Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America Hardcover – 2008
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Top Customer Reviews
This is a balanced account that should stand as the definitive history of the events.
McGovern was truly a babe in the woods confronted by this evil, self-engrossed, two-tounged "politician". Eisenhower was right to turn away from Nixon. Unfortunately, Nixon couldn't take a hint like other gentleman would because Nixon was no gentleman. A sad, sad period in the history of the US as well as for the world.
Ironically, while many American boys evaded the draft in Canada, about the same number of Canadian boys volunteered for the US Forces - for adventure? commitment?? and ultimately regretfully.
I like Perstein's style of footnote - there are none to distract you, but sources are easily identified by going to the italiced words in the appropriate chapter reference at the end of the book.
On "Tricky Dicky" Nixon himself, Perlstein keeps his interpretations pretty close to the standard biographical history. In fact, most of his research comes from standard secondary sources and newspapers. What we read of Nixon is a man or anger, resentment, and constant paranoia of the inevitable. All stuff that has pretty much been validated before.
At a mammoth 750 pages, "Nixonland" is a tough slough. I do believe it is a rather casual read as Perlstein avoids big words and chooses to write in a readable colloquial style. If you enjoy reading about 1960s culture and politics, you'll thoroughly enjoy Perlstein's latest book.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.