Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
Scribner, 881 pages, $37.50
Every theme park has a theme. Nixonland offers mendacity in all its glory: whoppers, hyperbole, obfuscation, prevarication, perjury, forgery and self-deception. One of Rick Perlstein’s favorite verbs is a necessary one: “Nixon lied,” the author writes frequently in Nixonland. Many people lie, but in this expedition into a Coney Island of the psyche, the book’s central subject wallows in a culture of deceit.
Today’s candidates are sometimes self-referential and soap-operatic. (The hoariest fib in politics is “It’s not about me. It’s about you.”) Richard Nixon, as these 34 chapters document, was narcissistic, if not paranoid. The 37th president, a connoisseur of political adversity, was also a Merlin of victimizing. Democrats merely tinkered with the identity politics of race and gender. Nixon thought regionally and strategically. Pursuing his Southern strategy, he nominated two consecutive Supreme Court nominees. Both were rejected by the Senate, the president said/alleged/asserted/lied, because “they had the misfortune of being born in the South.” He added, “I chose them because they were both men of the South.” After luring the late Confederacy into victim status, he eventually spread his cloak of self-pity over “the great silent majority.”
Few Americans today recall all the highlights of the Nixon era. To those who have never heard of Alger Hiss, I offer congratulations and a recommendation: Read this sprawling saga. It’s not entirely a shop of horrors, not always branding foes traitors or pursuing an unwinnable war. Mr. Perlstein’s meticulous research also reveals a Green president. Signing the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, Nixon said he was rescuing the earth, “reclaiming the purity of its air, its water, and our living environment. It is literally now or never.” His quote later adorned a reprinted edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Setting aside Vietnam and judging his policies, proposals and budgets for housing, transportation, welfare and the environment, Nixon was the last liberal president. Having made that argument in print several times, I know it infuriates both liberals and conservatives. The right shared Nixon’s belief that domestic policies aren’t important, but flags and flag pins are, a credo that echoes today. For the left, anti-Nixon fervor was aesthetic, no less intense for being so. Mr. Perlstein’s first dramatic episode unfolds at the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard on the night of Sept. 23, 1952. In about 4,000 maudlin words, Nixon defended himself and his family’s cocker spaniel: “The kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The “Checkers” speech launched his legend and, Mr. Perlstein writes, “hating Richard Nixon became a central part of the liberal creed.”
He compared himself to fellow Comeback Kids Lincoln, Churchill and de Gaulle. His first memoir, after losing the presidency in 1960, was not Six Swell Things I Did or Six Programs for America, but Six Crises. Its anxious narrative promised several sequels. The Nixon melodrama transfixed a great transcontinental Republic for decades. Five times, he was a major party’s nominee for national office, a feat matched only by the Bushes, father and son, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Some of Mr. Perlstein’s citations are prophetic. The “revered mandarin” Joseph Kraft labels the 1968 Chicago convention riots part of “the antagonism that divides the middle class of this country. On the one hand there are highly educated upper-income whites sure of themselves and brimming with ideas for doing things differently. On the other hand, there is Middle America, the large majority of low-income whites, traditional in their values and on the defensive against innovation.”
To outline his subtitle’s “fracturing,” the author becomes a battlefield correspondent, covering both sides in what he calls “the new American civil war.” The era’s campus excesses look less charming in retrospect. His account of armed student radicals and feckless academics at Cornell University evokes a tense, bloodless Antietam. He quotes Jerry Rubin, jester of the LSD culture, urging a My Lai of matricide. Weeks before the deadly events there, he told students at Kent State to “kill your parents. And I mean that quite literally.”
In 1968, Nixon handed over his image to Roger Ailes, even though Mr. Ailes knew that Americans thought his boss “a bore, a pain in the ass.” More awkward than most politicians, Nixon was, as all who knew him realized, not a “people person.” So Mr. Ailes helped invent a durable institution, the fake town meeting. As Mr. Perlstein explains, “They would film impromptu encounters. Only they would be staged.”
Nixonland, with all its cyclone rides and sideshows (Spiro Agnew!), closes its gates before the Watergate scandal reduces the era to rubble. Rick Perlstein is a beguiling tour guide to its life and tumultuous times, even though the author stumbles when he employs irony. Nixon, Mr. Perlstein writes, regarded legislators as “petty, grandstanding, insolent. The worst were the ones who read the Constitution.” Sarcasm does not work on someone so uninsultable, so steeped in denial.
Tricky Dick’s campaign tactics live on, as do his disciples, such as Dick Cheney, whose career began in the Nixon administration as special assistant to the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Donald Rumsfeld. Though not a character in Nixonland, Mr. Cheney echoed his master’s voice in a March 19 interview with ABC News about the Iraq war. “Two-thirds of Americans say it’s not worth fighting, and they’re looking at the value gain versus the cost in American lives, certainly, and Iraqi lives,” Martha Raddatz said. Mr. Cheney replied: “So?”
Martin F. Nolan is a former Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe whose name appeared on President Nixon’s “enemies list.” He can be reached at email@example.com.