This is one depressing book.

Why should you read it? Well, it actually explains why non-evil people could rationally vote for Nixon.

Perlstein made his publishing bones with a widely praised 2002 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Nixonland picks up where the earlier book’s narrative sections leave off, after Lyndon Johnson’s crushing landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964. But it’s more than a sequel. Much of Before the Storm focused on the history and internal dynamics of the conservative movement that ultimately conquered American politics in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. Nixonland is an exceptionally broad and thorough social, cultural and political history of eight tumultuous years. It should quickly become the standard history of this period. And it sings with outstanding storytelling and insight. Even readers who reject Perlstein’s interpretation of the Nixon era cannot help but get carried along by such instant classics as his hour-by-hour account of how the chaotic 1968 Democratic Convention looked on network television (a pitch-perfect account from my own heat-seared memories of the event, which occurred before Perlstein’s birth).
The book’s hypothesis is straightforward. Perlstein sets for himself the goal of explaining why the LBJ landslide of 1964 was followed so quickly by the Nixon landslide of 1972. His explanation is that what looked like a durable center-left consensus in 1964 actually disguised fault lines that produced a culture-based “fracturing” of the country, characterized by the defection of much of the white middle class from the New Deal- Great Society coalition. Richard Nixon, says Perlstein, was the perfect demiurge for this fracturing, as a man consumed by the very middle-class striver resentment of liberal elites and their political clients that he so successfully elicited in the electorate.
Perlstein uses a Nixon biographical detail to organize much of the book: the young Whittier College student’s organization of an “outsider” social group, the Orthogonians, to rival Whittier’s dominant Big Man On Campus group, the Franklins. Throughout his subsequent career, Nixon perpetually appealed to Orthogonian “silent majority” folk against the wealthy, sophisticated and fashionable Franklins of American society and politics, increasingly identified with the supposedly working-class-rooted Democratic Party.
As Perlstein explains, before the 1960s, Nixon warred with Franklins like Jerry Voorhis (his first congressional opponent); Alger Hiss (the darling of diplomatic elites, and the object of his first congressional anti-communist crusade); Helen Gahagan Douglas (his Hollywood-connected first senatorial opponent); Averill Harriman (the plutocratic Democrat who sneered at Nixon as a social inferior); Adlai Stevenson (whose haughty description of Nixon’s constituency gave the book its title); and John F. Kennedy (the Senator from Camelot, whose family represented every privilege and advantage denied to the Whittier striver). But Nixon hit his stride in the mid-1960s, when vast numbers of Americans who voted for LBJ and civil rights in 1964 reacted in Orthogonian revulsion to riotous students and rioting African-Americans: people who appeared to be elite liberalism’s arrogant praetorian guard and ungrateful proletarian clientele.
Paradoxically, Richard Nixon appealed to the anger of middle-class Americans who mourned the loss of the LBJ consensus:
[INDENT] [This] man Nixon was … stubbornly successful in answering Americans’ yearning for quiet; but … even so, in a complex admixture, Nixon also rose by stoking and exploiting anger and resentment, rooted in the anger and resentment at the center of his character.
[/INDENT] Hence, Nixon’s not-so-silent majority in 1972.

At the time it looked like society was coming apart at the seams, with all the action on the left - blacks, kids, women, all rising up and trying to feel out where to take things for themselves, with the resultant associated disastrous experiments (the Weatherman, the Black Panthers, McGovern) and rhetoric way, way outside the bounds of society’s consensus self-nuking many of the things they pushed for. I made a few pages of notes as I went through, and flipping back through them the two themes are “Nixon is an evil dick” (more on that later) and “politician, person, or group on the left blows it.” Let’s take Jane Fonda as an example. Today she is seen on the right and by many people in the center as the living embodiment of everything wrong with the opposition to the Vietnam war. How she got there is depressing as hell; a well-intentioned and completely unseasoned political naif gets played.

First, some background - Nixon has been pulling out troops, but increasing the bombing of North Vietnam by an incredible amount to try to “win” by scorched earth. He’s begun bombing the dikes of the rice paddies - convince the North Vietnamese that you’ll starve their entire damn country, contrary to the bullshit sold to the public. It’s pretty much a war crime, and if the public knew support would have dropped significantly.

Fonda comes into the country, sees this, and what does she do? Go on fucking NV radio and explain to US pilots that they’re engaging in illegal orders. For good measure, get carried along by the North Vietnamese spirit of togetherness (largely inspired by the scorched-earth military tactics in the first place) singing hymns and let them photograph your dumb ass on a NV AA piece, because they’re effectiveness propagandists and know what they’re doing, and can make you look like you’re trying to shoot down American planes. Talk about how the POWs you met confessed shame at what they had done - because god knows they’re reliable sources in captivity, and it’s smart politics regardless! - and say that if their families want them home, they should go work for McGovern. She comes back with photographs showing that the US was intentionally bombing the dikes - with the UN confirming; they had the goods - but it’s lost in the firestorm about that traitorous Hanoi Jane. Nixon gets away with yet another crime because his political opponents are total incompetents. McGovern wasn’t much better.

Which brings me to the other theme - Nixon as willing to do anything, and I do mean anything, to win. He’ll take any political opinion necessary to win; he adopts virtually every opinion on Vietnam except surrendering at some point throughout the book’s narrative. He sets up the White House as a criminal conspiracy. Howard Hunt forges some cables to try to pin the Diem assassination on Kennedy. Liddy comes up with a plan to float a barge of hookers off Miami Beach to lure in Democrats for blackmail. Gordon describes his plan to have Cuban commando teams sabotage the air conditioners at the Democratic convention to the Attorney General of the United States, John Mitchell, and Mitchell just laughs, rather than arresting him. Nixon tries to get the CIA to make it look like John Lennon is being paid by Moscow. Nixon gets Haldeman to put together goon squads to rough up demonstrators. At one point Martha Mitchell, the wife of John Mitchell, is held hostage in her house by a minder who rips the phone out of the wall to keep her from talking to the press about all the criminal activity going on.

My favorite part of reading it, though, was the hilarious out-of-context cameos and historical details. Some favorites:

Page 179: Up With People came out of a demonstration of pro-war college students. I shit you not. The finale of their debut at the 1965 World’s Fair was “Freedom Isn’t Free.” They sung the song at the 1968 GOP convention. I’m not making this up, those motivational speakers with the terrible songs really got started this way.

Page 184: Reagan lies about being a member of the communist party on his security clearance form for governor.

Page 198: The NRA, in reaction to the uptick in the crime rate and urban black riots, turns from a sportsman’s hobby club into publishing vigilante-admiring columns in its magazine and fighting the impending confiscation of all guns.

Page 287: Storm Thurmond hand-feeds a projector to show a stag film to the Senate (pornography, for those too young), as part of a campaign to to deny Abe Fortas a Supreme Court nomination on grounds of him not wanting to ban the movies.

Page 348: George Wallace considers Colonel Sanders as his VP. I’m not making that up.

Page 581: Mike Gravel, 2008 Democratic fringe candidate, does the lord’s work reading the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record - protecting them from Nixon trying to seize all outstanding copies - back in 1968.

Christ J, pace yourself. You’re going to go supernova if you keep posting at this rate.


First, some background - Nixon has been pulling out troops, but increasing the bombing of North Vietnam by an incredible amount to try to “win” by scorched earth. He’s begun bombing the dikes of the rice paddies - convince the North Vietnamese that you’ll starve their entire damn country, contrary to the bullshit sold to the public. It’s pretty much a war crime, and if the public knew support would have dropped significantly.
I don’t think so; Nixon was a master politician with the vanguard of the ‘political spin’ newscycle people with him. Fuck, flying to communist China didn’t phase most people. I don’t think the bombing of the dikes was as big an event as you think if it had been widely known.

I also don’t think you see Nixon as a product of the times; even my parents see the late 60’s and early 70’s as about as close to ‘revolution’ as we’ve been in modern times. Old society was kinda sorta breaking down, and, well, people with an interest in seeing the status quo go forward are the middle class.

The Cambodia bombing going public dropped the poll numbers for the war, I don’t see why intentionally trying to starve North Vietnam would be any different. The administration’s reaction sure acted like they thought it would be bad if the public found out.

Interesting you see the book (I haven’t read it) as depressing in light of Kilgore’s essay.

It appears now, however, that the conservative politics of middle-class cultural resentment may have finally reached its point of rapidly diminishing returns, starved slowly by a lack of external nourishment. Despite sharp public divisions over the war in Iraq, National Guard troops aren’t shooting students on college campuses. The abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib have aroused reasonably general condemnation, not the vengeful mass popular support attracted by the perpetrators of My Lai. The contemporary symbols of Scary Black Anger are hip-hop celebrities and a certain minister from Chicago, not armed militants. Race-fueled political issues like crime, welfare and busing have significantly abated. Even if we are still living in Nixonland, the landscape is less perilous.

Its easy to see the current administration as a mirror of Nixon’s. But where Nixon was a cynical realist, his administration was not the ideological disaster W’s has proven itself to be. Had Nixon’s paranoia not driven him to do petty illegal things his large illegal things might have been glossed over. Its arguable that he would not have been remembered as a disastrous president (if not for Watergate and all that unpleasantness.) But Nixon’s fall was probably inevitable, his character was such that had he skated on Watergate, he just would have done something equally as skeevy and obvious.

One of Andrew Sullivan’s more persuasive pro-Obama (vs. Hillary) arguments was that Obama has no stake in the fights of the 60’s and 70’s. Jane Fonda, the Black Panthers, Vietnam, Nixon et al all should serve to inform, not to actually shape policy. Obama doesn’t have to prove that one ideology is better than another. He is freed to pick the best of what has been traditionally “right” ideology and discard the worst of "left ideology, at least I hope so.

If nothing else GWB has given the “true believers” a chance to explore the limits of “faith-based reality” to effect “real reality”. (I’m not limiting this magical thinking and its failures to the traditional evangelicals, but also including the Neo Cons, and their belief in the reformative power of a democratic Iraq.) The eight year reign of a “true” heir to Reagan has taken a daisy cutter to the intellectual bunker of anger and resentment based conservative thought.

It’s depressing in the same way reading about historical disasters is depressing. It’s over and mostly repaired, but the missed opportunities and botched handling is still agonizing.

Here’s what I don’t get about this argument, and the reason I rolled my eyes when it back then in the Atlantic Monthly: the right is obviously still obsessed with the 1960s; Newt Gingrich’s rhetoric was the best example of this. I really don’t see how on earth the Clintons were, however; I can’t recall either Clinton talking much about any of the 60s and 70s topics you mention. Like most things Sullivan says, I think he’s projecting the inverse of his assumptions onto his opponents; then he gets to suggest his opponents losing will solve his problem. It’s a goofy rhetorical trick conservatives have been using for years - let’s bring everyone together by everyone agreeing with me, even though I’m only arguing with myself.

Sure it is, but, at least as far as the Clintons were concerned, it worked (as much as anything worked against Bill) if nothing else than to rally their base.

To Newt et al, the Clintons were “draft dodging, pot smoking, Hippies” (never mind that Hillary was a Goldwater gal) and regardless of the evidence of Bill’s success as president (economic at least, which you would think should resonate with the “party of business”) or his centrist policies, they were still paragons of the 60’s culture wars.

Right, but that’s not what Andrew said. He made it sound like if only the nasty Clintons would go away the conservatives would relax.

When people let their petty irrational pet peeves dominate their actions, that is evil. When people allow themselves to be dominated by fear and abdicate their responsibilities, that is evil. That’s what evil is. Evil isn’t some guy with a Dick Dastardly twirly mustache saying “Soon they’ll see! They’ll all see!!! BWAHAHAHA!!!” It’s people like Nixon, and those who voted for him, doing what they did. Was Nixon worse than most of his followers? Probably. But it’s a matter of degree, not kind.

They do seem a little more relaxed.

Maybe its just me.