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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America Cover

ISBN13: 9780743243025
ISBN10: 0743243021
Condition: Standard
Dustjacket: Standard
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Excerpt

Preface

In 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won practically the biggest landslide in American history, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes. In 1972, the Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon won a strikingly similar landslide — 60.67 percent and 520 electoral college votes. In the eight years in between, the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire. This is a book about how that happened, and why.

At the start of 1965, when those eight years began, blood and fire weren't supposed to be a part of American culture and politics. According to the pundits, America was more united and at peace with itself than ever. Five years later, a pretty young Quaker girl from Philadelphia, a winner of a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, was cross-examined in the trial of seven Americans charged with conspiring to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"You practice shooting an M1 yourself, don't you?" the prosecutor asked her.

"Yes, I do," she responded.

"You also practice karate, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"That is for the revolution, isn't it?"

"After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible. I desperately wish it was possible."

And, several months after that, an ordinary Chicago ad salesman would be telling Time magazine, "I'm getting to feel like I'd actually enjoy going out and shooting some of these people. I'm just so goddamned mad. They're trying to destroy everything I've worked for — for myself, my wife, and my children."

This American story is told in four sections, corresponding to four elections: in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972. Politicians, always reading the cultural winds, make their life's work convincing 50 percent plus one of their constituency that they understand their fears and hopes, can honor and redeem them, can make them safe and lead them toward their dreams. Studying the process by which a notably successful politician achieves that task, again and again, across changing cultural conditions, is a deep way into an understanding of those fears and dreams — and especially, how those fears and dreams change.

The crucial figure in common to all these elections was Richard Nixon — the brilliant and tormented man struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s. His story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon's character — his own overwhelming angers, anxieties, and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos — sparks the combustion. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about how he did it — nothing inevitable in the idea that a president could come to power by using the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s. Indeed, he was slow to the realization. He reached it, through the 1966 election, studying others: notably, Ronald Reagan, who won the governorship of California by providing a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn't seemed like voting issues at all. If it hadn't been for the shocking defeats of a passel of LBJ liberals blindsided in 1966 by a conservative politics of "law and order," things might have turned out differently: Nixon might have run on a platform not too different from that of the LBJ liberals instead of one that cast them as American villains.

Nixon's win in 1968 was agonizingly close: he began his first term as a minority president. But the way he achieved that narrow victory seemed to point the way toward an entire new political alignment from the one that had been stable since FDR and the Depression. Next, Nixon bet his presidency, in the 1970 congressional elections, on the idea that an "emerging Republican majority" — rooted in the conservative South and Southwest, seething with rage over the destabilizing movements challenging the Vietnam War, white political power, and virtually every traditional cultural norm — could give him a governing majority in Congress. But when Republican candidates suffered humiliating defeats in 1970, Nixon blamed the chicanery of his enemies: America's enemies, he had learned to think of them. He grew yet more determined to destroy them, because of what he was convinced was their determination to destroy him.

Millions of Americans recognized the balance of forces in the exact same way — that America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which. By 1972, defining that order of battle as one between "people who identified with what Richard Nixon stood for" and "people who despised what Richard Nixon stood for" was as good a description as any other.

Richard Nixon, now, is long dead. But these sides have hardly changed. We now call them "red" or "blue" America, and whether one or the other wins the temporary allegiances of 50 percent plus one of the electorate — or 40 percent of the electorate, or 60 percent of the electorate — has been the narrative of every election since. It promises to be thus for another generation. But the size of the constituencies that sort into one or the other of the coalitions will always be temporary.

The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name — but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.

Copyright © 2008 by Rick Perlstein

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Jorge, April 17, 2009 (view all comments by Jorge)
Nixonland is Rick Perlstein's follow-up to "Before the Storm", which focused largely on Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign. Though I preferred Perlstein's earlier book this one is pretty damn good. I was born in the 1980s and thus have no first-hand knowledge of what was going on in the 60s and early 70s. Perlstein does a very good job at drawing a vivid portrait of the state of the union at that period. After reading this book, I felt like I had learned a thing or two about why things happened the way they did--why the backlash against civil rights came about, why conservatism reemerged as it did after Goldwater's disastrous campaign, why Nixon managed to become so popular and how he helped define the political landscape.

The book doesn't quite manage the cohesion of its predecessor, though Nixonland manages to paint an accurate and messy picture of America during the Nixon era. It's quite readable, and the detail on display here is impressive.
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ann-locates, April 22, 2008 (view all comments by ann-locates)
Perlstein tries hard to allow reader to discern truth but sublimal message comes through anyway.
When writing about events that many can still remember watching on television, media hype and political posturing have left a generation able to tell it like it is but somehow not like it was.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780743243025
Subtitle:
The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
Author:
Perlstein, Rick
Publisher:
Scribner
Subject:
United States - 20th Century
Subject:
Political Process - Elections
Subject:
United States - 20th Century (1945 to 2000)
Subject:
Government - Executive Branch
Subject:
Political History
Subject:
Presidents
Subject:
United states
Subject:
United States - 20th Century/60s
Subject:
Presidents -- United States.
Subject:
United States Politics and government.
Subject:
US History - 20th Century
Copyright:
Publication Date:
20080513
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
896
Dimensions:
9.25 x 6.125 in

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » US History » 20th Century » General
History and Social Science » US History » Presidents » Nixon, Richard M.
History and Social Science » US History » US Presidency

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America Used Hardcover
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$7.50 In Stock
Product details 896 pages Scribner - English 9780743243025 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Perlstein, winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, provides a compelling account of Richard Nixon as a masterful harvester of negative energy, turning the turmoil of the 1960s into a ladder to political notoriety. Perlstein's key narrative begins at about the time of the Watts riots, in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming 1964 victory at the polls against Goldwater, which left America's conservative movement broken. Through shrewdly selected anecdotes, Perlstein demonstrates the many ways Nixon used riots, anti — Vietnam War protests, the drug culture and other displays of unrest as an easy relief against which to frame his pitch for his narrow win of 1968 and landslide victory of 1972. Nixon spoke of solid, old-fashioned American values, law and order and respect for the traditional hierarchy. In this way, says Perlstein, Nixon created a new dividing line in the rhetoric of American political life that remains with us today. At the same time, Perlstein illuminates the many demons that haunted Nixon, especially how he came to view his political adversaries as 'enemies' of both himself and the nation and brought about his own downfall. 16 pages of b&w photos." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review A Day" by , "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....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." (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
"Review" by , "This is a terrific read. What a delight it is to discover the new generation of historians like Rick Perlstein not only getting history correct but giving us all fresh insights and understanding of it."
"Review" by , "Rick Perlstein has written a fascinating account of the rise of Richard Nixon and a persuasive argument that this angry, toxic man will always be part of the American landscape."
"Review" by , "Nixonland is a grand historical epic. Rick Perlstein has turned a story we think we know — American politics between the opposing presidential landslides of 1964 and 1972 — into an often surprising and always fascinating new narrative. This riveting book, full of colorful detail and great characters, brings back to life an astonishing era — and shines a new light on our own."
"Review" by , "Rick Perlstein's Nixonland digs deep into a decisive period of our history and brings back a past that is all the scarier for its intense humanity. With a firm grasp on the larger meaning of countless events and personalities, many of them long forgotten, Perlstein superbly shows how paranoia and innuendo flowed into the mainstream of American politics after 1968, creating divisive passions that have survived for decades."
"Synopsis" by , From one of America's most talented historians comes a brilliant new account of Richard Nixon — set against the violent passions of America's 1960s civil war — that reveals the riveting backstory to the red state/blue state resentments that divide the nation today.
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