Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of
By Rick Perlstein
(Scribner, 881 pages, $37.50)
Reviewed by Tom Charles Huston
RICK PERLSTEIN’S NIXONLAND has been inexplicably well received by people who should know better. There are three reasons for this lapse of critical judgment:
• Perlstein’s narrative style—fast-moving, bombastic, and heavily anecdotal—has dramatic flair; Perlstein is, as Dominic Sandbrook noted in the Telegraph, “a gifted and exciting storyteller.”
• The political class has a vested interest in the 1960s, which spawned many of the most contentious ideas with which it is currently preoccupied, and ideologues across the political spectrum have dogs in the fights that Perlstein recounts with such gusto. He is occasionally clear-eyed about the arrogance, fool hardiness, and/or perniciousness of the contending forces; this is so unusual among chroniclers of the period that he succeeds in establishing a degree of credibility which, unfortunately, is not justified by a close reading of the text by anyone who actually lived through the period.
• Beating up on Richard Nixon is a widely lauded bipartisan enterprise, and Perlstein is an unrelenting and remorseless Nixon basher.
Even otherwise friendly reviewers have, however, noted certain problems with the book. There is, for example, the matter of tone. It is, as my mother would have said, “smart-alecky.” George Will has characterized it as “snarky.”
Tone is a good measure of seriousness…and of good faith. What is a grown-up to think of an author who characterizes Nixon’s father as a “dirty-necked, lusty spitfire” who affected a “peacock sense of superiority”; dismisses Bill Safire as a “flack,” Strom Thurmond as a “dirty-neck,” and Ronald Reagan as a “hypocrite” and “demagogic moralizer”; and refers to Bobby Kennedy as “Senator Love Beads”? This sort of language may be pitch-perfect for a duet with Keith Olbermann on Countdown but is hardly appropriate for an allegedly serious work of history.
Perlstein can’t control his contempt for Nixon’s middle-class constituency: The Republican functionaries in Nixon’s congressional district are “penny-ante plutocrats,” his 1950 senatorial campaign was waged in “every god-forsaken little berg in that state with so many scores of god-forsaken little bergs,” and his personal vehicle—an Oldsmobile—to which he referred in his Checkers speech was “not a stylish car. Kind of tacky even if was expensive—maybe even tackier because it was expensive. Kind of common. Though not in an Aaron Copland, ‘Fanfare of the Common Man,’ sort of way. A Richard Nixon kind of car.” Nor can Perlstein muster even the semblance of even-handedness in his description of the players in his drama: Sam Ervin, Nixon’s nemesis, is described by Perlstein as “a segregationist of the old school,” while Strom Thurmond, Nixon’s supporter, is described as a “thorough going racist gargoyle.”
Then there is the matter of facts. Occasional errors are inevitable in a work of history, often the result of haste or poor editing. Playing “gotcha” over a few insignificant mistakes is hardly fair play; but there is a point at which the frequency of factual errors raises the legitimate question of whether the author is a scholar or a transcriber. It may not be important that when Paul Douglas received the racially insensitive letters that Perlstein uses to such dramatic effect he was the senior senator from Illinois, not, as Perlstein twice insists, the junior senator; or that Sam Ervin was not, as the author claims, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; or that the Texan Ralph Yarborough was not a congressman, as he states on one page, but a senator, as he correctly notes on a much later page; or that Senator Kuchel had only 15 (not 18) years of seniority when he was defeated for re-nomination (he was appointed by Earl Warren in 1953 to fill Nixon’s unexpired term); or that the GOP picked up four, not two, Senate seats in the 1970 midterm elections, but such errors do suggest a lack of grounding in the politics of the Nixon era. Indeed, his understanding of American politics since World War II is suspect when he describes eastern Tennessee, Republican since the Civil War, as “heavily Dixified,” or Indiana in 1968 as a “toss-up state.”
While most errors are likely the result of the author’s shallow understanding of American political history, some appear to be dictated by the ideological imperatives of his narrative. For example, Perlstein “credits” Nixon with accomplishing something in 1968 that “no other Republican presidential candidate, with minor exceptions,” had ever done before: win electoral votes in the South. Actually, this was one “historic first” that even Nixon didn’t claim, as previous Republican candidates had done as well (or nearly so) as he did in winning five Southern states in 1968: Herbert Hoover won five in 1928, Eisenhower carried four in 1952 and five in 1956, Nixon won three in 1960, and Goldwater took five in 1964. Why such a blatant error? Well, Perlstein is out to convince the reader that Nixon in 1968 pandered to racists in Dixie, and giving Nixon “credit” for his electoral success in the South helps make (as in “make up”) the case.
What might be called “comparative error” is a tool in Perlstein’s work kit that he uses to further another narrative objective: denigrating Nixon as a person and as a political figure. Perlstein notes that at the 1968 Republican national convention Nixon received on the first ballot “only 26 more [votes] than 50%” and, thus, the candidate “was being sent into the general election with barely the endorsement of his party.” At the convention, Nixon faced two formidable opponents: Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. In a three-way contest, he received 52 percent of the delegate votes on the first ballot, besting his closest competitor (Governor Rockefeller) 2.5 to 1. Excluding votes for favorite sons (many of which would have been available if required), Nixon received 60 percent of the votes cast, with Rockefeller garnering 24 percent and Reagan 16 percent. No Republican left Miami in 1968 believing that Nixon lacked the full backing of his party.
Perlstein plays the same game with the general election result, claiming that Nixon’s success “was barely a victory…only five or so points more than Barry Goldwater’s humiliating share in 1964.” Unnoted is that Nixon (unlike Goldwater) was again in a three-way contest. He won 43.42 percent of the popular vote, which an honest man might choose to compare not against Goldwater’s tally in his man-to-man contest with Lyndon Johnson, but against the winning percentage in other three-way races: Wilson in 1912 (41.84 percent) and Clinton in 1992 (43.01 percent). In such event, the relevant point might fairly be expressed thusly: Nixon exceeded the popular vote of Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton in their respective three-way contests. From the “historian” Perlstein? No way.
PERLSTEIN’S NIXON is a cartoon figure, not in the mode of Herblock, whose caricatures, while vicious, were nonetheless original and uncomfortably recognizable to Nixon’s friends, but plastic, one-dimensional, and unrecognizable except to the most fervid of Nixon’s enemies. Relying largely on the psycho-babble of Fawn Brodie, the partisan fury of Leonard Lurie, and the genteel animus of Richard Reeves, Perlstein left no Nixonphobic screed untapped in the process of liming his portrait of Nixon as psychotic. And when he couldn’t find a previously published damning story to lift, he made it up, as in his phony reconstruction of Nixon’s meeting with the Southern Republican state chairmen in June of 1968.
A reader expecting to learn something new (or true) about the issues that roiled the public discourse in the 1960s is bound to be disappointed. Perlstein regurgitates the standard New Left line on the war in Vietnam (the U.S. Army was “populated with imbeciles [and] led by imbeciles,” Ho Chi Minh “had no special beef with the United States”); apes Todd Gitlin’s revisionist line on the history of the New Left (“any two given New Leftists were more likely to break into fisticuffs than join in any effective conspiracy,” Bill Ayers’s night on the town was nothing more than “the bombing of the Capitol privy”); and concocts an elaborate Nixonian plot to thwart the integration of Southern schools as a payoff to Strom Thurmond while ignoring entirely the story (best told by Ray Price) of how those schools were, in fact, integrated without violence during Nixon’s first term (testified George Wallace in 1971: “the administration [i.e., Nixon] has done more to destroy [i.e., integrate] the public school system in one year than the last administration [i.e., Lyndon Johnson] did in four”).
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