I was absolutely blown away by Nixonland. It’s like the WWII of wars. Perhaps that’s a rather tortured metaphor, but I have to say that Perlstein nailed it, in a way I wasn’t quite sure was even possible.
It’s very much history in the vain of Robert K. Massie and John Julius Norwich. That is, these writers take an episode of history – in this case late ’60s America – and bring it to life. It’s history. It’s fact. But its also a well captured story/ This is a cliche, but “they bring the history to life”. History is presented as a narrative, rather than a study or rigourous examination of fact.
There is an academic inside me who cringes slightly at times. Like when John Julius Norwich feels daily confident assuming thoughts and emotions and motivations from historical actors for which evidence might be little more than art, myth, and an inscription on a tombstone. At times, I have tried to imagine wiring such a book myself – about the Spanish Civil War (but I don’t know Spanish and that’s an obstacle) – and I find myself uncomfortable with putting words or ideas or thoughts into a historical person’s mouth. I do feel comfortable however with made up people who might cleverly represent a group or a time and place (for example, a typical American volunteer for the International Brigades). Not real, but real enough.
Perlstein is dealing with a relatively recent past. Not only is there massive documentary evidence, including video and recordings (Nixon’s secret tapes in the White House), but most of the historical actors are still alive. This allows Perlstein to push the narrative aspect of this history book even further.
The ’60s. Something we hear a lot about, but few seem to understand. There seem to be many “narratives” about what happened and why. Quite simply, there was a second civil war. And it’s creation of American politics today. Pretty much anything that happened before Nixon’s election in ’68 is something that we cannot relate too. The fault lines in our society, the rhetoric, the narratives, even the emotional outlook of voters was created in the late ’60s.
Nixon created the formula for Republican presidential victory; it’s the one that’s being used today, even by Trump. It goes by many names – the “Southern Strategy” is probably the most tactically prosaic. Nixon played on Middle America’s resentments, fear, and angst. This isn’t enough to win a national election. So to win the South, Nixon plays a winking game with racism. He walked a delicate rhetorical line that defended racist policies as reasonable; or disguised retarding action as progressively motivated. And that’s what’s worked for conservatives ever since.
Perlstein makes Nixon’s “formula” a natural outgrowth of this small, resentful man’s character and outlook. Nixon’s high school was apparently socially dominated by the rich, beautiful popular kids who had organised themselves into an actual club called “the Franklins”. Nixon organised a rival club – “the Orthogonians” – to compete with those popular kids he resented. An orthogonal (apparently this word Nixon made up has something to do with right angles) is someone who works hard; someone who’s taking grenades in the trenches and gets no recognition for it. Nixon would have you believe its the people who get good grades and do their homework, but I think it more closely captures the spirit of the kids who want to be cool, but can never, ever quite fit in the the cool crowd.
And its that emotional mark that Nixon rode to power in ’68. Perlstein relates Nixon’s outlook and Americas in terms of Franklins (the Kennedys, hippies, liberal college professors, FDR-esque bureaucrats, etc) and Orthogonians (white ethnic minorities like the Polish neighbourhoods in Chicago, ‘hard-hats’ i.e., uneducated whites, the Silent Majority, a phrase redolent of low-information voters).
The other side of the coin here – the hippies and the general growth of a progressive or radical America is actually a bit sad. I’ll just say it: the baby-boomers blew it big time. A generational temper tantrum. As much as they where right (in that the Vietnam War was an unwindable disaster and a lie) they where unable to actual articulate that truth. The kindest thing that could be said for them was that they followed the maxim of “Epater le bourgeois”, which means, “shock the middle class”. It hasn’t work. It’s never worked, and it only made them vote for Nixon.
Perlstein takes a complex socio-political history and makes it fascinating; he is able to illuminate the entire era. It was the best decision of my life to read this book, now during this presidential election season. There are so many parallels, so many echoes and similarities.
Required reading if you want to understand American politics today, the ’60s, and Nixon’s crimes.
Just required reading in general.