that eventually brought down the administration (like the Watergate break-in itself) makes it into the narrative, but Perlstein's focus is more on the political culture of 1964-72 than it is on Nixon himself. When you look at that culture closely as he does it's hard not to conclude that it's just as toxic (if not more so) than our own.
I've read some reviews of Nixonland here that complain about it being bogged down in trivia - That it all adds up to nothing. To make that argument is to miss the entire point of the book. Richard Nixon's political strategy, indeed the entire political strategy of the Republican Party since Nixon, has been to make mountains out of cultural mole hills in order to obscure the fact that Republican positions do not match the positions of the majority of American voters.
It also helped that Democrats often haplessly played their Republican-cast part of aloof elitists so well. Perlstein does not spare them the criticism they deserve. He even criticizes people who are often treated like sacred cows in democratic circles such as Robert Kennedy. Republicans who criticize Nixonland for partisanship haven't a leg to stand on.
By taking Watergate out of the Nixon administration, Perlstein has allowed us to see history as it unfolded rather than to read Watergate backwards. Unfortunately for Nixon lovers everywhere, this course of action makes it abundantly clear what an unpleasant, amoral, and divisive figure Richard Nixon was even before he betrayed the sacred trust of his high office.
19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2008
"Nixonland" is the second part of a large project by Perlstein to describe the rise of modern conservatism. This project is extremely important, especially for those on the left, in that it presents a counter narrative to the accepted history of the era. For many liberals, the 1960's were a time of ascendancy. The Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, the rise of feminism, etc. have tended be portrayed in a triumphal light by many commentators. It was, for many, an era of progress. What Perlstein reminds us, however, is that this "progress" was not universally accepted or agreed upon. This was also an era of resentment and reaction. It is this backlash, and the politics it created, that is the focus of this work.
To get a sense of the political trajectory that is traveled, Perlstein bookends his study with two of the most lopsided elections in American history--1964 and 1972--and asks a simple question: How could a country that had first given Lyndon Johnson such a massive victory turn around and give Richard Nixon an even larger win eight years later? How could the country have swung so dramatically in such a short period of time?
The answer to this question, it seems, is that both of these victories were largely delivered by the same group of people. It is this group of people that are at the heart of Perlstein's work. In short, this turbulent period is defined not by who we would normally think of--the protesters, the rioters, the hippies, the baby boomer youth, the New Left--but rather by what Nixon identified as the "Silent Majority." These were the millions of Americans who were, for the most part, most of the time, apolitical. They were working and middle class, and as such had an interest in stability, predictability, and order. They were the great center of the American electorate. As the 1960's unfolds we see this group move perceptibly rightward in much of their voting.
For this to happen, however, something had to change in the American political system. While the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and other events certainly propelled this shift, I think that all of these were in many ways the product of a much larger systemic change beginning during this period. As I was finishing "Nixonland" and trying to put it into perspective, I came to conclude that the book is not just a story of the rise of conservatism, but perhaps more so it is the story of the collapse of New Deal Liberalism. One book that I came across several times in graduate school is Stephen Skowronek's The Politics Presidents Make" In it, Skowronek argues that American history is characterized by periods of "political time." By this, he means that politics at any given time is defined by a particular "regime"--namely a dominant coalition of interests, ideas, actors, and ideology. Over time, these regimes rise or decline in acceptance as they are more or less successful in solving problems and managing the emerging conflicts in society. Presidents are situated differently to these regimes and are sometimes, though rarely, able to replace one regime with another, or re-order the nature of politics. FDR is the classic example here. With the Depression, the old regime was in disarray and FDR was able to assume power and institute a new governing philosophy with the support of a newly organized coalition of supporters and ideas. It is this regime--New Deal Liberalism--that LBJ inherits some thirty years later. However, by the 1960's, the ability of this Liberalism to manage the issues of the day is in doubt. As Skowronek explains, presidents like LBJ who seek to expand upon a regime and put their own stamp upon it are oftentimes unsuccessful. They try to do too much, they overreach, and the regime is subject to collapse. This is what we see in "Nixonland." What the Great Society, the war in Vietnam, and the other policies pushed by Johnson do, in short, is create an unrealistic set of expectations among the public. When these expectations are inevitably not met, backlash is not far away. When this backlash is ripe, members of the dominant regime begin to turn on one another, setting the stage for the realignment of political and voting coalitions.
So, whereas the 1964 landslide is brought about through the votes of the older parts of the New Deal coalition (unions, farmers, urban whites) and newer groups (African Americans, the youth), by the late `60's and early `70's these groups are splintering and turning on one another. While the newer members of the coalition are in the process of becoming more radicalized--the rise of Black Power, the balkanization of the anti-war movement, the emerging gay rights movement--those older members of the coalition feel abandoned and thus begin to gravitate rightward. This backlash is fueled by the inability of the old regime to solve the problems of the day. As crime and urban disorder become the top issue of concern to American voters, Liberalism provided no answer or solution. Another great discussion of this, parenthetically, focusing on New York, is provided by Vincent Cannato in "The Ungovernable City" a biography of John Lindsay.
As this process unfolds, Richard Nixon rises to pick up the pieces. Throughout the book, Perlstein uses Nixon as a lens through which to view the period. Nixon, he argues, is just like those groups who feel abandoned or left behind. Throughout his life, he felt constantly slighted, underestimated, and condescended to. Thus, his political genius was his ability to read the mood of that great mass of Americans who simply wanted to return to a politics and a way of life they felt was under siege: "This was something Richard Nixon, with his gift for looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath, understood: the future belonged to the politician who could tap the ambivalence--the nameless dread, the urge to make it all go away; to make the world placid again, not a cacophonous mess" He uses the New Left as a foil, mocking their "pseudo-intellectualism" as opposed to his, and the Silent Majority's solid values and patriotism.
While the story of "Nixonland," as I argued above, seems to be more about the collapse of Liberalism, it is not necessarily the story of the final triumph of Conservatism. Rather, this is a period where things fall apart without necessarily being rebuilt. It would take Reagan (and this would seem to be where Perlstein will go next) to accomplish this. The Nixon we get in this history is one that is not terribly ideological and without a fixed governing philosophy. In fact, in domestic affairs he accepts many of the liberal assumptions and policies. Furthermore, if we look at other elections during the period, we see a Liberalism that still has some life in it. While Nixon is elected in 1968 and re-elected in 1972, he has no noticeable coattails in congressional elections. The Democrats maintain large majorities in both chambers of Congress and gain seats in the 1970 midterm. So while the Silent Majority was beginning a process of moving rightward, they hadn't moved wholesale yet. What John and I have spent a lot of time looking at on this site is where these voters ended up.
There seem to be several lessons that can be drawn from Perlstein's work, especially for those on the left. The first of these is the danger of overreach. What we saw under Johnson, it seems, was an overestimation of the country's appetite for massive change. Here, I'm reminded of my great professor at UW-Madison, Charles O. Jones. In his writings on policy making and the presidency, he always warned against what many call "the myth of the mandate." Essentially, big electoral victories tend to be interpreted as a sign that voters are in agreement upon a wholesale policy agenda. The reality, Jones always taught, was that voters vote for candidates for a variety of reasons, many not connected to policy at all. When presidents act as if they have a clear mandate, they set themselves up for failure. Thus, we might look at this turbulent period and ask whether, in the future, a more "humble" or "incremental" approach to governing is warranted, lest we risk the fracturing and backlash that Perlstein describes.
A second lesson I would draw from this story is the need to avoid the temptation of ideological self-righteousness and self-absorption. The great value of Perlstein's project is that he, as a progressive, is willing to look critically at the left. This period gives him plenty of fertile ground to explore. The fact of the matter is that many of the people he describes (and who have been lionized in many histories of the 60's) would seem to have been pretty insufferable to deal with. The ultimate failure of people like Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd, Bobby Seale,and others was not so much that their positions were wrong, but that their tactics made them easy targets for the forces mobilizing on the right. What was lacking among those on the left--and this may have been a function of a Liberalism in decline--was anyone of stature who could put the brakes on the process that was unfolding. The irony of this is that as the war dragged on, and as Perlstein describes, more and more members of the "Silent Majority" were being drawn to the anti-war movement. Had the leadership of this movement been less dogmatic and less confrontational early on, they perhaps might have had more success.
Aside from the main themes just described, there were some sections and topics that I found particularly interesting. First was his discussion of how Nixon was able to implement the "southern strategy." Here, the role of Strom Thurmond was instrumental. While I had originally read about this before, I think in "The Making of the President 1968," Perlstein describes the relationship between Thurmond and Nixon in much greater detail. We see how these two were able to court each other and ensure that each's interests were being served. With the Wallace vote threatening to keep the White House in the Democrats' hands, Nixon was able to convince Thurmond (on issues like busing, school desegregation, etc.) that he would embrace state's rights and strict constructionism. With Thurmond's blessing (and signals to other southern leaders and voters), Nixon was able to win enough of the south, including Thurmond's South Carolina, to capture the presidency.
A second section I particularly enjoyed was his narrative on how Watergate came about. When thinking about this scandal, the conclusion that many draw is that Nixon's dirty tricks campaign was unnecessary. The fault of this analysis, it seems, is that we tend to view Watergate with the hindsight of knowing how the 1972 election turned out. In other words, why would a president who won 49 states need to break into the Democratic headquarters as part of a systematic process of infiltrating his opposition? What Perlstein gives us is, I think, is more of the answer than we've gotten before. What we see is that going into the 1972 election, Nixon's victory was anything but assured. His level of popularity fluctuated. Opposition to the war was growing. So after the 1970 midterms, Nixon's fear of holding the White House intensified and reached a level of paranoia. It was out of this context that Watergate was spawned.
Finally, I've long felt that the period of the civil rights movement that has been understudied is the time when the movement came north. As Martin Luther King concluded that issues of race and poverty couldn't be disentangled, not only did answers and solutions become much more elusive, but the collision of the movement with the entrenched segregation of blacks in northern cities became inevitable and tragic. Thus, we have large scale riots in dozens of northern cities (Newark, Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland) and we are able to see how the reaction and backlash among many whites played out. So, in places like Cicero, Illinois, we see the large story that runs throughout "Nixonland" played out on a small scale. It was here that I found myself less certain about the culpability of those on the left for the backlash that emerged on the right. While its easier to question the tactics of those opposing the war, I find myself unable to say that confronting the poverty, segregation, and discrimination that existed in these cities head on was ill adivsed. It is perhaps because of the intractability of these issues that race continues to be the one cleavage described in "Nixonland" that endures stronger than the others to this day.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2010
Perlstein has provided wonkish biography, variegated character study, cultural critique, and political forensic analysis in this retrospective of Richard Nixon's ascension within the politically and socially fractured United States of the 1960s that devolved into a trajectory of self-destruction that culminated in Watergate. No anti-Nixon screed; *Nixonland* fairly notes the corruption, dishonesty, and stupidity of both left and right during this polarized era; self-righteous and blustering leftist radicals receive no less disdainful treatment than G. Gordon Liddy.
However, in documenting Nixon's toxic blend of harbored resentment, paranoia, sociopathy, and its disturbing mutual accommodation with a predominantly middle- and working-class white electorate primed for backlash against the racial and cultural progressivism of the 60s, Perlstein cannot help but show us Americans an ugly side of ourselves whose Nixonian roots are undeniable and still sending up tubers into the American political garden. (Just look at the electoral map of the last presidential election in which we elected our first black president.) Whether we want to admit it or not, there's probably a little Dick Nixon in all of us.
The closest thing to a hopeful implication I received from reading the book is that, at our worst (and Nixon was certainly one of its exemplars) we Americans, bitterly divided along an overlapping lattice of race, class, and ideology, determine political supremacy through a refined and hallowed tradition of cheap shots, back room plots, defamation, distortion, demagoguery, and unabashed lies, but at least we're not rotating juntas through political murder--yet.
Summary (relatively long and detailed; it was a huge book):
The story begins with the apparent "consensus" of modernity, tolerance, and technocratic confidence that appeared to emerge in the US in 1964 with the landslide victory of Lyndon Johnson and Democratic majorities in both houses in the mid 1960s. Republicans appeared fractured and weak as Goldwater "extremists" became dismissed by academics and the media as a fading fringe. Education reform, civil and voting rights legislation, and Great Society technocracy appeared to set a new, inevitable trajectory for American public policy. However, the Watts riots and a growing involvement in Vietnam were harbingers of the imminent collapse of these facile assumptions about the American prospect.
In the shadows of this brewing storm was former vice-president Richard Nixon, once the odds-on favorite to inherit Dwight Eisenhower's position in the oval office, but who had lost to Jack Kennedy in 1960 by a heartbreakingly narrow margin despite initially leading in the polls. Victory for someone whom Nixon viewed as a philandering, privileged, prep school pretty boy --engineered in large part by the political skullduggery of his father Joseph--was the ultimate microcosm of Nixon's personal narrative and sociology: Kennedy was the national political manifestation of the exclusive and snobby "Franklins" of his college days. He, Nixon, (who had started his own rival social club of the excluded also-rans called the "Octogonians"), was the champion of the outsiders, the Average Joes whose nascent resentment of intellectual and cultural elitism represented a massive cache of potential power if it could be tapped by the right man. Nixon was it.
Presumed to be politically retired after his failed bid for the California governorship in 1962, Nixon bided his time. Even though Goldwater's far-right 1964 presidential campaign foundered, a new generation of saavy Republicans such as unlikely future California governor Ronald Reagan (and to a more blatant extent, George Wallace types in the South) were demonstrating the power of subtle appeals to the visceral resentments and fears of the white middle class: E.g., the Civil Rights movement as a cover story for black urban crime and welfare dependency; a generation of liberal college students and anti-Vietnam war activists regarded at best as naïve dupes for Soviet style Bolshevism and at worst collaborators in its totalitarian machinations; a presumably unprecedented degree of sexual depravity, drug abuse, and godlessness among American youth; the perception of many middle class whites that school and neighborhood integration was being forced upon them by a leftist, possibly Communist influenced, liberal elite. These creative appeals to the inner "Octogonian" in "mainstream America" served as what modern political scholars call "wedges" to wrest an largely Democratic electorate into the Republican camp. They were most thoroughly articulated in Nixon's later memo (as president), ""The emerging republican majority", which outlined how the "silent majority" could be tapped as a political cash cow by appealing to law and order and "pro-America" issues.
Nixon also capitalized on the impossible dilemma LBJ faced during his term in office, as far left anti-war protestors and impatient black civil rights activists splintered the Democratic Party and set Johnson on the path to being the only sitting president not to win his party's nomination, forcing his resignation. Even though Nixon himself recognized the futility of Vietnam, he alternately abused Johnson as insufficiently tough on Communism or overreaching American involvement. (He got a boost from William Saphire of the New York Times, who published a scurrilous Nixon portrayal of LBJ's proposed peace deal with the Hanoi as a "withdrawal", which it wasn't.) In contrast, progressive Republican George Romney, who articulated the closest thing to an honest, coherent, and rational program of withdrawal, was annihilated in the Republican primaries. Harping on the issue of looming inflation, which was largely beyond Johnson's control, Nixon assailed the sitting president as part of his effort to rehabilitate his own public image and make a surprise comeback to win the 1968 presidential election. In contrast, Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey was gashed by Democrats' association with black rioters and extreme leftists going out of their way to instigate police brutality--and getting grotesque manifestations of it that often left innocent bystanders beaten or murdered, in spades--as per the 1968 Chicago convention debacle and numerous other outbreaks of unrest.
But it wasn't a cakewalk. Nixon coldly recognized that he likely benefitted from the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, whose "messy" politics and charisma, and familial legacy of heroism might have constituted a presumed mythical unifying force for the Democratic Party and possibly the nation. With Kennedy out of the picture, it looked clear to Nixon that the Republican nominee would be poised to win. (He despised the Kennedys; president reveled in the Chappaquiddick scandal involving Ted Kennedy and the dubious death of Mary Jo Kopechne.) Furthermore, despite outmaneuvering his rivals leading up to the Republican national convention in Florida, Nixon had to re-acquire the southern delegation away from Reagan, a last-minute entrant in the nomination race. He outmaneuvered Reagan to secure the delegates by promising deference to states rights on issues such as school integration (this lead to subsequent squabbles with congress over a couple of supreme court nominees--southern reactionaries hostile to integration and with histories of open racism) and a hawkish posture on Vietnam. Through subsequent skillful campaign management under Haldemen, Nixon is able to simply run out the clock against Humphrey and would have won easily in '68 were it not for third party candidate George Wallace siphoning 20 percent via the Dixiecrat vote, most of whom would have pinched their noses and voted for Nixon in a two-man race.
Once in power Nixon was fixated on projecting himself as not caring how he appeared even though he was obsessed with it. His staff and cabinet instantly became an Orwellian melodrama where everybody distrusted everybody else; Nixon obsessively wanted subordinates (especially Kennedy's leftovers from NSA) spied on. This mentality sowed the seeds of increasingly covert and cynical operations to undermine his political enemies, which would reach its apex--and Nixon's nadir--in Watergate.
As president he continued his own rendition of the radical notion of "heightening the contradictions" for political gain. With the backdrop of campus takeovers by radical blacks and antiwar protestors, the trial of the Chicago 7, and the shooting of student demonstrators by national guardsmen at Kent State, Nixon continued to publicly appeal to the inner Orthogonian in mainstream Americans, exemplified in the "silent majority" speech. The ugly American political divisions that made this a winning strategy were illustrated in events such as the unlikely alliance of New York businessmen clubbing hippie protestors with construction workers in Manhattan streets after the Kent State riots and other cases of reactionary violence against leftists.The irony was that despite this public rhetoric, Nixon actually showed some ability to effectively govern, as exemplified with the Family Welfare Act, which in essence tweaked AFDC payments to reward more work, and which was popular legislation as it appeased progressives, states' rights advocates, and incorporated the moderate ideas of DP Moynihan from his report on dysfunction in the black community.
Nixon was epically unprincipled, even sociopathic. Calculating no consideration but his own political interests he decides to flout basic economic principles and prepare for wage and price freezes right before the 72 election. Furthermore, although he had always privately argued that Vietnam was essentially unwinnable, he briefly dabbles with the idea that one massive concerted surge might finish the North and VC irregulars, granting him a Pattonesque triumph (Perlstein makes a brilliant analysis of why Nixon would identify with the character George Patton after he first viewed the movie starring George C. Scott) despite the sniveling protestations of the cringers and peace freaks. As a result, he got us involved in a wholesale military debacle in Cambodia and Laos. Less Nixon's fault was the timing of the release of "The Pentagon Papers" showing that US presidents going back to Truman had been lying habitually regarding our level of involvement and the real stakes in Vietnam; Nixon decides to personalize the attack instead of trying to portray himself as a victim of circumstance. Unable to conceive a motive any more noble than his own depraved ones, Nixon and his operators attempt to uncover whatever dark passion has motivated the leaker, war hero Daniel Ellsberg (was he a secret communist?), and discredit him through its discovery. It never dawned on them that Ellsberg's motive might have been patriotism and devotion to the truth.
It only gets worse. A rogues gallery including G. Gordon Liddy (a maverick FBI agent dismissed for being a "loose cannon" and who as an assistant prosecutor once shot a gun during court room closing testimony) become "The Plumbers"--out to sabotage liberals through various means of skullduggery, such as trying to cajole the media into "uncovering" that Kennedy was responsible for the CIA-endorsed assassination of Diem when really the architect was Ambassador (and Republican) Henry Cabodt Lodge all along.
What Democrats couldn't understand (and this regard the story is consistent with the observations of Drew Weston in *The Political Brain*), was that a large part of America identified with Nixon's paranoia about change, anxieties about race and crime, and apparent cultural degeneration -"a tangle of fear and piety"--and the sometimes brutal methods of reasserting cultural norms--such as the deadly suppression of the Attica prison riot, were not regarded as inhuman but as necessary for societal stability ("law and order".) Cultural backlash such as the Rat Pack going mainstream and conservative stars like Merle Haggard ("I'm Proud to be an Oaky from Muskogee) symbolized the appeal of Nixon's message to many.
Nixon, despite all his rhetoric about belief in the free market, follows through with the plan to blatantly violate his own avowed principles because he thinks the 90 day wage and price freeze will help reelection. The irony is that he's willing to do something that is bad for America in the long run, to help himself in the short run, because he thinks he's the only thing that can save America in the long run.
The "rat f**ing" by the Committee to Reelect the President begins in earnest with the `72 primary season. It starts with the Florida primary and the use of numerous methods of skullduggery to set the Democrats against each other in the hope of getting Wallace nominated (to splinter the Dixiecrats from the liberal wing of the party), but of course not elected president. Even with the emergence of Eugene McCarthy as an antiwar candidate harnessing the passion of young people while simultaneously tapping working class angst, the Wallace/McGovern/Humphrey democratic nomination drama takes a huge twist after the assassination attempt on Wallace. (Instantly Nixon thinks in terms of spin and exploitation, coaxing Colson out to Milwaukee to plant pro-McGovern/ leftist-radical literature in the gunman's apartment while the FBI awaits their warrant, although by then it was too late as the crime scene was secured.)
The Watergate burglary (part of the CRPs ongoing program of infiltrating and compromising Nixon's Democratic rivals) is discovered before the '72 presidential election, and even as the story begins to slowly materialize, Nixon hatchet men like RNC Chairman Bob Dole are already attempting to spin the narrative of Nixon as the victim of an activist Washington Post defaming an honest president for sinister political motives. The whole ugly story is still nascent and never has any impact in '72. With Wallace gone and the president taking the angry Dixiecrat vote for himself, he wins by 20 points and McGovern only wins Massachusetts. Even as he gloats over this last victory over the "Franklins", Nixon still finds time to grouse: Why weren't his coattails enough to win more seats in the Senate and House, where he would face Democratic majorities in the first part of his second term? He also demeans the very voters whose Orthogonian ordinariness he always tapped for political gain: They are sheep, needing a strong figure like himself to make the difficult choices to save the future of a nation--a mission he never doubted was his and whose pursuit justified any means perceived necessary.
Perstein rightly stops at this point; Watergate has been bludgeoned into triviality by numerous other treatments, and the purpose of *Nixonland* has been served. In his afterward he summarizes the successful Nixon strategy of wedging middle and working class white Orthogonians and points out its ongoing relevance not just to understanding the deep seated cultural currents of the 1960s, but how they resonate in the politics of the moment. We're still living in Nixonland.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2010
Long ago I had read enough Nixon/Watergate books for a lifetime, and probably enough about the 1960s, but for its first half Nixonland is a thrilling new take on the era because of the perspective it takes-- Nixon in exile, relentlessly (and unmistakably brilliantly) plotting his return to power, ruthlessly sabotaging LBJ on Vietnam and civil rights, nimbly exploiting the rise of the silent majority while keeping deniability about support for its most racist and unsavory elements (George Wallace had those locked up), carefully negotiating his way around rivals such as Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller so as to ensure that if they ever had their moment, it wouldn't be 1968. It's as compelling as watching Michael Corleone scheme his way around the Mafia world, but what gives it resonance-- makes it not merely another damn Nixon book-- is that it's not really about Nixon, but about Nixon as the perfect reflection of the way the times are changing and becoming more reactionary, which he in turn understands better than anyone how to exploit. It sounds complicated-- Nixon is the mirror of the silent majority which was the mirror of the hippie/peace movement-- but it makes for a brilliant perspective in practice.
Then Nixon is elected and the book settles in for a day by day, reactive and fairly jaundiced account of the Nixon administration, and something is lost-- the rest of America, actually. There's a great story to be told about how conservatism evolved during the 1970s completely under mass media radar, culminating in Reagan's election when it appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and the story would fit Perlstein's earlier themes about how blindsided 60s liberals were, but it's only half told here. And tales of infighting with Walt Hickel and Melvin Laird don't really seem all that exciting by comparison. (Maybe there's another Perlstein book on the way, about conservatism in the Reagan era, that will cover all this.)
Still, I can't say I can think of a better book on this time, because so many are still caught up in the ideological fights of the time and unable to see clearly. Perlstein is clearly liberal, and his portrait of Nixon is tinged with brimstone (did he really do nothing in office that wasn't two-faced and paranoid?), but even so, this has the feel of a fresh and clear-eyed take on the era. And on ours; it was impossible to read it and not be struck by how much LBJ's collapse in support resembled Obama's from 2008 to 2010, and for many of the same reasons. Those who hurl accusations of racism at the Tea Party should read this to see what racism actually sounds like in all its ugliness, but there's no doubt that the middle class revolt in '66-8 and the present one had roots in the same thing-- rebellion against big-government elites who were willing for OTHER people to make any sacrifice, including of the value of their homes and their sons in war, for what they thought was right. And if Nixon went from brilliant campaigner to insulated live-and-die-by-the-news-cycle type, well, he's not the last president to do so. It's one of the best books you could read on the present, too-- and even a hopeful one, since it reminds how much more peaceful our politics are even at their loudest and meanest, compared to the Summer of Love's.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 2008
Earlier this month the New York Times Book Review asked a wide range of American writers what books they would recommend to the then three remaining candidates for President of the United States. Suggested titles ranged from classical literature such as ANNA KARENINA to books on health care and economics. Conspicuous by its inclusion as one of the few contemporary books on American politics was NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein. It is an epic recounting of the political era that spanned the final third of the 20th century and continues to leave its footprint on our nation's politics and the forthcoming presidential election.
Perlstein has become a respected historian of the post-World War II American political scene. In 2001 he authored BEFORE THE STORM: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. As the title reflects, the focus was on the 1964 election battle between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. At the time, Johnson's landslide victory appeared to signal the beginning of a second New Deal era for American liberalism. But within one national election cycle, liberalism was on the wane and the movement nurtured by Goldwater seized control of American politics. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush would be the beneficiaries of the Goldwater movement. While Nixon's political career pre-dated the conservative movement, the political vacuum created by Goldwater's defeat also made possible Nixon's political rebirth.
The members of Nixon's political generation were the products of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Those experiences tempered their political philosophy and created a Republican Party that was forced to eschew economic policies identified with Herbert Hoover. Domestic politics was what elected Democrats, and Republicans were forced to become a party that built its foundation upon anti-communism. Nixon was a master at this game; using that platform he was elected first to the House of Representatives, then to the U.S. Senate and finally became Vice President. Narrowly defeated for President in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, he returned to California to seek the Governor's office in 1962. His defeat in that election resulted in his famous bitter concession when he lambasted the media and announced, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." Those words, however, were a lie, and he immediately began to plot his return to the national political stage.
But despite its title, NIXONLAND encompasses far more than the story of our 37th President. After the election of 1964, the cadre of voters who had previously been faithful supporters of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal began to leave the party. Perlstein argues that white middle-class dissatisfaction with crime, civil rights and economic woes made Republicans out of a critical mass of Democrats. Nixon exploited that anger and political disenchantment with his "Southern Strategy" of 1968. Reagan and both President Bushes refined his work to cement a solid Republican political majority.
More than a book about politics, NIXONLAND is a brilliant narrative of the entire social, political and cultural history of an era that began with optimism after World War II and turned into post-war cynicism with Vietnam. The events of the '60s and '70s --- the politics, riots, wars and assassinations --- are detailed in an exquisite style.
Political upheavals such as the elections of 1912, 1932, 1964 and 1972 are often difficult to pinpoint with accuracy. Indeed, historians frequently must identify these cataclysmic events years after the fact. While Perlstein suggests that the political revolution detailed in NIXONLAND may remain with us for another generation, there are signs that he may be incorrect. It remains to be seen whether the election of 2008 between the hopeful politics of Barack Obama and the old politics of John McCain will emerge victorious. Perlstein will be ready to offer his analysis in a future political history, for which readers can be grateful.
--- Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 2008
The best thing about this book is Pearlstein's descriptions of key but forgotten moments of the mid sixties to early seventies American trainwreck. The grousing ex-Vice President Nixon gets a tongue-lashing from a fresh-faced Roger Ailes, McGovern only allow reporters to source his desire to jettison Thomas Eagleton as that of a senior McGovern aide and Jimmy Stewart sweats at the 1972 Republican convention podium because the air conditioning had been sabotaged. There are hundreds of brief but revealing portraits that convey a sense of real people caught up in a crazy time.
As history, his thesis seems a bit forced; these critical years formed our own times. While this maybe true, I wondered how much he left out in order to convey this belief. He doesn't build an argument idea by idea but image by image. In a sense, "Nixonland" plays out like a Michael Moore documentary, compelling, absorbing, immediate but a bit too clever and clear to be completely believable.
But it is a great read and for anyone who finds Nixon one of the most fascinating political characters of the 20th century, Pearlstein gives the man a grandeur, a desperation, an unhinged quality that feels right. He has the great insight that Nixon was truly popular, loved even. He wasn't just an actor conveying an appealing blandness that made him seem safe among the crazies like Lester Maddox or the charismatics like Bobby Kennedy or the overheated like Hubert Humphrey. Nixon got people to root for him as if he was their surrogate most tellingly by creating a club for all the outsiders not welcomed by the elites who called themselves the Franklins. He named the club the Orthogonians and used it as a platform to win his college's student body presidency. It was an approach he used again and again, marshalling the forces of mass resentments to ever more political power.
But there is one thing I found myself bothered by as I read the book. How can you explain the violence of that time? There was civil rights, the student protests, police brutality, the killings in Vietnam and none of it fit neatly together but gave the era a crazy, recklessness, sensibility but it was an energized society very different from the atomized culture of today that is refracted through flat screen TVs and computer monitors. Did that violence lead to exhaustion and a reaction that made subsequent generations dubious of angry expressions of radicalism? Dubious of all radicalism? Did that violence more than anything lead to the apathy of the present day where torture and denial of due process and wars waged without scrutiny are the legacy? I feel like this disturbing question which Pearlstein's vivid and detailed reporting raises, is more than he wants to tackle yet it seems to me to be central to understanding our times.