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When Richard Nixon died, large numbers of the Middle Americans he appealed to flocked to his boyhood house to pay their respects. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America offers a well-researched analysis of Richard Nixon's improbable rise to the Presidency, with primary emphasis on the two election cycles beginning in 1964, that explains President Nixon's appeal. The author states the theme at the end of his preface.
The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name -- but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least 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 was making the transition from elementary school to junior high to high school to university in that era. The events of Nixonland were the nightly news (at the beginning of the era, three networks, main newsrooms in New York, thirty minutes at suppertime) during that era. Mr Perlstein was born in 1969, and he learned about these events through extensive digging in newspaper, magazine, and television tape archives. Book Review No. 18 will suggest that students not mimic his citation style. The endnotes identify all the sources, albeit not in a form that makes easy verification and replication possible. Although his sympathies are with the left wing of the Democratic Party, he is unsparing in his evaluation of the reformers within the party (after the convention riot in Chicago particularly) and he recognizes the foibles of the counterculture and their establishment enablers ("The liberal inhabitants of the best circles: they weren't like you and me" as refrain in chapter 19.) One paragraph at page 688 ought be required reading for anyone demanding immediate governmental action of any kind.
Any political scientist could have told you that creating fair and legitimate representative institutions can be monstrously complex and paradoxical. It took the Founding Fathers twelve years to sort that out. This decision [which delegations to seat in 1972] fell upon the shoulders of a single man: Lawrence O'Brien.
And thus the other elements of the story: the Vietnam War, which Mr Perlstein suggests could not have been won or brought to an honorable peace by anyone, including Lyndon Johnson, and the Watergate scandals, which might have been unnecessary. The Nixon campaign engaged in dirty tricks against all Democrats other than Senator McGovern: given the damage the senator did to the party organization and to his own campaign, the Republicans might have best left well enough alone.

There is material in Nixonland for contemporary observers. We just witnessed a nationwide repudiation of the Republican Party a few years after its strategists were anticipating a permanent majority. Readers might want to read Nixonland along with The Making of the President 1972, the work of an experienced journalist, published immediately after the election. This passage from page 390, a meditation on Watergate, is a caution for a President whose protestations about having to take responsibility for medicine and motor vehicles and banking have something of the don't-fling-me-into-the-briar-patch about them.
In America, I think, temptation of power starts with the traditional impatience of a nation that demands quick solutions; and this impatience builds to a pressure that has increased through the administrations of all the Presidents I have known except Eisenhower. A military executive most of his life, Eisenhower had learned to recognize those moments that call for the quick stroke of action, and to distinguish them from the slow responsibilities of garrison duty. Eisenhower conducted his Presidency as a benign garrison command. All other Presidents of the post-war world, from Truman on, have suffered from this national impatience for results; and they have all pressed the laws of the United States to the limit to get results.

What then of the fractures in the social fabric that Richard Nixon exploited? Mr Perlstein suggests we are still living in Nixonland. Perhaps so. But perhaps we have learned that making a national virtue out of transgressiveness leads to madness, the usefulness of an avant-garde (those liberal inhabitants of the best circles?) notwithstanding. There are also fractures within the major party coalitions. Yes, advances in home-building technology might lead to clusters of houses with solar power and small lawns separated spatially and politically from clusters of houses with garages large enough for multiple Hummers and lawns calling for riding mowers: Nixonland in concrete. In neighborhoods of both types, however, there are people observing the routines of getting up in the morning and going to work and fretting about the bills and keeping the larder stocked. No matter the politics in the house, the residents vote alike with dissimilar people: in one case, with people rendered unemployable by their inclusive education; in the other, with people who render themselves unemployable by displacing good science with bad faith in their schools. Those coalitions may not be sustainable.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)



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