Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
by Rick Perlstein
Reviewed by Mary Ann Gwinn
Rick Perlstein's new book, Nixonland, is the "It" history book of this publishing season. The Chicago historian's 800-plus-page account of how Richard Nixon stoked and exploited the political divisions of the '60s has struck a nerve, as analysts argue over whether Nixonland -- a country at war with itself -- still resides in the heart of the U. S. of A.
In last Sunday's New York Times review, conservative commentator George H. Will protested that "The nation portrayed in Perlstein's compulsively readable chronicle, the America of Spiro Agnew inciting 'positive polarization' and the New Left laboring to 'heighten the contradictions,' is long gone."
Maybe. But if you're a boomer who lived through the 1960s, Nixonland will induce scary flashbacks to that profoundly disorienting time, when university students protesting the Vietnam War were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard; when academic researchers working late were blown apart by bombs spliced together by anti-war radicals; when the Newark police force mowed down dozens of black residents with a hail of bullets.
Through this chaotic tapestry, Perlstein threads the story of Richard Nixon himself. Perlstein's thesis: Nixon brilliantly exploited the country's hates and fears in the service of consolidating his own political base.
That traumatic legacy shaped American politics for decades to come, in the same way the Civil War shaped U.S. history, claims Perlstein, a fellow with the liberal Chicago think tank Campaign for America's Future.
The author gives Nixon his due as a brilliant tactician and a foreign-policy student with the long view, but also portrays him as a politician who used his personal resentments to drive a wedge through America's middle. In college, Nixon tried to join an "in" group called the Franklins; he wasn't cool enough. "That formed a template for his career," says Perlstein. "It turns out there are a lot more uncool people than cool people." Nixon became the defender of the square, the unhip, the uncool -- the "Silent Majority."
One instructive aspect of Nixonland is the realization that key players in the '60s dramas are still alive, well and influencing the debate today. Seymour Hersh, the groundbreaking New Yorker investigative reporter, worked as Eugene McCarthy's press secretary. William Safire, who ghostwrote Spiro Agnew's fiery anti-left, anti-press rhetoric, now writes genteel columns on language for The New York Times. Roger Ailes, one of Nixon's first media-spin experts, went on to found the right-tilting Fox News.
But are our politics still driven by an era that's now four decades gone? Many commentators on Nixonland have disputed that, pointing as evidence to the likely Democratic nomination of an African-American man for president. Perlstein answers the question by noting how race and class issues have already defined this year's Democratic campaign -- Barack Obama's problems with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; Hillary Rodham Clinton's hardball pitch to white working-class voters.
"A President Obama could no more magically transcend America's '60s-born divisions than McCarthy, Kennedy, Nixon or McGovern could," Perlstein writes. "Over the meaning of 'family,' on sexual morality, on questions of race and gender and war and peace and order and disorder and North and South and a dozen other areas, we remain divided."
Mary Ann Gwinn is the book editor for The Seattle Times.