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New Richard Nixon Book “Nixonland” At Bookstores Now

May 13, 2008

There is one thing that everyone can agree when it comes to Richard Nixon.  He was a supremely fascinating man.  The fact that new books are continually being written about him and the times in which he lived is but one metric that can be used to gauge his continuing imprint on our country.  With “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein there comes an attempt to add more context to the known facts.

George Will wrote a book review in the New York Times this past weekend that is as thought provoking perhaps as the book itself.  George Will is as fun to read as to listen to, so his review is worth your time in full here.

Do we need another waist-deep wallow in the 1960s, ensconcing us cheek by jowl with Frank Rizzo and Eldridge Cleaver, Sam Yorty and Mark Rudd, Lester Maddox and Herbert Marcuse and other long-forgotten bit players in a period drama? Do we need to be reminded of that era’s gaseous juvenophilia, like Time magazine’s celebration of Americans 25 or younger as 1967’s “Man of the Year”: “This is not just a new generation, but a new kind of generation. … In the omphalocentric process of self-construction and discovery,” today’s youth “stalks love like a wary hunter, but has no time or target — not even the mellowing Communists — for hate.”

Well, this retrospective wallow does increase the public stock of harmless pleasure, as when Perlstein revisits the 1972 Democratic convention that nominated George McGovern and heard 80 nominations for vice president, including Mao Zedong and Archie Bunker. But Perlstein’s high-energy — sometimes too energetic — romp of a book also serves, inadvertently, a serious need: it corrects the cultural hypochondria to which many Americans, including Perlstein, are prone.


Nixon, who became vice president at age 40, was well described as “an old man’s idea of a young man.” He was, Perlstein says, one of only two boys in his elementary school photograph wearing a necktie. Politics is mostly talk, much of it small talk with strangers, and Nixon was painfully — to himself and others — awkward at it. His temperament always invited, and has received, abundant analysis. Perlstein’s Rosetta stone for deciphering Nixon’s dark personality is a distinction he acknowledges borrowing from Chris Matthews’s 1996 book “Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America.” Arriving at Whittier College, Nixon, “a serial collector of resentments,” found that the clique of cool students was called Franklins, so he helped organize the Orthogonians for people such as himself — strivers who would try to ascend by grit rather than grace.

Perlstein repeatedly explains Nixon’s or other people’s behavior as arising from an Orthogonian resentment of Franklins, including establishment figures as different as Alger Hiss and Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon “co-opted the liberals’ populism, channeling it into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticates, the well-born, the ‘best circles.’” By stressing the importance of Nixon’s character in shaping events, and the centrality of resentments in shaping Nixon’s character, Perlstein treads a dead-end path blazed by Hofstadter, who seemed not to understand that condescension is not an argument. Postulating a link between “status anxiety” and a “paranoid style” in American politics — especially conservative politics — Hofstadter dismissed the conservative movement’s positions as mere attitudes that did not merit refutation. Perlstein, too, gives these ideas short shrift.

As the pollster Samuel Lubell had already noted before the 1952 election, “the inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping.” Perlstein keenly sees that some liberals “developed a distaste” for the social elements they had championed, now that those elements were “less reliably downtrodden” and less content to be passively led by liberal elites.

The masses bought television sets and enjoyed what they watched. But Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and formerly Adlai Stevenson’s administrative assistant) declared television a “vast wasteland,” thereby implicitly scolding viewers who enjoyed it. When New York was becoming a lawless dystopia, with crime, drugs and homelessness spoiling public spaces, August Heckscher, the patrician commissioner of parks under Mayor John Lindsay, sniffily declared that people clamoring for law and order were “scared by the abundance of life.”

A Newsweek cover story on Louise Day Hicks, who led opposition to forced busing of school children in Boston, described her supporters as “a comic-strip gallery of tipplers and brawlers and their tinseled overdressed dolls … the men queued up to give Louise their best, unscrewing cigar butts from their chins to buss her noisily on the cheek, or pumping her arm as if it were a jack handle under a truck.”

Perlstein deftly deploys such judgments to illustrate what the resentful resented. Unfortunately, he seems to catch the ’60s disease of rhetorical excess. He says George Romney was a “glamour boy,” Secretary of State Dean Rusk was “maniacal,” Lyndon Johnson’s 1955 heart attack was a “psychosomatic illness,” Mayor Richard Daley’s supporters were “cigar-chompers.” Senator Paul Douglas, the Illinois Democrat, was a giant of postwar liberalism, but when he said residential segregation resulted in part from “consciousness of kind,” he was, Perlstein writes, “aping Daley.”

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