Man, I love books like this. Rick Perlstein’s 2008 book Nixonland is history that sizzles. It’s one of those 800-plus pages of superbly researched, exhaustively detailed, astoundingly insightful, richly textured history books that make book nerds glow with happiness. It’s also, incidentally, the best history of that crucial time in American history we call ‘the 60s,’ even though the period he covers doesn’t end until sometime around 1973. And yes, the focus is Nixon, sort of. It’s not a biography of that most complicated of American politicians, though. It uses Richard Nixon’s career instead as the lens through which we view that complicated history.
Here’s why it’s so good. Most histories of the 60’s are fundamentally celebratory. They reflect one perspective on that period, what we might call the ‘Age of Aquarius’ narrative. Plucky young idealists, who conquered racism, sexism, and ended the war in Vietnam through sheer force of will, plus rock and roll music. We take the perspective of, say Tom Hayden, or Jane Fonda, or Abbie Hoffman, and pit Our Heroes against the reactionary forces of bad old reactionary Amerika. The bad guys are easily identified; Frank Rizzo, Mayor Daley and the Chicago police, the National Guard at Kent State, George Wallace. Nixon. Such essentialist hagiographies celebrate the Berkeley Free Speech movement, and Woodstock, and the Black Panthers, and campus protests across the whole nation. Although many such histories exist–books by Todd Gitlin, Nicholas Schou, Ed Sanders come immediately to mind–and although they’re often passionately and eloquently written, they’re too one-sided.
They don’t adequately account for, among other realities, the popularity of Richard Nixon. The sixties were supposed to be a celebration of youth, of youthful vitality and passion and rejection of the platitudes and certainties of, say, the fifties. And when young people got the vote, in time for the 1972 election, that 18-21 demographic was expected to make a huge difference, ushering in a newer, better day. And 18-21 year-olds did make a difference. They voted for Nixon 2-1.
Perlstein’s book does absolutely not represent some kind of conservative revisionism. But it doesn’t shy away from this reality: Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ did, kind of, exist. And was horrified and appalled by anti-war hippies. And not without legitimate cause.
What Perlstein excels at is what might be called a strategy of shifting perspectives. He shows us an event like, say, the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention from both the point of view of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubins, and the point of view of the Chicago police, or the ethnic Chicago neighborhoods, lower-middle-to-middle class, the homes from where Chicago cops were drawn. We see both. And that’s right, because both perspectives are valid, both should be honored.
Richard Nixon’s political genius was his ability to peek underneath the surface of American society, to feel and articulate and make political use of the anxieties and fears and resentments and hatreds found in those dark understrata. When in college at Whittier, the privileged class of students were called ‘Franklins.’ Nixon started his own club, the Orthogonians, made up of students from lower class families, white kids who had to work their way through college. The grinders and grade-grubbers, the people who knew what it was to struggle, and what it felt like to be disrespected by those who hadn’t had to.
And Perlstein uses that dichotomy, Franklins v. Orthogonians, brilliantly. Nixon didn’t go to Harvard or Yale. His father wasn’t wealthy or connected. Nixon’s own insecurities and petty resentments, it turned out, revealed a way towards power. If he could find other people, cast-offs and strivers, who shared his fury, but also could keep a lid on it, as he did, he could connect with voters. Richard Nixon was pretty famously not a people person, not a glad-hander, though he could play the role of sycophant when he needed to, tactically. But what Nixon realized was that Orthogonians outnumbered Franklin’s pretty substantially. And that feelings of buried rage could have a political impact.
Rick Perlstein understands Richard Nixon, and helps us understand him too. And he’s able to show us how Nixon rose to power, how carefully he understood and manipulated the political processes of his day. How to encode buried feelings of racial resentment. How resonant, and how richly textured and nuanced was Nixon’s political use of the phrase ‘Law and Order.’
And yet, as the dirty tricks and vicious campaign strategies of his two Presidential campaigns unfolded, Perlstein does not neglect the other Nixon, the Nixon who opened China, the cold warrior Nixon of arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Nixon genuinely felt that the world was a dangerous place, and that an American President needed above all to preserve world peace, shaky though it might be. And Nixon was, on top of everything else, genuinely brilliant in his understanding of foreign policy (which was pretty much the only part of being President he cared about).
Perlstein’s authorial voice is endlessly sympathetic to even the most wildly disparate points of view. And his research is extraordinary. He specializes in paragraphs full of detail, describing a typical day or week, with protests and counter-protests and violence on both sides of that most brutal of culture wars, over Vietnam and its meaning and importance.
And finally, it’s about us. It’s about now. He concludes with this:
I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of two incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.
This was the ’60s.
We Americans are not killing or trying to kill each other anymore for reasons of ideology, or at least, for now. Remember this: this war has ratcheted down considerably. But it still simmers on.
Perlstein wrote that final paragraph in 2009, or at least, that’s when his book was published. I read it in 2015. And I feel like I understand my world much better for having done so. The war he describes so eloquently is ratcheting back up, or so it seems to me. To understand it, historical perspective helps. We live in a world that Richard Nixon created, or at least saw more clearly than others did, a knowledge he ruthlessly exploited, leaving behind an exploded dichotomy, and political civility in tatters.
When you buy this book, buy the Kindle version. It includes news clips from the 60s, in addition to Perlstein’s prose. Take your time reading it, however. It’s worth every hour, every day you spend on it.