October 2, 2008


Before we begin, let me just state for the record that I consider Rick Perlstein to be a friend, at least the unusual sort of friend we can have in this Internet Age. We've never met and we've spoken by telephone only once--when he was writing an essay for the Village Voice about how conservatives are unAmerican for not recognizing that George W. Bush is evil. But ever since he sent us his first book--the excellent, Before the Storm--we've corresponded somewhat regularly by e-mail and I'm one of a handful of conservatives he jousts with regularly enough that we get an undeserving mention in the Acknowledgments here. We agree on next to nothing and the manner of his disagreement has become quite frantic over the course of the Bush Epoch--plus, even as I type this he's welching on the steak dinner he lost to me in a bet--but we're friendly nonetheless. So you may wish to consider that as you read what follows.

If I understand correctly, Nixonland is the second volume in a projected trilogy on conservatism that will conclude with a history of the Reagan years. That aforementioned first volume won plaudits from those on the Right because, while Friend Perlstein is unabashedly a man of the far Left, a "progressive" as they like to style themselves, he was genuinely fair in his treatment of Barry Goldwater and took seriously the ideas of the conservative movement that spawned his presidential candidacy. The book was written with a kind of clinical detachment that permitted him to examine a political phenomenon and its underlying ideology without denouncing it at every opportunity. This installment is far more passionate and partisan, to the book's detriment and the reader's disappointment.

Mind you, Democrats and various denizens of the '60s/'70s Left take their share of incoming fire too and no one particularly cares if an author is overly fair to Richard Nixon, least of all conservatives. After all, to a considerable degree just three individuals are responsible for retarding the permanent realignment of America back to its default position on the Center-Right after the Great Depression/WWII years: Lee Harvey Oswald, Richard Nixon, and Mohammed Atta. However, the main shortcoming of the book lies in the sad reality that in making of Nixon a personal Moby Dick, Mr. Perlstein ends up doing damage to the historical/political analysis herein. Nixon becomes a satanic Zelig, in the frame for every awful thing that's happened in the past 50 years, rather than the pathetic little victim of social forces beyond his ken and control that he really was.

The basic problem lies in the way that the book is framed. Mr. Perlstein's contention is that the landslide election of LBJ in 1964 marked the acceptance by the American people of a liberal consensus but that the subsequent, supposedly sudden, splintering of society, the violence of the 60s and 70s, and even the Red v. Blue divide that we talk about today were brought about by Richard Nixon and the cunning way in which he manipulated "strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments." This essentially makes Richard Nixon responsible for the Klu Klux Klan bombing, beating, and murdering blacks during the Civil Rights Era--when he was a nearly forgotten lawyer in New York City--for the Weathermen attacking the US government, for Mayor Daley and NYC hardhats attacking hippies, and so on and so forth. Nevermind the absurd power it attributes to a Dick who was nowhere near that Tricky, even more problematic is that these are all cases of violence being perpetrated by the various factions of the New Deal coalition or the New Left: Dixiecrats; big city mayors; intellectuals; labor unions, etc.. Once we recognize that the particular pathologies of this period were played out within the Democratic Party, it would seem to become obvious that it was the Johnson presidency itself that blew up that party. And, fittingly, it did so because President Johnson misread the election returns of 1964 in the same way that our friend does.

The distance of decades, the unwillingness to think poorly of a murdered president, the haze of nostalgia, and a cottage industry of apologists for Camelot has tended to make us forget that John F. Kennedy thought it not unlikely that he could lose to Barry Goldwater in 1964. The young executive had already seriously screwed up his handling of Cuba, Moscow, and Vietnam and was subject to blame from white Southern Democrats for being too much opposed to Jim Crow and from the Civil Rights movement for doing too little about same. Indeed, JFK was only in Texas because he feared losing it the next year. We can never know whether he would in fact have been a one term failure but for Lee Harvey Oswald, but we do know that the gunman radically changed the political environment for the following Fall. LBJ just rode the martyr's coattails to a victory that should have told him nothing more, and a historian like Mr. Perlstein nothing more, than that Americans weren't about to let some psychotic decide which party should be in the White House. All Democrats had to do in 1964 was connect Barry Goldwater--whose intemperate rhetoric helped them immeasurably--to extremist views and the election was in the bag. Thus, while Mr. Goldwater's Convention Speech is one of the best remembered, and most notorious, in American history, no one recalls a word of LBJ's, because he said nothing, as he ran on nothing. Today we associate the Great Society with a series of quite specific and divisive policies that he used his "mandate" and majorities to enact, but when he was running it was all airy pabulum:

For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people.

The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.

Your imagination, your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth. For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society.

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning.

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what it adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

Whatever all of that means, it can hardly be argued that LBJ was using the 1964 election to establish a consensus for war in Vietnam, desegregation of even private facilities, massive expenditures on a War on Poverty, and all the rest of the dog's breakfast of laws that the incoming Congress passed.

It can come as no surprise then that voters ended the Great Society's ambitions just two years later, punishing Democrats in the '66 midterm. And while the Democrat on Democrat violence that ensued was certainly appalling, it was perhaps the inevitable result of a party undertaking such wrenching social experimentation with so little popular will behind it. Of course, conspicuously absent from the scene during these years was one Richard M. Nixon. The "fracturing of America," even if we concede that it occurred at this time, took place not in Nixonland, but Johnsonville.

Adding to the confusion, that term, "Nixonland," is borrowed from a letter that Adlai Stevenson wrote to John Kenneth Galbraith in the mid-50s, when the eponymous man was a mere vice president. Mr. Perlstein broadens the definition of Nixonland in a way that is instructive, though perplexing:

[I]t is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans. The first group, enemies of Richard Nixon, are the spiritual heirs of Stevenson and Galbraith. They take it as an axiom that if Richard Nixon and the values associated with him triumph, America itself might end. The second group are the people who wrote those telegrams begging Dwight D. Eisenhower to keep their hero on the 1952 Republican ticket. They believe, as did Nixon, that if the enemies of Richard Nixon triumph--the Alger Hisses and Helen Gahagan Douglases, the Herblocks, and hippies, the George McGoverns and all the rest--America might end.

This practically beggars description. Not only does Nixon by himself supposedly represent everything that American intellectuals despise, but we are implicitly asked to believe that hippies and a spy for the Soviet Union did not want to radically change or end America as we know, though that was the stated aim of their respective ideologies. Bizarre.

Now, it may be the case that the Stevensons, Galbraiths, and Hisses located in Richard Nixon everything they hate about what Mr. Perlstein's friend, Thomas Frank, nowadays calls Kansas. Intelectualls have long been aware of and offended by the disdain in which they are held by most Americans. The irony of Richard Nixon though is that he was driven by a need for acceptance by the intellectual class, not a disregard for it. That is presumably why, when he did triumph, he governed like a liberal Democrat and converted from the anti-Communism of his youthful days to the despicable Realism of his Harvard-trained foreign policy mentor, Henry Kissinger. The book makes much of Nixon's founding of the Orthogonians at Whittier College, a club to compete with the more socially elevated Franklins:

Franklins were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly. Nixon's new club,the Orthogonians, was for the strivers, those not to the manner born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded this followers that reveling in one's nonpolish was a nobility of its own. ... Orthogonians wore shirtsleeves. "Beans, brains and brawn" was their motto. He told them orthogonian -- basically "at right angles" -- mean "upright," "straight shooter."

Mr. Perlstein suggests that we accept this as a metaphor for nixon's life and look at his whole career as a matter of leading the Orthogonians against the Franklins. He leaves unexplored what I would argue is the more revealing possibility, that Nixon is best understood as resenting his own Orthogonality and exclusion from the Franklins, such that his politics became over time a way of currying favor with his "betters," rather than leading the anti-intellectual mob. That is why his presidency is so nearly indistinguishable from that of the archetypal liberal Democrat, LBJ.

Unfortunately, when we begin picking at all these threads the whole Leftist obsession with Richard Nixon as a uniquely evil and quintessentially conservative figure comes unraveled. While Nixon is hardly a character who can inspire sympathy, Mr. Perlstein's obsessive pursuit ends up reminding us, or instructing the younger among us, of that long before there was a Bush Derangement Syndrome--whereby W is not only responsible for Hurricane Katrina but for the very fact that people live below sea level in a hurricane zone--there was this sort of lunatic hatred--such that even a somewhat silly confrontation between Yoko Ono and the cartoonist Al Capp can be blamed on Nixon.

Weighing in at 748 pages, some may think the investment of time and energy to great just to learn a lesson about how looney the Left can be. But Friend Perlstein brings along a staggering amount of research, a rich collection of anecdotes, an amusing and (on occasion) affecting righteous anger, and a tremendous zest as he rides roughshod through the period from '64 to '72. You may not agree with many, if any, of his conclusions about the era, and you'll not mistake him for the historian of his earlier book, but as a polemicist he's never less than entertaining. And if he writes from heart instead of the head here, what more ought we really expect from a liberal? Liberalism is, after all, about feeling instead of thinking. And, whatever else it may be, this book is deeply felt.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2008 4:50 PM
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