Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
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”).
During the 1956 campaign Adlai Stevenson turned to a fellow egghead, John Kenneth Galbraith, to write the candidate’s speeches against Nixon because the Harvard economist had, in Stevenson’s estimation, “no tendency to be fair.” Galbraith confirmed Stevenson’s judgment when he penned the scurrilous attack that is the text for Perlstein’s flawed history of the Nixon era: “Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.”
Perlstein embellishes Galbraith to establish “a more inclusive definition of Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.… Nixonland is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years.”
PERLSTEIN HAS THREE BIG IDEAS that constitute the framework for his narrative, all of which are wrong. The first of these big ideas Perlstein introduces in his Preface: “the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos… eight years later pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
Voters pulled the Democratic lever in 1964 for two reasons: first, President Johnson had come to office under traumatic circumstances, had performed satisfactorily, and had given voters no compelling reason to throw him out; second, Barry Goldwater, with the help of the Democratic attack machine, had been caricatured as a radical, a threat to stability and good order. There was in 1964 no fear of anything as grandiose as civilizational chaos; there was fear of defoliating the daisies. By the time voters went to the polls in 1972, any fear of civilizational chaos had long since been overcome.
The Vietnam War was ending, peace had been restored on the campuses, the streets were clear of demonstrators, all was quiet in America’s cities, and the economy gave the appearance of being on the mend. For some, a vote for Nixon was a vote of thanks for a job well done; for many, it was a vote against the perceived radicalism of George McGovern and the threat he represented to stability in our international relations. In 1964 Barry Goldwater was the gamble; in 1972 it was George McGovern. In both elections, the electorate chose to play it safe.
The second big wrong idea is that Nixon’s politics were “rooted in the anger and resentments at the center of his character.”
Building on earlier work in the area of class-based resentments by such eminent scholars as Anthony Summers and Chris Matthews, Perlstein divides the American electorate into two classes: the resentful and the resented. The resentful (Nixon was, Perlstein asserts, a “serial collector of resentments”) he tags as “Orthogonians,” the name of the fraternity of strivers Nixon headed at Whittier College, while the resented (of whom Adlai Stevenson is the classic exemplar) are the “Franklins”—Whittier’s fraternity of choice for the swells. According to the Perlstein model, to understand correctly the political history of the United States since 1946, all one has to do is distinguish the Ortho gonians from the Franklins.
An artfully selected trope may be conducive to understanding, but in the heavy hands of an author in a hurry it is more likely to become, as here, a cudgel with which to bludgeon the reader. Relentlessly deployed, “Franklin” and “Orthogonian” are trap doors through which the author conveniently disposes of men and ideas he is unwilling to confront on their own terms.
Leftists have a disposition to believe that conservatives could not conceivably believe what they say they believe if they were not impaired by some mental disorder such as “status anxiety” or old-fashioned paranoia. Perlstein trots down the path pioneered by Richard Hofstadter and dismisses Nixon and his supporters as just one Prozac pill short of lunacy.
Nixon’s political success was in large measure a result of his ability to identify with and position himself as spokesman for the middle class. Early on he recognized (and took personally) the escalating arrogance of the liberal establishment and its disassociation from the values of working people. His populism was rooted in his experience, personal and political, and his politics were a strange mix of visceral reaction to events and calculated action to influence events. Nixon succeeded in establishing the necessary preconditions for an electoral realignment as a consequence of his sensitivity to the cultural concerns of the middle and working classes, but he failed to maximize the political opportunities thus afforded by aligning his domestic policies with the political imperatives of those concerns. Deep character flaws ultimately overwhelmed his shrewd political judgment, but not before he prepared the ground for the subsequent Reagan Revolution.
Perlstein, however, doesn’t see in Nixonian politics anything sophisticated, complex, or tragic. For him it was all starkly simple: Nixon “saw that Alger Hiss was a pitch-perfect Franklin [and] everything followed from that.” According to Perlstein, Nixon’s politics were “a class politics for the white middle class” that reflected “his gift for looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath.” He succeeded because he understood that elections “were won by focusing people’s resentments.”
With this level of understanding of Richard Nixon and politics in America, it is no wonder that the heirs of Adlai Stevenson have been wandering in the wilderness for half a century.
THE THIRD OF Perlstein’s big ideas is that Richard Nixon won the 1968 election “by using [author’s emphasis] the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s.” His election set the stage for “a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light,” which resulted in a nation in which “two loosely defined congeries of Americans,” each of which was “convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end,” and this battle continues today with Americans hating each other “enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements.”
The decade of the 1960s was the most turbulent in America since that which began with John Brown’s Kansas raids and ended at Appomattox Courthouse. There was a lot of anger, a lot of goofiness, and an indecent amount of violence. It commenced on Lyndon Johnson’s watch, during the high tide of liberalism. Richard Nixon didn’t cause it; he inherited it. The deranged landscape of the 1960s was the product of a liberalism untethered from common sense and good judgment, which elicited a reaction that was often ill considered and ill advised but was hardly homicidal. There were, of course, extremists who resorted to violence and haters who, while less lethal, were nonetheless menacing, but these were outriders, not mainstreamers. The very notion that the mass of Americans were prepared to kill each other over their political and cultural differences is more than nonsense: it is a calumny.
Perlstein claims that Nixon “exploited” the angers, anxieties, and resentments that arose out of the Johnsonian chaos. What Perlstein means is that Nixon sided with those who were fed up with a failed liberalism. Nixon did what politicians do in contested elections: he sought to put together a majority coalition, and he did so by staking out the ground in the center yielded by the Democrats under pressure from the intellectuals. Perlstein seems to think it was the obligation of the Republican presidential candidate in 1968 to embrace ambivalence and cacophony, to minimize polarization, and, of course, to lose the election. Is this what Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Harry Truman would have done? No one who has carefully studied their campaigns could conceivably think so. Each of them was every bit as “polarizing” as Richard Nixon is said to have been.
Reason’s David Weigel in reviewing Nixonland heralded Perlstein as “America’s best living historian of the conservative movement.” Such a claim not only insults George Nash and Greg Schneider, but it libels the craft of history. Nixonland is not history; it is polemics. Perlstein is out to poke Republicans (and conservatives) in the eye and “history” is his stick.
He shapes it to suit his purpose and wields it to achieve a political objective. No Perlstein “fact” can be relied upon as true, no event he relates can be assumed to be fairly discussed, and no grand idea advanced by him can be taken seriously. Perlstein is an ideological warrior who, having donned his war paint and put on his war bonnet, is leading (with Tom Frank) a war party of hard-core leftists against the political and cultural settlements occupied by the right. He’s after scalps, one at a time. Nixon is easy pickings; Reagan will be tougher, but he is next. Perhaps after that raid, conservatives (if not libertarians) will begin to figure out that this guy is up to no good.
Tom Charles Huston is an attorney in Indianapolis and was associate counsel to the president of the United States from 1969 to 1971.