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Leaving Nixonland

Finally, an even-handed history of the backlash.

By 6.13.08

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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
(Scribner, 896 pages, $37.50)

Seven years ago, William Ayers, the Weather Underground bomber-turned-leftish education scholar, published a memoir of his criminal career and embarked upon one of the most damaging promotional tours in literary history. He sat for a profile in Chicago magazine, then stood up to dance on an American flag as a photographer clicked away. He told the New York Times that he didn't regret setting bombs, in an interview that landed on doorsteps the morning of September 11.

Ayers's book, a solipsistic yawner, became a bit of a sensation. The liberals who remembered what he and the Weather Underground did got understandably worked up. When Ayers arrived at a reading in Evanston, Illinois, one of those liberals confronted him about it.

"I personally spent all of 1972 working all day and all night to elect George McGovern," the former activist said, "and I will tell you that your tactics made it harder to vote the Richard Nixons out of office."

"I'm not going to disagree," Ayers said, disagreeing with him. "The American people did vote, three times, to end the war. We voted for Johnson because Goldwater had his finger on the trigger... and then we voted for Nixon as the anti-war candidate, and he also escalated it. It would be a big stretch to say that the left brought McGovern down."

WELL, NOT THAT BIG of a stretch. The Weathermen make several appearances in Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. They are the ultimate examples of left-wingers who crippled their cause with violence, overreaction, and a general need to frighten Middle Americans.

Take one example from early 1971. The U.S. Senate was responding to the Army's scandalous abuse of spying, against such hot targets as Arlo Guthrie and Adlai Stevenson III, and civil libertarians had the upper hand. But the Weathermen had just bombed the Capitol building, giving Nebraska Republican Roman Hruska a ladder onto the moral high ground when he defended the spying.

"The people," Hruska said, "must receive every protection possible against those elements who consider even the United States Capitol Building as a legitimate object of their violence."

Perlstein, a man of the left who has accused George W. Bush of "stealing our democratic birthright," is also America's best living historian of the conservative movement.

He has achieved this, in part, with exhaustive research. Nixonland, like its predecessor Before the Storm (the best history of conservatism in the years around Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign), is a trove of original documents, primary sources, long-forgotten magazine clips, interviews, and archived letters. Perlstein often pays tribute to the "iron-assed will" of Richard Nixon, who could sit for hours to win poker hands. He could be talking about his own ability to lock himself in a library.

He has also achieved his status by understanding the motivations of conservatives. He has pure contempt for conservative politicians, like the "ratf-----s" who, as he recounts, sabotaged every 1972 Democratic candidate's campaign to smooth a path for the unelectable George McGovern. But he understands why middle-class whites, ethnic voters only a generation or so removed from Europe, and George Wallace Democrats rejected the left and embraced Nixon and his brand of resentment politics.

Perlstein's subject is the voter who cast a ballot for LBJ in 1964 "because to do anything else...seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason."

This is what Nixonland adds to the cornucopia of Nixon books already on the shelves. Other studies focus on the man's psyche, his friendships, and his downfall, and make it hard to understand how he rose to the pinnacle of American politics.

Plenty of these analyses focus on Nixon's inability to pay for a Harvard education after the school accepted him. Perlstein considers that important, but he hones in one what Nixon did when he arrived at Whittier College.

Nixon was rejected from the Franklins, the elite clique that ran the campus, so he founded a club called the Orthogonians "for the strivers, those not to the manor born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one's unpolish was a nobility of its own."

PERLSTEIN'S INSIGHT IS that Nixon kept up the chairmanship of this club for the rest of his political life, drafting new members at every critical juncture. The "Checkers" speech is the first and best example, as, over the jeers of liberal intellectuals, nearly 2 million people saved Nixon's career by sending telegrams supporting his position in a campaign finance scandal. "They interpreted the puppy story just as Nixon intended it," writes Perlstein, "as a jab at a bunch of bastards who were piling on, kicking a man when he was down, a regular guy, just because they could do it and he couldn't fight back."

It was good practice for the turmoil of the 1960s, and Perlstein is clear-eyed enough to see why, as the decade closed, Nixon was so successful. He identifies the reasons all historians of the left identify -- a heated backlash against the civil rights movement, an even stronger backlash against integration. He locates nasty letters that angry white voters sent to Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Illinois): "While you sit on your butt in Washington Martin Luther King is violating everything I bought and paid for." He excavates oddball rumors that swirled in white communities, like the fear, in eastern Iowa, that black gangsters were traveling from Chicago on motorcycles to attack their communities.

Myth after myth about the 1960s is punctured. The saintly Robert F. Kennedy actually wheezed over the finish line in Indiana and California, stitching together a coalition of white liberals and blacks, not uniting all voters. Ronald Reagan wasn't a sunny optimist, but a political flirt who bashed college students and tried to steal the 1968 nomination from Nixon.

Perlstein, however, does not argue that the backlash of the 1960s and 1970s (the book ends with Nixon's defeat of McGovern) was all the fault of the backlashers. He excoriates the far left for egging all of this on.

The Chicago Seven trial -- the subject of a hagiographic animated movie just last year -- is recounted as a battle between self-aggrandizing, cartoonish leftists and an embittered establishment that didn't know better.

Perlstein digs up wacko event after wacko event, writing the proceedings in a deadpan voice as his subjects condemn themselves. At the 1968 New Politics Conference, convened to nominate a third party ticket of Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, "one delegate offered himself for endorsement for president of the United States and said the 1966 Italian art-house Blowup was his platform. He was serious."

At the 1972 Democratic convention, a delegate gloats about voting on acid.

THROUGHOUT HIS NARRATIVE, Perlstein produces examples of contemporary media that completely missed both stories -- the alienating effect of the left and the perfidy of Nixon's organization. Editorialist after editorialist is quoted praising the courage and freshness of the young generation, and contrasted with middle Americans who openly fantasize about beating their brains out -- when they're not actually doing so.

Perlstein mocks the lefty theorist Charles Reich and his book The Greening of America (endorsed by Justice William O. Douglas and Sen. George McGovern) as head-in-the-clouds pap: "His New Jerusalem would just sort of happen. Automatically. No more riots, no more cataclysm, no more protests, no left, no right -- no politics."

This is by no means a conservative book. It is bigger and better than ideology. It is also, to Perlstein's delight, becoming less pointed by the day. While he concludes that Nixonland "has not ended yet," he's told interviewers that the rise of Barack Obama and the collapse of fearmongering Republicans has given him confidence that the country is really moving away from the "national berserk."

Is he making Arthur Schlesinger's mistake after the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson race, reading one election for proof that the Republicans would never win again? Perhaps not. The Weathermen have been reduced to college professors. The new drug epidemics are happening in the Great Plains, not college campuses. The Republicans, not the Democrats, own the latest war. With nothing for the Silent Majority to backlash against, the Left might finally win.

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