Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President & the Fracturing of America


One of my more recent posts reviewed Robert Caro's The Passage of Power--The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and I found it a remarkable work. That reading prompted me to go back to a book that I started but had left, although I had found it quite good, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. In short, one great book led me to another. 

However, before I get into the crux of my review, two points by way of an introduction. First, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson were  the two most influential and significant politicians of post WWII America during their time in office. (Ike was really a relic of an earlier era, and JFK was like a streaking meteor, significant but so brief). Second, I think that I need to digress into my personal history to help the reader understand my fascination with Nixonland in particular.

In 1960, I supported Richard Nixon for president. 

I was in the second grade. 

I had attended a Nixon campaign stop in Red Oak with my parents. They supported Nixon, of course (my mom's Catholicism notwithstanding). My parents woke me after I'd gone to bed to tell me that Nixon had lost.

From there, my Republican bona fides continued as follows: sometime in 1961 or 1962, Republican governor Norm Erbe came to our house, and he gave me an autographed copy of the Iowa Official Register.  (I thought it a great gift.) I attended election returns with my father at  KMA, the local radio station, in 1962. In 1964 I attended the Republican national convention in San Francisco that nominated Barry Goldwater as its presidential candidate. I'm happy to report that we attended because my father worked for rival candidate William Scranton, then governor of Pennsylvania.
Also, sometime that year, I attended the Page County Republican convention, where there was a move afoot to oust my dad as Page County Republican Central Committee chairman by the Goldwaterites. He prevailed, despite his connection with the moderate Scranton. In 1966, I served as a page at the state party convention. In 1968, I attended the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach with my father (who went to sell political surveys, run a charter group, and hobnob with party leaders). That convention nominated Richard Nixon for president, and later that year he was elected president. I was a sophomore in high school. 

When Nixon ran for reelection in 1972, I was a sophomore college at the University of Iowa, a very different place from Shenandoah in Page County--very different. I had been exposed to a lot of new perspectives, and I changed many of my perspectives, although not radically so. I worked on behalf of the moderate Republican congressman in that district, Fred Schwengel (he lost). Jack Miller, the U.S. senator, was also up for reelection, but I pulled the trigger for his Democratic challenger, Dick Clark. (I'd met Miller, too, but by that time I thought him a dud.) And for president, I had to choose between George McGovern and Nixon. When I went to vote . . .  I couldn't mark the ballot for either one of them because I found both of them deeply flawed. I left it blank. 

Less than two years after that lop-sided election, Richard Nixon fell from power. I got married about a week later, and I continued my gradual drift toward the political left. The Republican Party, in the meantime, began lurching to the far right, where it is today. 

I share all of this with you to help you understand why I found this book so fascinating. Much of it recounts events that occurred while I was in grade school, junior high, and high school. And while I followed politics much more closely than my peers, I was also quite caught up with sports, school, friends, and (eventually) girls (one in particular). I can look back on this era and realized how crazy, out of control, and momentous it all was. How Richard Nixon was truly the figure of Shakespeare's Richard III, who could "set the murderous Machiavel to school." The liberals (most Democrats and even some Republicans), on the other hand, were naive, foolish, and given to the greatest hubris. Middle America was scared, and rightly so.

Perlstein presents this history using the figure of Richard Nixon as the central barometer of the age (the "plastic man" as Garry Wills dubbed him). Perlstein recounts a wide variety of events: urban riots, Viet Nam protests, civil rights demands, and cultural changes through reviewing the original sources, such as newspaper accounts, as well as going back and reading what the many commissions and investigations reported (and which were overwhelmingly ignored). Events like the Chicago Democratic Convention was marked by radicals, clowns, mobs, and police riots (yes, you read that correctly). The political world was in chaos. The Democrats were a mess. 

If all of this wasn't scary enough, the election of Richard Nixon marks the assent of a deeply troubled--and troubling-- man into the White House. Nixon said (and did) some things in public that seemed eminently reasonable and rational. He figured himself a Disraeli-like reforming Tory, but in private, he was, as he always had been, a "serial collector of resentments" (a term that someone coined but I can't recall whom and I don't have a copy of Perlstein's book to check the reference. Sorry.) He was nearly paranoid and often vengeful. And from this, came the incrediblely stupid, venal,  and disgraceful matter of Watergate. Perlstein deals with it all, step by step. 

All of this is relevant today. History is the flow of the river of time, and what occurs upstream flows downstream, adulterated and reduced, but in this case, still visible. The culture wars seem to have played themselves out, at least as an outcome determinative matter in elections, and economic issues will likely be the measure of this election. Also, there appears to be the growing perception that Obama is a man of restraint and moderation. Romney, on the other hand, must carry the ideological baggage of the political right while he sees the world through the eyes of privilege at the highest levels of society. Many voters seem to sense the disconnect. Anyway, how we arrived at the political environment today comes through this turbulent era and through this vexing man Richard Nixon. Pearlstein does a superb job of recounting how it all unfolded. 

A terrific book.

One of Perlstein’s most important and acknowledged sources is Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, one of my all-time favorite books. The Inscrutable Panda tells me it’s still recommended for students of American politics by faculty at her university, to attest to its measure. If you find this topic engaging, I highly recommend this book to you.