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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America Paperback – April 14, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 192 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Preface

In 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won practically the biggest landslide in American history, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes. In 1972, the Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon won a strikingly similar landslide -- 60.67 percent and 520 electoral college votes. In the eight years in between, the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire. This is a book about how that happened, and why.

At the start of 1965, when those eight years began, blood and fire weren't supposed to be a part of American culture and politics. According to the pundits, America was more united and at peace with itself than ever. Five years later, a pretty young Quaker girl from Philadelphia, a winner of a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, was cross-examined in the trial of seven Americans charged with conspiring to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"You practice shooting an M1 yourself, don't you?" the prosecutor asked her.

"Yes, I do," she responded.

"You also practice karate, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"That is for the revolution, isn't it?"

"After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible. I desperately wish it was possible."

And, several months after that, an ordinary Chicago ad salesman would be telling Time magazine, "I'm getting to feel like I'd actually enjoy going out and shooting some of these people. I'm just so goddamned mad. They're trying to destroy everything I've worked for -- for myself, my wife, and my children."

This American story is told in four sections, corresponding to four elections: in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972. Politicians, always reading the cultural winds, make their life's work convincing 50 percent plus one of their constituency that they understand their fears and hopes, can honor and redeem them, can make them safe and lead them toward their dreams. Studying the process by which a notably successful politician achieves that task, again and again, across changing cultural conditions, is a deep way into an understanding of those fears and dreams -- and especially, how those fears and dreams change.

The crucial figure in common to all these elections was Richard Nixon -- the brilliant and tormented man struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s. His story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon's character -- his own overwhelming angers, anxieties, and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos -- sparks the combustion. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about how he did it -- nothing inevitable in the idea that a president could come to power by using the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s. Indeed, he was slow to the realization. He reached it, through the 1966 election, studying others: notably, Ronald Reagan, who won the governorship of California by providing a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn't seemed like voting issues at all. If it hadn't been for the shocking defeats of a passel of LBJ liberals blindsided in 1966 by a conservative politics of "law and order," things might have turned out differently: Nixon might have run on a platform not too different from that of the LBJ liberals instead of one that cast them as American villains.

Nixon's win in 1968 was agonizingly close: he began his first term as a minority president. But the way he achieved that narrow victory seemed to point the way toward an entire new political alignment from the one that had been stable since FDR and the Depression. Next, Nixon bet his presidency, in the 1970 congressional elections, on the idea that an "emerging Republican majority" -- rooted in the conservative South and Southwest, seething with rage over the destabilizing movements challenging the Vietnam War, white political power, and virtually every traditional cultural norm -- could give him a governing majority in Congress. But when Republican candidates suffered humiliating defeats in 1970, Nixon blamed the chicanery of his enemies: America's enemies, he had learned to think of them. He grew yet more determined to destroy them, because of what he was convinced was their determination to destroy him.

Millions of Americans recognized the balance of forces in the exact same way -- that America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which. By 1972, defining that order of battle as one between "people who identified with what Richard Nixon stood for" and "people who despised what Richard Nixon stood for" was as good a description as any other.

Richard Nixon, now, is long dead. But these sides have hardly changed. We now call them "red" or "blue" America, and whether one or the other wins the temporary allegiances of 50 percent plus one of the electorate -- or 40 percent of the electorate, or 60 percent of the electorate -- has been the narrative of every election since. It promises to be thus for another generation. But the size of the constituencies that sort into one or the other of the coalitions will always be temporary.

The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name -- but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.

Copyright © 2008 by Rick Perlstein

Review

Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland" digs deep into a decisive period of our history and brings back a past that is all the scarier for its intense humanity. With a firm grasp on the larger meaning of countless events and personalities, many of them long forgotten, Perlstein superbly shows how paranoia and innuendo flowed into the mainstream of American politics after 1968, creating divisive passions that have survived for decades." -- Sean Wilentz Princeton University, author of "The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008"
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 896 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner Book Company; Reprint edition (April 14, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003E7ET0S
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (192 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #884,797 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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