June 13, 2008


Leaving Nixonland : a review of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America By Rick Perlstein (David Weigel, 6/13/2008, American Spectator)

[Rick] Perlstein's subject is the voter who cast a ballot for LBJ in 1964 "because to do anything else...seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason."

This is what Nixonland adds to the cornucopia of Nixon books already on the shelves. Other studies focus on the man's psyche, his friendships, and his downfall, and make it hard to understand how he rose to the pinnacle of American politics.

Plenty of these analyses focus on Nixon's inability to pay for a Harvard education after the school accepted him. Perlstein considers that important, but he hones in one what Nixon did when he arrived at Whittier College.

Nixon was rejected from the Franklins, the elite clique that ran the campus, so he founded a club called the Orthogonians "for the strivers, those not to the manor born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one's unpolish was a nobility of its own."

PERLSTEIN'S INSIGHT IS that Nixon kept up the chairmanship of this club for the rest of his political life, drafting new members at every critical juncture. The "Checkers" speech is the first and best example, as, over the jeers of liberal intellectuals, nearly 2 million people saved Nixon's career by sending telegrams supporting his position in a campaign finance scandal. "They interpreted the puppy story just as Nixon intended it," writes Perlstein, "as a jab at a bunch of bastards who were piling on, kicking a man when he was down, a regular guy, just because they could do it and he couldn't fight back."

It was good practice for the turmoil of the 1960s, and Perlstein is clear-eyed enough to see why, as the decade closed, Nixon was so successful. He identifies the reasons all historians of the left identify -- a heated backlash against the civil rights movement, an even stronger backlash against integration. He locates nasty letters that angry white voters sent to Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Illinois): "While you sit on your butt in Washington Martin Luther King is violating everything I bought and paid for." He excavates oddball rumors that swirled in white communities, like the fear, in eastern Iowa, that black gangsters were traveling from Chicago on motorcycles to attack their communities.

Myth after myth about the 1960s is punctured. The saintly Robert F. Kennedy actually wheezed over the finish line in Indiana and California, stitching together a coalition of white liberals and blacks, not uniting all voters. Ronald Reagan wasn't a sunny optimist, but a political flirt who bashed college students and tried to steal the 1968 nomination from Nixon.

Perlstein, however, does not argue that the backlash of the 1960s and 1970s (the book ends with Nixon's defeat of McGovern) was all the fault of the backlashers. He excoriates the far left for egging all of this on.

The Chicago Seven trial -- the subject of a hagiographic animated movie just last year -- is recounted as a battle between self-aggrandizing, cartoonish leftists and an embittered establishment that didn't know better.

Perlstein digs up wacko event after wacko event, writing the proceedings in a deadpan voice as his subjects condemn themselves. At the 1968 New Politics Conference, convened to nominate a third party ticket of Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, "one delegate offered himself for endorsement for president of the United States and said the 1966 Italian art-house Blowup was his platform. He was serious."

At the 1972 Democratic convention, a delegate gloats about voting on acid.

Friend Perlstein's confusion lies in the belief that the 1964 vote was anything more than a reaction to JFK's assassination.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at June 13, 2008 2:02 PM

When comes your review?

Posted by: Rick Perlstein at June 13, 2008 3:32 PM

Myth after myth about the 1960s is punctured, and other myths created.

Posted by: ic at June 13, 2008 4:26 PM


Posted by: oj at June 13, 2008 6:06 PM


Am I reading you correctly that Goldwater beats JFK in 1964 if Oswald had bad aim?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 13, 2008 8:24 PM

Matt, that's my take too. Kennedy was in Texas to drum up support because he was in serious jeopardy of losing the next election. Just think of all the travail we would have saved ourselves if the playboy of the western world had stayed home and played with his rhymes with bores.

Posted by: erp at June 14, 2008 8:09 AM

JFK thought he might. People don't like to remember how unpopular JFK was until he got shot.

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2008 8:45 AM

erp and OJ:

Yeah, but Goldwater? Seems like it was a bit early for him. He was a seriously inept campaigner, too.

Erp, on my last birthday I went out to eat with my folks and we started talking about the Kennedys. My mom likes JFK although she's aware of all his faults. I said I've never understood the whole Camelot thing and I went right down the list: The whole thing was a setup, the press fell for him, his dad secured the Pulitzer and the presidency for him, and all that. But none of it seemed to make a dent. It baffles me.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 14, 2008 9:08 AM

Inept? How so? He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer but that doesn't make one a bad campaigner.

JFK and he would have debated quite a bit. LBJ was able to ignore him.

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2008 12:06 PM


Check out Mr. Perlstein's book on him and how he would praise free markets in front of coal-miners, talk nuclear deterrence in front of farmers, etc. It drove a good deal of his staff bonkers.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 14, 2008 6:29 PM

Yes, he believed in ideas. With the assassination hysteria and without debates no one got to hear any of them. Against JFK they would have mattered.

Posted by: oj at June 14, 2008 7:47 PM


I know this won't sit well with you, but any politician who routinely makes statements about nuking other superpowers is not going to win the presidency. And remember that media jackals like Cronkite were out to get him.

Reagan believed in ideas as well but he knew how to communicate them.

Milton Friedman remarked once that when he wrote Capitalism and Freedom almost no mainstream publication reviewed it, other than economics journals. About 15 years later he was able to get a public TV miniseries started and the resulting book was the year's nonfiction bestseller. One age wasn't ready for Goldwater, the other was prepared for Reagan.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 14, 2008 11:31 PM

Absent the assassination the age was ready. Kennedy won because he ran to Nixon'x Right..

Posted by: oj at June 15, 2008 4:25 AM

Happy Birthday Matt!

Kennedy "won" for the same reason Obama won the nomination and may win the election. Star Power. They make women and girly men swoon -- Nixon and McCain don't and can't.

The country was assuredly ready for Goldwater who unlike Nixon, made a very good appearance. He was a soft-spoken handsome gentleman. Read what he actually said in context, not the slanders of the media.

Remember the era of entitlements were well in future. Most people, left and right, frowned on give-aways and government control. Today's right is further left than lefties were then.

Goldwater was borked before we knew what that meant and don't forget, television campaigning and debates were in their infancy. Ask anyone who watched the 1960 Democratic convention what they thought of the handsome prince. I'm no fan of Johnson, but what the Irish mafia did to him was disgusting and he never knew what hit him.

Kennedy wrote no books, not the fictionalized version of his excellent adventure at sea, nor Profiles in Courage. He was barely literate. His foolishness led to the Berlin wall and on and on....

BTW - Did you ask your mother what she liked about Kennedy?

Posted by: erp at June 15, 2008 9:18 AM


See, that's the unusual thing, my mom is normally pretty head-headed but she was a girl during the Kennedy years and it's like she fell for the whole Kennedy mystique. She is aware of all the dirt that's been dug up on him. But, when I said I don't understand why he is a hero figure, she said you had to be there and that there was tremendous national mourning over the assassination of this young and handsome president. And then when his brother was assassinated it was like the whole country was watching a family tragedy.

Both of my parents come from Irish-Catholic backgrounds but different social classes ("lace-curtain" Irish and "shanty" Irish). I suppose admiration for JFK was one thing most folks from that background had in common. Maybe that helps explain it.

Certainly my sympathies are with the Kennedy family for all their heartbreak but I don't see why that overrides the easily established fact that Kennedy was entirely a creation of his crooked father, a kind of political anti-hero.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 15, 2008 2:12 PM


And you know, the funny thing is that political arguments seem relatively trivial to the Camelot folks. They have this image of what the country was like back then and it's impossible to shake.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 15, 2008 2:14 PM

You're right that the media played the whole sordid episode as if it were a made-for-TV movie and plenty of people got caught up in it.

As for championing one of their own, in your mother's case an Irishman who rose to the top of the summit, it's the same thing that's happening to Blacks who idolize Obama as the personification of their struggle even though he's a Johnny-come-lately who wasn't anywhere near struggling.

It's the cult of personality which I find very scary.

Posted by: erp at June 15, 2008 4:49 PM


It certainly seems like a historic norm for subsets of our electorate to go gaga for some cause or candidate. It fizzles out eventually, at least as far as political consequences if not political mythology. But yeah, it can be scary while it lasts. (Check out those TV ads OJ posted with huge crowds screaming Obama's name, yikes!)

The great thing about our country is that we have self-correction machinery built into the framework, and our short attention spans help cool down mistaken ardor. I guess I'll take some of the irritating consequences if it means avoiding the political manias that grip many other societies.

But still, sheesh, Kennedy was no hero. It's an insult to truly great Americans to pretend he was. He was one of the biggest con jobs ever foisted on the public (and yes, I'm calling out my fellow Nebraskan Ted Sorensen, as well as that court hagiographer Arthur Schlesinger). That folks recognize all this and still lionize him is jaw-dropping. It's especially appalling for media people like Dan Rather, who recite Camelot poems and cry on-air. We pay these guys to deflate malarkey, not contribute.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at June 15, 2008 6:53 PM