By Rick PerlsteinScribner
Illustration by Steve Brodner
Seven years ago, Rick Perlstein, a young and decidedly left-wing historian, accomplished a daring feat: he imagined his way into the hearts and minds of the right-wing idealists who made Goldwaterite conservatism one of the most successful mass movements of the 1960s. The result was Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, a richly detailed narrative of the 1964 election, and a dense and dizzying account of a moment when America was teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown but didn’t know it yet.
Now Perlstein has produced a sequel. If Before the Storm was a near-masterpiece, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, which covers the turbulent years from Goldwater’s defeat to Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory, is merely a great success. It labors under handicaps his first book didn’t have: whereas Before the Storm dealt with a circumscribed and neglected moment (who remembers Dr. Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, or the presidential boomlet for William Warren Scranton?), Nixonland tackles the most obsessed-over era in recent American history. Any book that rolls Woodstock and Watergate, the death of RFK and the Tet Offensive, Jane Fonda and George Wallace, and a cast of thousands more into a mere 800 pages or so is bound to sprawl and sag a bit, to rush too quickly through some topics and linger too long with others.
Even so, Nixonland reads marvelously. Perlstein has the rare gift of being able to weave social, political, and cultural history into a single seamless narrative, linking backroom political negotiations to suburban protests over sex education in schools to the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde. And he has the eye of a great documentarian, fastening not only on the obvious historical set pieces (Kent State, Watts, Attica), but on the not-so-obvious ones as well. A National Association of Governors cruise, late in 1967, featuring George Romney “dressed like Xavier Cugat” on the dance floor, Ronald and Nancy Reagan sipping crème de menthes nearby, and Nelson Rockefeller chewing on seasickness pills and denying, yet again, that he has any designs on the presidency. A White House concert in ’72 in which one of the backup singers suddenly plucked a Stop the Killing banner from her décolletage and told Richard Nixon, “If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.” A McGovern fund-raiser at which Simon and Garfunkel goaded the crowd to boo the patrons in the most-expensive seats, and Peter, Paul, and Mary invited everyone present to “take your place on the great mandala.”
The hinge of the book is a chapter-length account of the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention, told from the vantage point of the American living room—a scene-by-scene, blow-by-blow account of what the average American might have seen if he or she had flicked on NBC at a quarter past four on the day Hubert Humphrey was nominated for president. It’s the most riveting description of a television broadcast you’ll ever read.
Perlstein has a documentarian’s ear as well. He nails the split personality of Bobby Kennedy—the New Politics saint and the old-school political brawler—with a pair of apposite quotations, one from a New Republic profile that compared the young senator’s political style to a hippie “happening” and gushed over his flair for “sudden, spontaneous, half-understood acts of calculated risk”; and the other from Eldridge Cleaver, who wrote of RFK:
I had seen that face so many times before—hard, bitter, scurvy—all those things I had seen in his face on the bodies of nighttime burglars who had been in prison for at least ten years.
He sums up three decades’ worth of Hollywood political activism in one tone-deaf Warren Beatty remark from 1972: “A great deal of the leadership of this generation comes from music and film people, whether people like that fact or not.” He captures the essence of Richard Nixon’s career in a single aside to Leonard Garment: “You’ll never make it in politics, Len. You just don’t know how to lie.”
And he knows how to conjure the characters you’ve never heard of as well as the ones you expect. Not only Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden and the rest of the Chicago Seven defendants, but Thomas Aquinas Foran, one of the prosecutors in the case, a pal of (the by-now-murdered) Bobby Kennedy and a living embodiment of backlash. Not only John Lindsay, the media darling whose disastrous mayoralty helped run New York City into a ditch—Perlstein quotes a New York Times op-ed describing Central Park under Lindsay as “a combination of decadence and barbarism; a cut-rate FelliniSatyricon”—but Barry Gray, the father of talk radio, who had crusaded against McCarthyism in the ’50s but attacked Lindsay from the right over law and order when the mayor, amid riots, tried to impose a Civilian Complaint Review Board on the NYPD. Not just George McGovern, who chaired the commission that took the Democratic Party away from the union leaders and urban bosses, but Fred Dutton, the commission intellectual who envisioned a new Democratic coalition shorn of blue-collar reactionaries and anchored by the votes of minorities and newly enfranchised 20-somethings.
And Richard Nixon, of course, the dominant presence in the book, brooding over all of them—a “brilliant and tormented man,” Perlstein writes, “struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation.” The man who harnessed the furies, and found himself destroyed by them.
Nixonland is a historical narrative worth savoring—but one worth arguing with as well. Perlstein sets out to challenge what he terms “certain hegemonic narratives” of the ’60s. But, perhaps inevitably, he tends to be tougher on right-wing shibboleths—the notion that all of the era’s violence was left-wing; the idea that the media snatched away victory in Vietnam—than on liberal ones. Nixonland offers a vastly more nuanced account of how the New Deal coalition came apart than the predictable left-liberal story of noble Democrats undone by ruthless, race-baiting Republicans. (I’m looking at you, Paul Krugman.) But while Perlstein criticizes the liberal establishment for its self-satisfaction and naïveté—for believing that “if only Nixon’s people could truly see reason … their prejudices would melt away, their true interests would be recognized”—he still leaves the impression that when it came to public policy, mid-century liberalism almost always did have reason on its side.
So for instance, Nixonland nods at the skyrocketing crime statistics that made appeals to “law and order” more than just a racist code. But Perlstein is more interested in cataloging political violence than in counting up muggings and break-ins and murders, and he sometimes leaves the reader to assume that the post-1950s spike in lawlessness was an epiphenomenon of urban rioting, campus protest, and right-wing vigilantism, and that liberal misgovernment had little or nothing to do with it. Or again, marveling at the chutzpah of a Nixon campaign advertisement that juxtaposed Hubert Humphrey’s image with shots of Appalachian poverty, Perlstein writes: “Fighting poverty had been Hubert Humphrey’s greatest contribution to American public life. They were attacking him at his greatest strength.” But attacking the Democrats on poverty was prescient as well as brazen: Humphrey was running as the heir to Lyndon Johnson’s martial, free-spending approach to fighting poverty, which would end up producing at-best-ambiguous results.