June 24, 2008


Exchange: 'Nixonland' or 'The Age of Reagan'? (Part Two): How influential were Nixonian ideas and tactics on Reagan's presidency?: In this TNR debate, two powerhouse political historians--Sean Wilentz, the author of The Age Of Reagan and contributing editor for The New Republic, and Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland--try to figure out which president continues to have the stronger hold over our political culture. (Rick Perlstein, June 23, 2008, New Republic)

Dear Sean,

I've been wielding my Nixon hammer for so long now--I signed the book contract for Nixonland in November of 2001--that sometimes the whole world starts to look like Nixon-shaped nails. Ask my friends: I've got a Nixon story for every occasion. And I mean every occasion: You call my book "sassy," and that reminds me of a story about Alger Hiss's car. ...

And your opening thoughts get to that issue of hammers and nails: Do I see Nixonland everywhere, to the exclusion of Reaganville? How much influence should Nixon be granted as midwife of our present political moment, and how much Reagan? It's a question I'm not entirely comfortable with, because I never intended to write a book with direct relevance to our present political moment.

My book originally ended this way: Richard Nixon, the greatest Electoral College victory in hand since James Monroe in 1820, is brooding angrily about the Republican Party's failure to capture the Senate. He's berating the press ("that's how they'll piss on it"), and he's getting ready to reward his cabinet by firing them all. My editor Colin Harrison, whose judgment is superlative, sent me back to the drawing board. My readers had come this far (746 pages!), and they wouldn't be satisfied with a mere reflection on the mood of Richard Nixon because the main character of the book was actually "the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least on that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason." I needed, my editor said, to explain what happened to that voter. And so I gave Colin and Nixonland two more pages--one thousand words to explain what the previous 325,000 had been "about." I'm proud of what I wrote, and stand by my words. But it's left me in the position of having to talk more about the snappy conclusion than the messy book--which means defining what it means to say that we're still living in Nixonland.

Sean, with your usual severe intelligence, you argue that Nixonism was a "hiccup" and that the last 25 or so years of American history tie more directly back to Reagan. Because, on the one hand, Reagan sanded the edges off Nixon-style Republican tactics, and on the other, he sharpened the edges of Nixon's ideology.

I'm not sure if that's entirely true, though. For my next book, which will cover the years from 1973 to 1980, with Reagan's ascent to the presidency as its frame, I'll be testing my hypothesis that the differences between the two presidents are overstated.

Friend Perlstein has tip-toed up to an insight, but missed it. Nixon and Reagan
are similar in two ways, but dissimilar in two just as important.
Both lived through the Depression and so were New Dealers who
preserved and even expanded the Welfare State. Nixonland and
Reaganville are then well within the neighborhood of Hooverville and
FDR's America. This similarity is inconsistent with the Left's hatred
of the two, so is largely ignored--as by Rick here--or denied.

Both also fought domestic Communists and so understood the degree to
which American intellectual elites were estranged from the country and
its ideals. This obviously is where they part company with mainstream
liberalism and explains some of the social divisiveness associated
with the two, though it's part and parcel of things like the Scopes
trial decades earlier. American anti-intellectualism is an eternal
theme, not a Nixonian innovation.

But Reagan also became quite wealthy in the 50s/60s and so came to see
what big government cost in taxes. This made him a tax-cutter and
rhetorically anti-big-government, another departure from the Left. He
also had an empathy that Nixon lacked and so found it intolerable that
billions lived under Communist regimes, whereas Nixon, like the Left,
couldn't care less about those people as long as their leaders
preserved stability and didn't threaten us.

Ultimately, Nixon was almost entirely a creature of the Second Way,
while Reagan began the process of breaking away, though not to the
degree that conservative peers like thatcher and Pinochet did. But the
true paradigm shift, to the Third Way, only came with

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 24, 2008 2:42 PM

Sean Wilentz, ... and Rick Perlstein, ... --try to figure out which president continues to have the stronger hold over our political culture.

That's like two Damnyankee fans discussing who are the best Sawx pitchers.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at June 24, 2008 6:18 PM

Nixon, like the Left, couldn't care less about those people

Well, I don't know. For the Left it wasn't that they didn't care, exactly, but that they thought those under Communism had many advantages compared to us, or at least were better off compared to their earlier governments. As for Nixon, who was a conventional politician in many ways, I think he cared but accepted the conventional wisdom that Communism was too entrenched to do much about. Reagan, both more conservative and more libertarian than Nixon, saw Communism as inherently fragile, and rightly felt we could effectively act against it.

Posted by: PapayaSF at June 24, 2008 6:35 PM
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