The rise and fall of President Richard Nixon has often been reconsidered and retold to bring out its Shakespearean elements. Hubris, paranoia, intense rivalry, attempted usurpations and multiple treacheries, all centered around a figure with a dense and dark psychology: such ingredients of tragedy have proved irresistible bait for biographers, playwrights, and filmmakers, for whom this man Richard may just as easily have been the Duke of Gloucester as President of the United States. It is with that tradition in mind that Rick Perlstein’s new book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, may be said to be the first account to emphasize the Miltonic aspects of Nixon’s life and his role in the history of postwar America. Repeatedly rejected, Perlstein’s story goes, by the slick, handsome, well-connected Franklins of the world (so called after the Whittier College fraternal club that denied him admission), Nixon rebelled by personifying the frustrations and resentments that the silent but majority middle-class American harbored against the satisfied liberal Eastern-establishment consensus. This premise inevitably plays out with Nixon finally in 1968 and again in 1972 winning the responsibility of the nation’s highest office, only to lose it on account of the same resentment and distrust that he played for votes, bequeathing to our generation a political alignment and corresponding frame of discourse fractured and remade in his image.
But of course, history is more complicated than any Manichean allegory, and Persltein, a young historian known for his novelist’s prose style as well as his first-rate scholarship, is too smart to fall into any Great Man pattern of understanding events. The dichotomy of Franklins vs. Orthogonians (the author’s term taken after the club Nixon founded at Whittier for those like him who couldn’t be Franklins) is just a frame around which he weaves the story of the way, under the pressures of the civil rights movement, generational strife and the threat (perceived or real) of revolution, our two main political parties abandoned their former geographical and economic-interest coalitions for loyalties built on mutual resentment. Nixon was the catalyst, not the cause, of this realignment. As Perlstein himself writes, the real protagonist of Nixonland “is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else… seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
Perlstein’s emphasis on American political culture as a whole bares itself in the way his book is structured around four election years—1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972—rather than the whole of Richard Nixon’s life, the arc of which having previously proved a goldmine of psychological speculation for the likes of Robert Altman and Oliver Stone. Nixonland’s first section races through Nixon’s early life and even much of his political career, making only veritable whistle-stops at moments it would be irresponsible to ignore: the young deaths of two brothers, including his parents’ favorite son, Harold; his hard-scrabble upbringing and college years; his first congressional victory and rise to prominence during the Alger Hiss trial; and his tenure as Eisenhower’s Vice-President, which may not have happened save for the famous televised “Checkers speech” that kept him on the election ticket; and, of course, his historically close defeat before John F. Kennedy in 1960.
The real beginning of Nixonland comes after Barry Goldwater’s crushing loss to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election (which was the subject of Perlstein’s first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, to which Nixonland is a sequel of sorts). Nixon had sat out that election, needing time to repair his stature after losing the California governor race in 1962. Perlstein builds Nixon’s bid for the 1968 Republican nomination and then the presidency over two hundred pages into a crescendo of escalating domestic and foreign instability, which Nixon internalized and sublimated into his law-and-order campaign, conflating the personal and national stakes: “Richard Nixon was offering the American people peace. If they rejected Richard Nixon, it was because they were willing to accept… war. Their greed—‘their pocketbooks and welfare’—would have gotten the better of them. Thus did he prepare himself for a likely eventuality: that, once more, he would lose. That he would always be known as the loser the rest of his life. Something, anything to redeem the dread: if he lost, he was telling his family, it would be because America has proven herself unworthy of his idealism.”
The conventions of 1968—the Republicans’ in Miami and especially the Democrats’ in Chicago—provide a dramatic centerpiece for the book’s first half. Perlstein gives a rousing narrative account, judiciously employing anecdotes whenever possible to flesh out the action, and adding the peripheral details that give the sense of real life going on around the familiar facts. One such is the seeming non sequitur that when John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam war film The Green Berets opened in Manhattan, the psychedelic pro-LSD and anti-square Wild in the Streets was playing simultaneously in a theatre a block away. “It was coming to this,” Perstein comments: “insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated.” That is, the shattered national culture was being pump-primed for all the pent-up aggression to combust into head-cracking when demonstrators faced the police in Chicago.
All throughout the book Perlstein revels in the anecdotal, and in the second half, which takes off after Nixon’s slim victory in ’68 and ends just after his landslide victory in 1972, the tidbits start to take shape as part of the bigger picture. The primary purpose of it all is to bring back into focus some of the loose threads of history that have been neglected in the popular narrative about the era. Everybody remembers foremost the anti-war marches and LSD, Woodstock and the Weathermen. Perlstein is committed to resurrecting the memory of the other side of civil unrest at the time: the “hard hat riot” where construction workers beat hippie protesters in the middle of Wall Street, earning in the end the approving notice of the president; the would-be patriots who burned an American flag because it had been flown half-mast in memory of Allison Krause, who was killed at Kent State; the longhaired youth in New Mexico, who, after being arrested for violating an antiquated “lewd cohabitation” law made a limping escape from the jailhouse, only to be shot in the back of the head by a guard with a Dirty Harry complex.
Perlstein shows that it was Nixon and his singular genius for identifying the “subterranean dynamics” beneath the surface of events that allowed him and his administration to so successfully parlay all this inter-citizenry enmity into electoral success in ’72. “Part of Richard Nixon dreamed of world peace,” Perlstein summarizes. “Part of him gave the public something it wanted even more: an outlet for their hatreds… They identified with Richard Nixon—not despite the anxieties and dreads that drove him, but because of them.” Leading by example with his and his Vice-President Agnew’s verbal attacks on their enemies, the anti-war liberals in league with “the smelly longhairs who burned down buildings,” he reorganized the mainstream political axis so as to render irreconcilable opposing opinions on any issue and made bitterness the standard tenor of inter-party debate. Simultaneously, of course, this new personal politics played itself out behind the Oval Office’s closed doors, and led to the string of crimes against Nixon’s perceived enemies, which came to a climax with the Watergate break-in and cover-up.
It is remarkable that Perlstein, a polemical liberal blogger by day, has written a book that has received overwhelming positive notices from even very conservative reviewers. Much of the appeal must come from the book’s style, its anecdotal structure and neutrally authoritative narrative voice. Perlstein’s style resists the tendency to ideological theorizing. That is, he almost never gets ahead of himself by interrupting his story to interject with hindsight analysis. Rather, he writes in a way that treats his subjects’ motives in good faith, and so disarms the reader of any persuasion into laughing along when Ronald Reagan defines a hippie as someone “who dresses like Tarzan, has hair like Jane, and smells like Cheetah” just as easily as booing and hissing at the segregationist Dixiecrats Perlstein insists on calling “gargoyles.” Perlstein’s voice is borrowed from a number of classic narrative histories, but probably none so much as William Manchester’s unjustly out of print The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America 1932-1972, which was similarly encyclopedic in its chronicling American culture as well as politics. That book was written during the crucial first years of Nixonland, and perhaps can be thought of as a last gasp of the consensus-minded approach to American history. Perhaps, too, then, the consensus around the quality of Perlstein’s new book about such a divisive figure and era may herald a break in the darkness (“darkness visible,” as Milton might have it) of Richard Nixon’s long shadow.