February 24, 2008


Sympathy for the Devil: Progressive scribe Rick Perlstein made his reputation finding the good in conservatives. Then they really started screwing up the country. (Harold Henderson, January 24, 2008, Chicago Reader)

Nixonland, which will be published by Simon & Schuster, takes its title from a coinage of former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who once described “Nixonland” as a place with “no standard of truth but convenience, and no standard of morality except sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call.” In his forthcoming book, Perlstein characteristically points out that Stevenson’s own rhetoric sometimes partook of sly innuendo, and he recasts “Nixonland” to mean “the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears co-exist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.”

You might well ask, which Rick Perlstein will show up in this book, the empathetic historian or the implacable advocate? Says Frum, “We’ll all be waiting with bated breath.”
But perhaps a better question is, how do the historian (who admires and respects much about the conservative movement) and the advocate (who’s appalled by its results) manage to live together at all? It may help that Perlstein takes both William F. Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith as role models. His favorite New Left writer from the 1960s and 1970s is the late Paul Cowan, author of The Making of an Un-American as well as The Tribes of America. Cowan is remembered best, when he’s remembered at all, as the Village Voice reporter who covered a bitter book-burning fight in 1974 between bomb-throwing fundamentalists and liberals in Kanawha County, West Virginia, and was able to write empathetically about where the fundamentalists were coming from. Perlstein describes him with awe as “a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind.” (Perlstein’s and Cowan’s exact opposite may be David Horowitz, who managed to switch ends of the political spectrum from far left to far right without showing empathy for much of anyone. In August he called Perlstein “a political piranha with intellectual pretensions.”)

On the simplest level, empathy and solid historical research are the high road to good advocacy. (Or, if you prefer, the most devastating intelligence is gathered by a spy who at heart is half traitor.) Before the Storm has inspired and instructed the netroots, a vital part of the Democratic coalition these days. And it has unmasked some conservative fictions passing as history. Perlstein quotes Goldwater’s version of his family history: “We didn’t know the federal government. Everything that was done, we did it ourselves.” In fact, as Perlstein points out, the Arizona frontier was almost entirely a government creation. “The money to build Big Mike’s first Goldwater’s store in 1872 came largely from contracts for provisioning Army camps and delivering mail.” It’s hard to take Goldwater’s ideas quite as seriously after that.

He’s also punctured a few liberal balloons. For instance, it’s hard to take Ronald Reagan’s political acumen lightly after hearing the key story of his 1966 underdog campaign for the California statehouse. Reagan’s professional pollsters told him not to talk about the student revolt at the University of California at Berkeley because it didn’t show up in their polling. Reagan knew they were missing something, because wherever he went people asked him what he was going to do about Berkeley and the question itself drew applause. Reagan rode the latent resentment of student radicals to victory, revealing a type of tactical talent that few Democrats have displayed. Lew Koch, who covered radical politics during the period Perlstein describes in Nixonland and has become his friend, says, “He astonishes me. He’s writing about an area I covered as a reporter and he’s come up with things I didn’t know. It pisses me off.”

Perlstein’s empathy runs deeper than historical research requires. “My fantasy for the blog,” he says, “was that readers would send posts to Aunt Millie—that it would be a way to get people talking. But people aren’t forwarding them to conservative relatives and friends. They aren’t talking to them.” Perlstein, on the other hand, is. “I have a group of four very different conservatives I’ve been e-mailing back and forth [as a group] since 2003. I can’t imagine living my life, intellectually and politically, without keeping these lines of communication open to people I disagree with.”

And he doesn’t just disagree with them; he appreciates that “people genuinely believe that good order has to be protected from people with scary values.” By his reckoning even Watergate, the ultimate dirty trick, sprang from a genuine fear that if George McGovern were elected president it would spell disaster for the country. No doubt Perlstein would’ve thought the same thing of Nixon’s reelection that year, if he’d been 30 and not 3, but he can still recognize himself in the ideological mirror. He says, “If I were an academic, I’d be talking about ‘incommensurate apocalypses.’”

The point is, if you can’t feel what they feel, then you can’t take them seriously as political opponents. You see only the flimsy intellectual foundations and miss the motivating power of strategically harnessed resentment. From Adlai Stevenson to John Kerry, high-minded liberals have acted as if they were blind to the root feelings that feed the followers of politicians like Nixon and Bush. Instead, they alternate between expecting a fair fight on the issues (and getting swiftboated instead) and imagining that once people realize what a bad person Nixon or Bush is, the people will turn against him.

Conservatism isn’t just a temporary delusion or a wacky distraction. In Perlstein’s view, it’s a deep-seated expression of human nature. He recalls the Gilbert and Sullivan song from Iolanthe about two kinds of babies: “I often think it’s comical / How nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative.” His point: “We’re not going to eliminate them. The best we can do is to win our 51 percent. What’s fascinating is that we share this country together.”

All that said, empathy hasn’t caused Perlstein to lose his mind. He knows that many people avoid political conversations with friends and relations who voted for Bush because there’s no there there.

Friend Perlstein is an interesting illustration of how liberalism's selfishness and emotionalism deranges its believers. He only hates President Bush because W happens to be the conservative whose presidency he's an adult for. Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan are tolerable because he didn't have to endure them. But W has won on every issue Mr. Perlstein cares about for the past 8 years and caused him personal emotional pain.

Had Mr. Perlstein just been born in 1999 instead of 1969 his first book, forthcoming in a few years, would be about how the Left underestimated the importance of W as a thinker and the benevolent influence of his Third Way domestic politics and the global liberalizing crusade he led.

NB: Isn't there something inherently unbalanced in quoting a mere blogger and William F. Buckley in the same paragraph, as if they were peers?

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2008 7:20 AM

He only hates George W. Bush because he happens to be the conservative whose presidency he's an adult for and, thus, has to endure the experience of losing to on every issue every day.

Look, I'm for torture as much as the next guy, but please, please do something about this syntax!!

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 24, 2008 9:06 AM

I'm not sure this explains the millions of lifelong Republicans and conservatives who despise Bush, many of them senior citizens. Are they selfish and emotional>

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at February 24, 2008 1:13 PM

Many dislike the President for his spending, many others because of immigration, and others for the war that the media keeps trying to lose. Those reasons can be broken down into being selfish and emotional, yes. Most of the disappointment is media driven. No president since Nixon has been bashed like President Bush and much of that bashing has been undeserved.

Posted by: Patrick H at February 24, 2008 1:29 PM

Rick, it would be interesting to see you try to do a history of conservative media. You'll have a very entertaining time trying to interpret the Limbaughs of this world, especially when one of his proteges will end up beating him at his own game by making a defense of GW Bush part of his/her on air persona.

No, I'm not worried that "millions of Republicans and conservatives despise Bush." Those same folks will be singing his praises this time in 2010, when the Strange Rehabilitation of George W Bush kicks into high gear.

Posted by: Brad S at February 24, 2008 2:45 PM

I respect certain of Mr. Judd's prognosticating powers--I've dined out for years now with my prescient claim McCain would be the Republican nominee, with arguments entirely lifted from Orrin--but I'll bet my meager savings that no such Strange Rehabilitation will ever happen.

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at February 24, 2008 3:59 PM

What I always find very amusing is to listen to left-wingers like Henderson complain (or quote others complaining) about how you can't reason with conservatives because they live in some fantasy world. I guess those seven years of liberals whining about the dark night of fascism descending on our country never happened.

I assume that Mr. Henderson does not read this blog, but if he does he will see here a small but fascinating example of left-wing delusion completing clouding reality.

As one can see from the link, Mr. Perlstein persists in believing that the callow and immature Bush gave some journalists the finger despite the fact that all the journalists on the scene said it was a thumbs-up (according to Keith Olbermann, who hates Bush). About three-fourths of the folks on the leftist blog also reluctantly disagreed with the more sinister interpretation. There was also audio indicating that the press had just asked Bush a question about CAFTA, so that the thumbs-up was a response.

No matter: Perlstein raves against all of us for accepting the Bush administration "spin." The rest of us have a grand time around here listening to Perlstein's arguments, which go like this: Don't you understand? Bush blew up frogs when he was young! He sucker-punched a rugby player in college! He's a force of darkness! What's wrong with your people?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 24, 2008 4:07 PM

Rick Perlstein:

It will certainly happen the next time there is a Republican in the White House who the media hates. The usual tendency is to compare the incumbent with the "good" Republican who supposedly came before. That the media routinely trashed the previous occupant is forgotten.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 24, 2008 4:20 PM

Who's more selfish than seniors? Remember them attacking Rostenkowski for giving them the benefit they'd demanded?

But the conservatives who hate W do so because of race. They're isolationist and nativist, while he's liberating brown people and pro-immigration.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2008 5:18 PM


Interestingly, they do the exac opposite with Democrats. They defended Carter and Clinton while they were in office then turned on them with a vengeance. Today only the Right appreciates Bill.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2008 5:25 PM

This article presents another example of the term "swiftboating" representing a description of unfair contentions. Has anyone yet shown how the allegations of the swiftboat veterans were false?

Posted by: GER at February 24, 2008 5:49 PM

Having lived to see Ronald Reagan praised by Democrats for his help in the bipartisan defeat of Communism, I ain't ruling nothing out.

Posted by: Ibid at February 24, 2008 6:23 PM

The rehabilitation is already rather far advanced. The Democrat Congress not only hasn't repealed any of the Bush agenda but has accelerated it--trade agreements, repeated tax cuts, draconian security measures, etc.

Come now Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, neither of them proposing to change any aspect of Bushism, just to add pigment or subtract a penis.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2008 7:06 PM

Yeah, nothing's easier to predict than that, in 20 years, the Dems will be comparing the then-incumbent "worst president ever" unfavorably with W, who made it a point not to go forward without the agreement of Democrats.

Posted by: Ibid at February 24, 2008 8:24 PM

The Democrats hated Bush for being elected. They hated him for exposing Gore during the debates. And they really began to hate him after 9/11, because he became a consequential President, which Bill Clinton never was, and Jimmy Carter was in the most perjorative sense.

The 'rehabilitation' is pretty much a fait accompli. Bush has done much, and done some great things. And he has remained personally humble through it all. The academy, the shrinking journo class, Hollywood, and the hacks like Reid and Pelosi will always hate and denigrate George Bush. But he will be remembered like Reagan. Even the election of a Hillary or an Obama will only brighten the distinctions between their empty babble and Bush's substance.

Sure, he's not perfect. We argue about those 'failings' all the time here. But compared to Clinton or Carter, Bush is a .400 hitter. Guys like Perlstein have to start pile-driving the negatives now, because they know. Just like the NYT jumping McCain last week - they can't help themselves, but they also know they have to make every cut they can. Because the Big Lie requires it.

Posted by: jim hamlen at February 24, 2008 9:16 PM

GW Bush will be rehabilitated. Harry Truman is well thought of today, yet at the end of his term he wasn't. Prominent scholars in the 1960's belittled Eisenhower, yet by the 1980's they were rehabilitating him.

What the scholars and academics didn't say, and couldn't say (academic pride is ugly) is that it wasn't either Truman or Eisenhower that changed, it was that the assesor was finally being honest.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 25, 2008 8:52 AM

Reagan helped the Democrats in the bipartisan defeat of Communism? Who knew?

Ricky is ridiculous.

Posted by: erp at February 25, 2008 2:53 PM


No kidding! Considering how they wouldn't even boost the South Vietnamese with our troops completely out of the picture...

They've got some nerve.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at February 25, 2008 8:14 PM