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.