A crook's tour
Rick Perlstein captures the divisive political moment of Richard Nixon.
Wed May 14 2008
Photograph: K. A. Westphal
Since 1952, when Richard Nixon first won America’s heart by trotting the family cocker spaniel Checkers onto national TV, smart people of good conscience have been trying to figure out how average citizens could keep falling for such an unctuous cretin. In Nixonland, his almost-900-page examination of Tricky Dick’s moment, historian Rick Perlstein proposes an answer that flips a standard interpretation on its head: “America awarded Nixon his landslide 1972 victory not in spite of the paranoias and dreads that produced Watergate, but in some ways because of them.”
Nixonland picks up where Perlstein’s incredible history of the origins of movement conservatism, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, left off. LBJ has just won the biggest electoral victory in a generation. Liberal good feeling reigns. But within a couple short years, Nixon has snaked and triangulated his way to becoming the primary manipulator and beneficiary of middle America’s violent backlash against liberal “excesses” like open-housing laws, accelerated school integration, sex ed, campus radicalism and a promiscuous intellectual establishment that confronts smoldering cities with vaporous social theories. In 1968, Nixon and third-party Alabama segregationist George Wallace net 57 percent of the vote between them. Four years later, with Wallace knocked out by a would-be assassin’s bullet, Nixon coasts to a 49-state, 23-point obliteration of mild-mannered prairie progressive George McGovern.
“Nixon was the man meant for the moment,” says Perlstein, 38, who lives with his wife in Chicago, contributes to numerous publications such as The New York Times and The Nation, and is a fellow at the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “He had a unique combination of resentments, and liberals had no answer for the kind of anger Nixon and Agnew tapped into.”
Perlstein traces his interest in the polarizing political culture of the ’60s to teenage years he spent in the basement of his native Milwaukee’s Renaissance Bookstore, rooting through old issues of Ramparts magazine and the John Birch Society’s newsletters, taking home books with titles like The Marxist Minstrels: A Handbook of the Communist Subversion of Music. “I’m interested in why people believe what they believe, on both sides,” he says.
Many political biographies take place on the Planet of Fascinating Great Men. And Nixon has always been one of its freakier inhabitants: an ever-shifting black cloud of rage, guile and villainy who once bulldozed the White House tennis court to spite an uppity aide who enjoyed using it. “He was kind of like the Brain on Steven Spielberg’s cartoon Pinky and the Brain,” says Perlstein. But Nixonland expands beyond the evil genius at its center to incorporate just about every major event of the age: Watts, Berkeley, Attica, Woodstock, Kent State and, of course, the Dickster’s twin sticky wickets, Vietnam and Watergate, as well as pop-culture watersheds like Bonnie and Clyde, Sgt. Pepper’s and Patton. Perlstein re-creates a palpable sense of unrest and divisiveness, from a scene of hard-hats beating longhairs on Wall Street with pipes wrapped in American flags to a tragicomic 1969 SDS meeting in which rival revolutionary cells drown each other out with chants of “Fight male chauvinism!” and “Read Mao! Read Mao!” The book hinges on a chapter that relives the 1968 Democratic convention through the beer-goggled eyes of an apolitical couch jockey watching America come unglued on TV.
“I went through the book and counted the times people on either the left or right call each other Nazis,” Perlstein says. “It happens dozens of times. I also counted the times each side used sexual impotence to describe the other side. The final tally was six to six. That’s Nixonland—two mutually irreconcilable viewpoints trying to occupy the same country.”
Perlstein vividly evokes every moment he barrels through, adding new wrinkles to familiar events. He’s excellent at finding nail-biting drama in legislative battles, delegate-count seesaws and backroom “nut-cutting” sessions. Before the Storm’s most amazing passage takes place at a 1964 Young Republicans convention where buzz-cut ideologues turn a floor fight into a hockey brawl. Nixonland’s best bit is a description of the ruinously fractious 1972 Democratic National Convention, where insurgent lefties take over the hall, yelling “The aisles belong to the people!,” and Shirley MacLaine buttonholes Gloria Steinem: “If you people had your way you’d have George supporting everyone’s right to fuck goats.”
Today, the bloody divisions Nixon capitalized on seem to be evaporating into little more than annoying media memes about Beer America versus Wine America. But then a Reverend Wright or ex–Weather Underground member pops up, and all the rank old leftovers are back on the menu. “When I was covering the 2004 election I was going to write a piece about how the culture wars of the ’60s were over,” he says. “Lately, I’m not so sanguine.”
Nixonland (Scribner, $37.50) is out now. Perlstein reads Wed, May 21.