Sunday, September 15, 2013


A review of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)

(Rating 4 of 5)

There is the Great Man Theory of history and there is Social (bottom up) Theory history.  Rick Perlstein gives us both with Nixonland .  He tells the story of how America seemed in the middle of a ‘liberal consensus’ with the Johnson landslide in 1964, and how the tide changed into a reverse landslide in 1972.   Nixon's reelection and even set the stage for greater conservative triumphs in the 1980s.  In Nixonland the reader views a transformation of the United States from the top to the bottom. 

In 1964, Johnson had crushed Goldwater in the election.  Since the rise of the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt, the liberals had reigned.  Even the one Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been a moderate and, in some ways, an open liberal. But that liberal empire was about to fall, first the Vietnam War would tear the liberal alliance apart, then the extremism of various factions combined with a social white backlash against the progress of minorities at perceived expensive of themselves.

There is a lot enjoyed about this book, Perlstein doesn’t write in a ‘professional’ manner; he writes more like he is just talking to you.  (Which, I find refreshing.) With that said it is not always an easy read, for he often speaks using cultural allusions that if you don’t catch you might be a little lost. I really like how Perlstein refers to the movies of the time period and how each influenced a particular side in the culture war.  Good examples were Bonnie and Clyde influencing the young radicals and Patton influencing conservatives like Nixon.  (Although, I thought Perlstein’s statement about Planet of the Apes was a bit off.)  
“The lies went back to Harry Truman, the article explained.  Military aid to France had ‘directly involved’ the United States in preserving a European colony; the Eisenhower administration played ‘a direct role in the ultimate breakdown in the Geneva settlement’ and the cancellation of free elections scheduled for 1956. (President Nixon always said honoring Geneva was the reason we had to continue the war.) Kennedy—this in the Pentagon’s study’s words—transformed the ‘limited-risk gamble’ he had inherited into a ‘broad commitment.’  Lyndon Johnson laid plans for full-fledged war as early as the spring of 1964—campaigning against Barry Goldwater with the line ‘We seek no wider war.’
            What became known as the Pentagon Papers—three thousand pages of historical narrative and four thousand pages of government documents—was shocking to all but the most hardened antiwar cynics.  The expansion into genuine warfare began, the Times summarized, ‘despite the judgment of the government’s intelligence community that the measures would not cause Hanoi to cease its support of the Viet Cong insurgency in the South…The bombing was deemed militarily ineffective within a few months.’ To catalog the number of times Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon looked the American people squarely in the eye and said the exact opposite would require another book.” (p.574)

This book was published in 2008 as President Obama was going to have his triumph victory—a confirmation of the legacy of both the 1960s and 1860s.  In the last forty years right had reorganized, unified, and then complexly collapsed by the end of the first fifteen years of the 21st century.  In some ways the new right of this current decade reminds me of the left of 70s.  Not similar in ideology of course, but in their approach to politics. 

“The New Politics reformers had fantasized a pure politics, a politics of unyielding principle—andantipolitics.  But in the real world politics without equivocation or compromise is impossible.  Thus an unintended consequence for the would-be antipolitician.  Announcing one’s inflexibility sabotages him in advance.  Every time he makes a political decision, he looks like a sellout.  The reformers fantasized an open politics, in which all points of view had time to be heard.  That meant that Tuesday session adjourned eleven hours after it began, at 6:15 a.m.—a fortunate thing, coolheaded Democratic strategists decided, terrified over what this all looked like on TV.” (p.695-6)
In the end I would highly recommend this book, it describes precisely how the country was knocked off track.  It doesn’t offer any solutions but it doesn’t have to, for it is descriptive not prescriptive.  Nixonland represents an embrace of extremes and a failure to listen.  

(Video was posted by on YouTube by Simon and Schuster)

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