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Joe Lehman

"Why 'Nixonland' Matters" [by Joe Lehman]

NixonlandWhen I was twenty-five, backpacking through Australia, I carried with me my hardcover copy of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. It absorbed me for all seven months of my journey. I took flight to the land of Oz in late October 2008. Nixonland hit the stores in May of that fateful year of financial crisis. Having recently taken it off my bookshelf, I can report that the book holds up well and has a special relevance for us today. It is that rare thing, a thick history book suitable for a college class that is a most pleasurable page-turner.

For those of us born after the end of the ‘60s (I was born in 1983), we have long been used to the romanticized mythology of the era. We conjure up an image of bell-bottom-wearing long-haired hippies, driving around in psychedelic-painted VW buses, getting high on LSD and marijuana, protesting the war in Vietnam, and practicing free love.

Written from a left-of-center perspective, Nixonland has no illusions about the title figure and his presidential predecessor, yet rips the mask off the pastoral vision of acid-tripping dropouts and collegiate idealists to reveal a less pretty picture of moral anarchy, ruined lives, and gun violence. Read this book and your views of that era will lose their rosy hue. Perlstein paints a radical picture of a country gone insane with political brutality, cultural discord, and social decay. Flower people were not always loveable innocents:

           <<<< Love was in the eye of the beholder. At first downtown merchants welcomed the hippie district that sprang up on Plumb Street in Detroit; it was attracting people to their stores. Then they realized that the hippies liked their stores so much because they could panhandle from paying customers (“I wish we could have had the hippies without the dope,” said one merchant, after the forty-three shops on Plumb Street had shrunk down to six.) (185)  >>>>

Nixonland reads like one big Roman chariot race through hell. Stories of race riots, assassinations, bombings, a divisive war in Vietnam, infighting between (and within) left and right, and the reign of a Machiavellian president occupy every page.

One month before my departure to Australia the U.S. economy had come to the brink of collapse, and the Great Recession was in its early stages. On the first Tuesday in November, just over a week after I landed down under, America ushered in the election of the first African-American president. It was, despite the financial calamity, a hopeful moment. In the time since, however, the country has suffered riots, protests, mass shootings, a polarized populace, and a coronavirus sweeping through like a medieval plague. And as I leaf through my worn copy of Nixonland once more, I realize that I am no longer standing apart from the happenings of a chaotic world. The outbreak of COVID-19 did nothing to unify a polarized society. If anything the crisis in civility and the rise of discord have worsened. On Facebook, friendships terminate because of petty political disagreements, and the general tone of debate demonstrates that virtual bullying is as brutal as the physical kind. The Roman Chariot race through Hell that is described in Nixonland seems far more pressing today than it did upon its hardcover publication in 2008.

A history of America from 1964 to 1972, Nixonland goes from “all the way with LBJ” in 1964 to “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” in 1968; and from there to the resurrection of Richard Nixon and his reelection four years later despite a third-rate burglary on the offices of the political opposition at a previously obscure apartment complex called Watergate. In these eight years America went through what Perlstein bluntly calls a “second civil war.” Just as now, factions of left and right were continually feuding. Vietnam cut the population into two opposing camps. Young people declared war on people over thirty, and the reaction came swiftly enough from folks who pledged allegiance to Bob Hope, “God Bless America,” and Sousa marches on July 4th. “Nixon acted not despite the Silent Majority he described as so pure and decent, but in a sense on their behalf, and even at their request,” Perlstein writes. “His paranoia and dread were their own. Across the state of mind known as Middle America, a subterranean viciousness was bubbling ever closer to the surface.” (519)

Perlstein traces Nixon’s ascent to the presidency from the “wilderness” period when, after being prematurely written off, he scraped together the allegiances and alliances that gained him the 1968 Republican nomination for president. During his first term, he aspired to wind down the Vietnam War, engage in détente with the Soviet Union, and open relations with Red China. In two of those aims he may be said to have succeeded; Nixon was a canny politician and had the benefit of an extraordinary secretary of state. Peace “with honor” proved elusive. The ugly war dragged on. It is likely that on his own Nixon would never have committed half a million soldiers to an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia, as Johnson, McNamara, Rusk, and the Bundy brothers did. But how to end it?

The foreign policy successes did not lessen the amount of civil unrest in the nation. Perlstein juxtaposes the narrative of Nixon’s rise, his wielding of power, and his overwhelming defeat of Senator George McGovern in 1972, with descriptions of horrific crimes committed during the same period. These include massacres committed by the Manson Family in 1969 and Richard Speck’s slaughter of eight student nurses three years earlier. Perlstein also notes the shift in the civil rights and antiwar movements from nonviolence to militancy. “This was,” according to Perlstein “something Richard Nixon, with his gift for looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath, understood: the future belonged to the politician who could tap the ambivalence–the nameless dread, the urge to make it all go away; to make the world placid again, not a cacophonous mess.” As for the personality of Richard Nixon, here was a man who could wake up the day after winning forty-nine of the nation’s fifty states and feel depressed.

Perlstein charts the period through an inspection of changes in pop culture. For example, he contrasts the reactions of liberals and conservatives to movies with polar opposite themes. In 1967, the right flocked to see John Wayne sound the fighting charge in the jingoistic Vietnam film The Green Berets. The New York Times critic panned the movie. Perlstein quotes the arch-segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond:

“I have not yet had the opportunity to see this movie,” he drawled. But “I have become convinced that this must be one of the most admirable movies of our generation, after reading the review which appeared last week in the New York Times. . . That set me to wondering what on earth the standards of criticism are that are current in the New York Times for a film that is patriotic and pro-American.” (278)

Meanwhile, the left was infatuated with images of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway blowing away civilians and officers of the law until they meet their own gruesome fate in Bonnie & Clyde. Perlstein defines the reasoning of the movie’s instant fans: “They weren’t bad folks, went the movie’s moral logic, until an evil system forced them to extremity: robbing banks that repossessed farms, killing only when the System was closing in all around them… Bonnie and Clyde made those around them feel alive – all except the squares who were chasing them, who were already more or less dead anyway, with their sucker obsession with honest toil.” (209)

Apparently cinema is the mirror reflecting both sides’ sense of values.

Perlstein describes the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the attempt on George Wallace, and the bitterness that ensued. There were other eye-opening events that presage a scary future. In the “planned riot” in Cleveland in 1968, snipers from the “Black Nationalists of New Libya” executed several police officers; in 1971, during the Attica prison uprising in upstate New York, both convicts and guard-hostages were killed in an assault by state troopers. Perlstein illustrates, too, how the chaos in America dovetailed with violence abroad, such as the 1972 massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, Germany, at the hand of Palestinian terrorists. His reportage covers both the liberal and reactionary responses of ordinary citizens. A perfect example of an out-of-touch media occurred during the siege of Attica, when New York Times reporter Tom Wicker addressed a group of relatives of the captive prison guards. Wicker launched into an impassioned speech about the hostage-takers’ solidarity over their brutal treatment by the corrections authorities. The relatives responded by hurling insults and epithets at Wicker, protesting his obvious sympathy for the convicts.

Perlstein is able to draw an indissoluble connection between the events on the ground and the complex personality of Richard Nixon, with his uncanny ability to tap into the passions and political desires of the “Silent Majority” of Americans, who yearned for law and order amid the turmoil. These included the northern “hardhats” and the southern “rednecks.” Perlstein argues that Nixon saw the world in terms of the conflict between two student groups from his university days: the Franklins and the Orthogonians. The former consisted of the rich kids, polished and well-bred, who seemed to have the path to success paved for them. The latter group consisted of outsiders and striving underdogs from the lower-middle and working classes. Nixon himself was an Orthogonian; he rose from a hardscrabble background as the son of a California grocer. John F. Kennedy, his arch political rival, was the epitome of a Franklin; a millionaire’s son with matinee idol looks, a good war record, and the habits of a playboy.  According to Perlstein, for Nixon this dichotomy extends to every group of people. Perhaps surprisingly, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein qualify as the Orthogonians of the newsroom. They are plucky questers, piecing together the facts of the Watergate scandal, with shoe-leather reporting, whereas the Franklins of the newsroom are the well-heeled veteran White House correspondents.

PerlsteinNixonland is the second entry in Rick Perlstein’s quartet of books covering the emergence of the New Right. Before the Storm (2001) chronicled Barry Goldwater’s doomed GOP Presidential campaign of 1964; The Invisible Bridge (2014) follows Nixon's resignation through Ronald Reagan’s challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford in 1976. Most recently, Reaganland tells the tale of the much-maligned Jimmy Carter presidency and Reagan’s emergence in 1980.

What struck me about Nixonland in 2008 and continues to resonate in 2021 is the way Perlstein captures the idealistic cluelessness of the liberal side versus the cold Machiavellianism of the right. Just as Tom Wicker was blindsided by the reaction of his audience at Attica, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate Senator George McGovern was blindsided by the reactions he faced from the voting public. In one campaign stop, McGovern played a reel of gory photographs of wounded civilians in Vietnam, hoping perhaps to guilt-trip Americans into voting for him as the peace candidate. This was a misfire if only because the vast number of Americans are motivated not by sentimental appeals to their consciences but by practical self-interest. Richard Nixon clearly understood this, as he promised to pull out from the war “with honor” and appealed to patriotic and sometimes nationalistic impulses in the voters’ minds. Meanwhile the Democrats were busy shooting themselves in the foot, nominating Senator Thomas Eagleton for vice president, then ditching him post-convention when it turned out that he was a depressive who had seen shrinks and gone through shock therapy. Yet even in landslide victory, Nixon noted that his congressional coattails were shorter than he had hoped for, and he obsessed about his foes. Foes he certainly had. Nixon’s whole political career demonstrates the saying that even paranoids have enemies.

Today the insurgent progressive left of the Democratic Party seems to have perfected political guilt-tripping almost to a science. As a result, its losses are catastrophic (2016) and its wins often pyrrhic (2020). During the early years of the Obama presidency, I observed that Obama would have fewer problems if he learned the lessons of Nixonland. One lesson is that when facts are overtaken by narrative, it is difficult to overcome the narrative. For McGovern, it was impossible to defeat the label of being the candidate of “Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion.” Whether Obama’s Democratic successor Biden has ever taken the time to read Nixonland or not, I do not know. He should. It just may improve his chances for a successful presidency.

Click here to read Joe Lehman on "The Return of Martin Guerre."
from the archive; first published May 15, 2021

April 16, 2022

September 25, 2021

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November 18, 2012

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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