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.
In these cases, and in others, Perlstein is unsparing in his critique of the political failures of mid-century liberalism; I only wish he had meditated more deeply on liberalism’s policy failures as well, and at least grappled with the possibility that voters rejected liberal governance for pragmatic reasons as well as atavistic ones. But to do so might have required him to give Nixon’s Republican Party—if not Nixon himself—more credit for restoring domestic tranquillity than I imagine he thinks the GOP deserves. Indeed, a minor theme of Perlstein’s book is the extent to which domestic tranquillity has never been restored; Americans, he argues, inhabit “Nixonland” even now.
This argument is one of Perlstein’s weakest—and it’s undercut, time and again, by his own skill as a historian and a writer. The chaotic tapestry he summons up—“hard hats” slugging hippies on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street, radical priests hatching bomb plots in the steam tunnels under Washington, D.C., riots consuming city after city, and national leaders going down under assassins’ bullets—is fascinating precisely because it feels so alien to our present political climate. Indeed, the age of Bush, supposedly unrivaled in its rancor, seems like a peaceable kingdom when contrasted with the madhouse in which Richard Nixon rose to power. We have a culture war; they had a war.
It’s true that the political and cultural divides that opened in the Nixon era are with us even now. But Perlstein wants to make a larger claim than this; he wants to suggest that the violent spirit of that time has endured till now as well. “Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements?” he writes. “It would be hard to argue that they do not.” (Well, only if you treat the comment threads at Daily Kos and Free Republic as accurate barometers of the national mood, and even then it’s a stretch.) And he wants to argue that there was something unprecedented, and particularly toxic, about the new majority Nixon fashioned from the wreckage of the old. “What Richard Nixon left behind,” he writes,
was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side, the “Silent Majority” … the middle-class, middle American, suburban, exurban and rural coalition … On the other side are the “liberals,” the “cosmopolitans,” the “intellectuals,” the “professionals” … Both populations—to speak in ideal types—are equally, essentially, tragically American. And both have learned to consider the other not quite American at all.
All of this is true enough, but none of it makes Nixon’s brand of politics unique. “Positive polarization” is a trick that all majority-building politicians have to manage, and the idea that one’s political foes are not merely wrong but un-American is as old as the 1800 election, when Thomas Jefferson was accused of being a Jacobin in disguise and John Adams of smuggling aristocracy into the fledgling republic through the back door.
Indeed, few politicians mastered the art of positive polarization so well as the man whose majority Richard Nixon set out to undo. Much of Nixon’s divisive rhetoric owes an obvious debt to FDR—the Roosevelt who pitted the “forgotten man” against the “economic royalists”; who pledged “to restore America to its own people”; who scapegoated businessmen and Wall Street as relentlessly as Richard Nixon scapegoated intellectuals and media mandarins (if we remember Nixon as a vastly more polarizing figure than FDR, it’s perhaps because his targets were more likely to end up writing history books); and who anticipated Spiro Agnew in his broadsides against an un-American elite: “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
What distinguished Nixon from FDR wasn’t his attempt to craft a new majority through a politics of division; it was what he did with that majority once he won it—which is to say, precious little. He promised “peace with honor” in Vietnam and a neoconservatism avant la lettre at home; he delivered four more years of bloody, unsuccessful warfare overseas and a continuation, flavored with cynicism and bad faith, of Johnson’s Great Society. His political victories demonstrated that a right-of-center realignment was possible, but his administration’s paranoia and criminality left the realignment for later, less tormented politicians to achieve. Roosevelt polarized the country, but for a purpose, and left the New Deal as a monument to his political achievements; Nixon’s principal monument was Watergate.
And yet one doesn’t have to excuse Nixon’s many sins to wonder whether his mix of ruthlessness, self-interest, and low cunning might have been preferable to some of the alternatives on offer. Perlstein depicts a country on the edge of a civil war—a nation in which columnists openly speculated that America might embrace a de Gaulle–style man on horseback, or find a “President Verwoerd” (the architect of South African apartheid) to install in the Oval Office. It was a political moment when the old order could no longer govern, and the new order wasn’t ready. The kids who screamed for Goldwater and McGovern would grow up to be responsible Reaganites and Clintonians, but back then they had only idealism, not experience, and Nixonland is an 800-page testament to the dangers of idealism run amok.
In this climate, the voters didn’t choose Nixon over some neoconservative or neoliberal FDR; no such figure was available. They chose Nixon over an exhausted establishment on the one hand—nobody seems more hapless in Nixonland than figures like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller—and the fantasy politics of left and right on the other. They chose Nixon over the abyss.
Perlstein sometimes seems to suggest that Nixon was the abyss, and that by choosing him we vanished into it. But this misunderstands contemporary America, and it misunderstands Dick Nixon. A cynic in an age of zeal, a politician without principles at a moment that valued ideological purity above all, he was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny-ante; and his spirit too cowardly, too self-interested, too venal to make him truly dangerous. And he was a bridge, thank God, to better times. Could America have done better? Perhaps. But on the evidence of Nixonland, we could have done far worse as well.