May 28, 2008


'Nixonland,' Chronicling a Political Sea Change (CHRISTOPHER WILLCOX, May 29, 2008, NY Sun)

Mr. Perlstein's use of the elections of 1964 and 1972 as ideological goalposts may be arbitrary, but it is easy to see why he selected them. Could two such different countries really be separated by eight short years? It was as if a great dam broke following Johnson's election. He signed the historic Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965, which led one observer to declare, "There is no more civil rights movement." Five nights later, the Watts district in Los Angeles erupted in one of many major race riots to come. Drug taking, which had been largely confined to the ghetto and the cultural avant-garde, was mainstreamed and celebrated. A tiny antiwar movement mushroomed into a national mobilization campaign, involving the seizure of college campuses (Columbia University) and resulting in the shooting of student protesters (Kent State).

The liberal consensus — represented by Johnson's triumphant performance in 1964, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 Electoral College votes — seemed to signal the country's embrace of the great Democratic coalition built by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two short political cycles later, that coalition was in tatters — a casualty of antiwar and countercultural excesses and the near absolute takeover of the party by elites devoted to a more radical extension of liberal policies than could be countenanced by the voters who normally animated Democratic turnout. The same Mayor Richard J. Daley who ruled the 1968 Democratic Convention with a famously iron fist was challenged for and finally denied a convention seat at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami. It must have been sweet revenge for the film stars and other glitterati who disdained Chicago's "Boss," but it came at a price. The Democratic Party had changed, and with it the shape of American politics.

"Nixonland" offers a rich and colorful account of that political sea change, but Mr. Perlstein's remarkable research is assembled around a deeply misleading thesis — that the rise of Nixon heralded and defined the ideological divisions that have given us a red-state, blue-state political map ever since. Like most liberals, Mr. Perlstein labors under a misapprehension that Nixon was a political conservative. While he is too good a historian not to acknowledge some differences between Nixon and such movement conservatives as William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, he is usually stuck in the default position that ignores Nixon's well-documented record.

This record's highlights include wage and price controls in peacetime, decoupling of the dollar from gold, a 10% tariff on all imports into the United States, and the creation of a new and gigantic bureaucracy with the Environmental Protection Agency. He proposed a universal health care system as well, but Watergate got him first. Even his foreign policy, while it may have been adroit, was hardly conservative. Hindsight confirms that his historic embrace of China was the right thing to do, but it involved some shabby, if not dishonorable, treatment of Taiwan. The last American helicopters fleeing Saigon happened on his watch, and that wasn't pretty. His slavish devotion to missile-control talks with Moscow and his generally nonconfrontational relationship with corrupt Soviet leaders may have prolonged the Cold War and certainly encouraged the Soviet fantasy that communism had a future.

One of Friend Perlstein's biggest problems lies in treating 1964 as if it meant anything. If you remove the assassination and its emotional aftermath from the equation and ask only how the 1964 election would have gone otherwise -- JFK feared he'd lose to Goldwater at the time of his death -- the very notion of a consensus is absurd.

-REVIEW: of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein: Author Blames a Divided U.S. on Nixon and His Era (Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times)

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2008 9:44 PM

Something occurred to me the other day.

On the one hand, you have the Left asking "What's the matter with Kansas?" They don't understand why the proletariat doesn't vote for the Left as Marx predicted, and conclude that it's because they're "backwards" (socially conservative) and irrationally "frightened" by their culturally-elite betters.

On the other hand, the Left hates Nixon. Nixon was one of the most left-leaning, most "progressive" presidents ever, in terms of economics and foreign policy. Surrender in Vietnam, accommodation with the Soviets and the ChiComs, high-tax, high-spend domestic policies, affirmative action, wage and price controls, the EPA, urban renewal--the list goes on and on. The only thing remotely "conservative" about Nixon was that he pandered to concerns about high crime and social breakdown--didn't really do much about them, but talked a good line. He campaigned as Archie Bunker and governed as Henry Wallace.

That's when it hit me: if the diagnosis in "What's the Matter With Kansas?" is right--I don't think it is, but folks on the left like Friend Perlstein do--then the solution is obvious: embrace your inner Archie! Run as tough on crime, no gun control, oppose gay marriage, "safe legal and rare," and so on. The ideal "progressive" candidate is Richard M. Nixon.

Posted by: Mike Morley at May 29, 2008 10:42 AM

"They don't understand why the proletariat doesn't vote for the Left as Marx predicted, and conclude that it's because they're "backwards" (socially conservative) and irrationally "frightened" by their culturally-elite betters."

Mike: It goes back before Marx. The Left has been confused about this issue since the French Revolution failed to sweep the world. Marx was just one prominent attempt to explain the failure and to propose totalitarianism as the solution. It's been more than two centuries, and they still show no signs of learning anything.

Posted by: b at May 29, 2008 11:40 AM