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.