The Divided States of America
June 13, 2008
By Bradford Plumer
After the first-ever televised presidential debate between Vice
President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy in 1960, a survey in
Philadelphia famously found that TV viewers deemed Kennedy the
winner, while radio listeners favored Nixon. In reality, the poll in
question was shoddy and unreliable (even if Nixon's sweaty, unshaven
mug had looked gruesome on the small screen). But that didn't matter
to Nixon. The lesson he gleaned from defeat that year was that optics
were everything, that he had to be far more ruthless about
controlling his image from there on out.
And so he was. While staging his big political comeback in the 1968
Republican primary, Nixon scripted every campaign event, handpicking
his audiences with the help of 28-year-old media strategist (and
future Fox News head) Roger Ailes and trounced his chief rival,
Gov. George Romney, who naively believed that voters might like a
little off-the-cuff candor. Later, Nixon would become the first
president to hire a full-time communications director and told his
economic advisers to work closely with public relations guru William
Safire. Message first, policy second.
Still, Nixon's mastery of the shiny surface of politics would've
taken him only so far if he hadn't also possessed another,
less-noticed skill a gift for reading the darker, subterranean
moods of American voters. And it's that aspect of Nixon that sits at
the center of journalist Rick Perlstein's Nixonland (Scribner), a
rich new history of the 1960s that tries to pinpoint the origins of
America's rightward drift over the last four decades.
Once upon a time say, late 1965 it was possible to believe that
American conservatism was two sweeps of the broom away from the
dustbin of history. President Lyndon Johnson had just vaporized Rep.
Barry Goldwater en route to re-election, and scores of new liberal
Democrats had swept into Congress to enforce racial equality, expand
healthcare and declare war on poverty.
Few pundits at the time realized, however, that beneath the surface,
all the social upheavals of the '60s were making vast swaths of
Middle America susceptible to a new brand of right-wing cultural
populism. It was Nixon, master of symbolism, reader of undercurrents,
who knew exactly how to exploit this lurking resentment and, in the
process, redraw the nation's electoral map.
Histories of the '60s are hardly in short supply the Watts riots,
the Summer of Love, Attica, Kent State … familiar events, all. Even
so, Nixonland manages to distinguish itself brilliantly. Perlstein's
talent for scene-setting, his cinematic style, serves to illustrate
how the turmoil of the era would have actually looked and felt to the
average American showing, rather than just explaining, why so many
in the "silent majority" became alienated from the reigning liberal consensus.
In a gripping chapter on the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago,
Perlstein mines old newsreels to offer a frame-by-frame
reconstruction of what TV viewers would have seen from their living
rooms: New York delegates waving "STOP THE WAR" signs; demonstrators
in Grant Park chanting "Kill the pigs"; newscaster David Brinkley
sitting agog while police stormed the convention hall.
Perlstein also punctures many long-standing myths about the decade,
such as the notion that disgruntled lefties caused all the mayhem of
the '60s. Far from it: Right-wing Cuban exiles were firebombing more
than a dozen locations in the summer of '68. Minutemen vigilantes
tried to burn down a pacifist farm in Connecticut, ending in a
shootout with the police. In a ghastly account of the 1967 Newark
riots, Perlstein writes how the local police gunned down unarmed
civilians in the streets, spilling more blood than the rioters themselves.
Even so, a Harris poll the following year found that most Americans
especially the low-income whites who had formed the backbone of the
New Deal coalition blamed the violence on blacks and the
all-too-indulgent "long hairs" ruling the country.
In stepped Nixon himself a lifelong "serial collector of
resentments," as Perlstein calls him who knew how to ride the
reactionary swell. He had watched Ronald Reagan get elected governor
of California by railing nonstop against Berkeley lefties. And he saw
that the GOP could benefit from white rage over busing and
open-housing policies, and that the one-third of AFL-CIO members who
quietly supported Gov. George Wallace's race-baiting candidacy could
be his instead. (Nixon's 1968 victory was assured when South
Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond agreed to steer Southerners away from
Wallace and toward the GOP; as president, Nixon repaid the favor by
appointing right-wing judges and bogging down integration efforts.)
Liberal elites and the press thought Nixon tacky and uncouth. But, as
the old William Blake aphorism has it, the tigers of wrath were wiser
than the horses of instruction. Behind the scenes, Kevin Phillips, a
young Nixon strategist, convinced the boss that Republicans could
piggyback on popular resentment of cultural elites to create a new
electoral majority. It was perfect: Nixon, after all, couldn't veer
left on economics to win over the white working class his corporate
paymasters wouldn't hear of it. But he could woo them on social
issues. Noted one aide: "Patriotic themes to counter depression will
get response from unemployed."
Perlstein points to a New York Times photo of a stockbroker and
pipe-fitter joining forces to clobber a hippie at an antiwar rally
with yes an American flag. That was Nixon's vision for an
emerging Republican majority. (Indeed, Nixon would surely approve of
modern-day Republicans who prefer to harp on flag pins and Sen.
Barack Obama's former pastor than to dwell on economic affairs.)
But Nixonland also provides evidence that this strategy doesn't
always work, that coalitions built purely on resentment have their
limits. In the 1970 elections, Nixon waged an all-out anti-hippie
campaign that, he hoped, would finally allow the GOP to retake
Congress. Vice President Spiro Agnew toured the country foaming over
the "parasites of passion" in the antiwar movement. But it failed
miserably, as voters were much too worried about economic issues to
care. The New York Times interviewed a Teamster who thought the
National Guard was "100 percent right in Kent State" but was still
voting Democratic because of the slowdown in the construction industry.
Nixon, of course, had better luck in 1972. But here, too, it's hard
to sort out how much his victory owed to the cultural rift he
created, as opposed to other factors. Part of what makes Nixonland so
compelling is that it offers support for any number of readings. Yes,
Nixon won over AFL-CIO leader George Meany, who despised the
peaceniks, postgrads and feminists within the Democratic Party. But
McGovern himself was also a mind-bogglingly inept candidate, who, as
Perlstein reminds us, once cut an ad in which he actually berated a
black worker worried about layoffs in the defense industry. And
McGovern was the Democratic nominee partly because Nixon's stream of
dirty tricks had flushed stronger candidates like Sen. Edward Muskie
out of the race.
Nixon, moreover, benefited massively from his ability to lie through
his teeth without reprisal as when he claimed he was ending the war
even as he ramped up his depraved bombing campaign against Cambodia
and North Vietnam. For their part, mainstream liberals in the '70s
were often absurdly high-minded in response, believing voters would
surely see through Nixon's falsehoods. The press, meanwhile, was
cowed: When news anchor Walter Cronkite tried to do a segment on the
Watergate scandal, his bosses at CBS dialed it down after getting
mau-maued by Nixon's goons.
All told, Perlstein has written an endlessly illuminating account of
how, exactly, Nixon teased out a cultural divide in American life
that persists to this day a wound that Republicans keep jabbing in
order to win. But elections are always multifaceted affairs, and
observers can rarely agree on just why this or that party prevailed.
The rise of conservatism in the United States owed to any number of
factors: labor's decline, business' growing ability to act as a
unified class, the birth of right-wing media, the fact that
Republicans promised solutions for problems like crime and
stagflation that had left Democrats helpless. It's a messy story.
Still, even if Nixonland tells only part of that tale, it's a crucial
part, and Perlstein tells it so well and so vividly that his book
is utterly essential for understanding the modern American political landscape.
Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic, where he
reports on energy and environmental issues. He has written for The
American Prospect, Audubon, The Journal of Life Sciences and Mother
Jones. He lives in Washington, D.C.
The Age of Nixon
Rick Perlstein on the left, the right, the '60s, and the illusion of consensus
Jesse Walker | July 2008
In May 1970 the United States saw a wave of political
demonstrationsdemonstrations in favor of Richard Nixon and the
Vietnam War. The most famous was the hard hat riot of May 8, when
Manhattan construction workers beat up hippies and demanded that City
Hall raise the American flag. In subsequent days more marches, some
spontaneous and some quietly encouraged by the White House, broke out
in such cities as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. On May 20
approximately 100,000 union men in Manhattan held what Time called "a
kind of workers' Woodstock," carrying signs with slogans such as "God
Bless the Establishment." A cement mixer hauled a banner mocking New
York's liberal mayor: "Lindsay for Mayor of Hanoi."
The first histories of the 1960s and early '70s weren't always sure
how to treat such events, when they deigned to notice them at all.
But over the last decade, there has been a surge of interest in the
right-wing movements that produced or cheered on such rallies. In
studies ranging from Rebecca Klatch's A Generation Divided to Lisa
McGirr's Suburban Warriors to John Andrew's The Other Side of the
Sixties, a new wave of scholarship has pored over the defining
institutions, personalities, and moments of the '60s right, deepening
our understanding of the decade and illuminating the subsequent rise
The most acclaimed of those books was probably the independent
historian Rick Perlstein's mammoth Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater
and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), an intelligent and
absorbing account of the conservative insurgency that seized the
Republican Party in 1964 only to be crushed in the November election.
Now Perlstein has published an engrossing, almost novelistic sequel
that extends the story through the Republican landslide of 1972. The
protagonist of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing
of America (Scribner) is not Richard Nixon himself, Perlstein writes,
but "the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for
president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational
chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the level for the
Republican for exactly the same reason."
Nixonland takes its name from a speech that John Kenneth Galbraith
wrote for Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign: "Our
nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies
a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison
pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the
land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland." One
lesson of the book is that men like Stevenson and Galbraith weren't
above slander, scare, and innuendo themselves, even if they preferred
to pretend these faults existed only in the opposition. Nixonland was
much larger than Nixon.
Perlstein, 38, is strongly left-liberal in his own policy
preferences, but his Goldwater book was widely praised by
conservatives delighted that someone had taken the time to understand
their history and ideas. Nixonland is similarly fair-minded in its
account of the backlash against liberalism. That is not to say that
it goes easy on its subjects. Many conservatives will be unhappy to
be reminded of, say, the intense racial paranoia that helped to
kick-start their political successes in the '60s. At the same time,
Perlstein refuses to tell the left a comforting story in which the
backlash was only about race. The arrogance of the era's liberals and
leftists, and the ways that manifested itself in both public policy
and personal style, is a theme throughout his account.
Perlstein is already planning a third book in the series, tentatively
titled From Patty Hearst to Ronald Reagan. I spoke with him at
Georgetown University in April.
reason: When you put these books together, what story are you telling?
Rick Perlstein: My overriding subject is how America deals with
conflict and consensus. America was founded on the fissure between
slave states and free states, so these huge fault lines are just
built into the American project. How we repress them, express them,
deal with them, talk around them, think through them, don't think
through them, is fascinating to me.
Congress literally passed a gag rule making it illegal to talk about
slavery. In structurally similar ways, in Nixonland, Chicago decided
that there was no segregation in Chicago and had a Human Relations
Commission whose job it was to keep the frequent housing riots of the
'40s and '50s out of the papers. There's a certain kind of cultural
energy pursued by the gatekeepers of elite discourse, who want to
argue that Americans fundamentally agree with each other and that's
the health of the nation.
When Walter Lippman in 1963 says, "America is more united and at
peace with itself than anytime before"; when people describe the
Kennedy assassination as an eruption of violence with no precedent in
American culture; when people say Barry Goldwater lost because he
"dared question the American consensus"; when you have liberal
pundits basically not seeing the coming backlash against liberalism
when the evidence is right in front of their faceswhat's in
operation, I think, is an understudied, underexamined American
discomfort with conflict.
reason: What's the relationship between the culture wars in Nixonland
Perlstein: The earliest article I've seen about those tensions was by
one of my favorite writers, Dwight Macdonald. It was about the time
Norman Mailer got into a fistfight with a cop in Provincetown, a
resort town where Mailer lived until he died. Macdonald wrote about
the sociology of the two communities that lived in this town: the
artist types, some of them gay, and the townies.
He didn't quite have a language to describe it. But what he was
writing about is recognizable: the idea that culturally libertarian
left-wing culture is snobby, looking down their noses at us, that we
work for a living, that we pay taxes, that we're somehow realer
Americans than Norman Mailer and Dwight Macdonald and this crowd that
sets upon us every summer.
The most eloquent writer on this dynamic wrote in the '70s. His name
is Paul Cowan, and he's a hero of mine. He was the first guy to write
about this in a fairly systematic way.
reason: He's the guy who covered the West Virginia textbook wars?
Perlstein: That's right. He went to West Virginia and said, "Why are
these people blowing up the school board building? And why am I
feeling sympathy for the people who are doing thatas a secular,
left-wing, radical Jew?" He was able to think about the class
politics of that, how these Appalachian folks felt these textbooks
that talked about multiple answers to ethical questions were an
imposition on their way of life.
How that alignment of cultural and political forces evolved was not
inevitable. None of this was inevitable. And understanding it as
something that has a history is very important to me.
reason: You were born in 1969, so you remember little to none of the
history in Nixonland. What do you think you're seeing in this that
the people who were there missed?
Perlstein: The hegemony of the left has been the dominant narrative
of the '60s, because it was written by leftists. The idea that the
'60s was basically an engagement between two different sides, and
both sides have equal dignity and interest, was pioneered by the guy
whose office we're sitting in, Mike Kazin, in his book co-written by
Maurice Isserman, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, which
came out in 2000.
It was in the air in the late '90s. Both these guys are baby boomers,
Kazin is actually a former Weatherman, but they were writing in
dialogue with younger people who hadn't experienced the '60s and were
fascinated, for example, with the rise of the Young Americans for
Freedom. We were fascinated with the fact that George McGovern's
organizers were convinced that they would win the 1972 election
because of the new 18-to-20-year-old voterswho ended up going in a
majority for Richard Nixon.
reason: Do you think that changes the way you see some of the figures
who have been gone over time and time again?
Perlstein: One reader of the book said I definitely seem to be
rooting for the Orthogonians, which is my name for Nixon's followers
who felt themselves degraded and condescended to by the liberal
elites. I think it's easier to sympathize with Nixon when you realize
that he was cruelly condescended to.
It's also easier to see how juvenile and destructive a figure like
[hippie activist] Abbie Hoffman can be. I tell a story in the book:
His police handler wasn't allowed to arrest him, because [New York
Mayor] John Lindsay had come up with this policy of having brokers to
each community, including the freak community and the radical blacks
and the radical Puerto Ricans. So basically Hoffman baited him
mercilessly to the point of smashing the precinct's trophy case.
There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left, of the
people they called "pigs." This is a lot easier for me to see than
someone who was an adolescent at the time and grew up thinking Abbie
Hoffman was really cool because he was sticking it to the man.
reason: You mentioned that the McGovern "New Politics" types thought
they would win with the youth vote. They also had this idea that they
might draw on George Wallace's movement and its anger. You quote
McGovern saying that Wallace's strong showing in Florida was "an
angry cry from the guts of ordinary Americans against a system which
doesn't give a damn about what's really bothering the people of this
In a way that's a liberal sympathy or appreciation for the
Orthogonian position. Though of course, he calls busing a "symbol of
all these grievances rolled into one" and then comes out for busing.
Perlstein: You're plunging into such a whirlwind of ironies and lost
trails of history that it's hard to know where to begin.
A lot of this came out of an overintellectualization of what
Americans were going through, which diagnosed an epidemic of what
they called alienation. There was the idea that somehow, in the midst
of all this prosperity, Americans were more miserable than they had
ever been before. Real histrionic stuff.
Piled upon that abstraction was the abstraction that since Wallace
and McGovern were both appealing to alienated people, maybe they
could appeal to the same alienated people. It was almost a willful
blindness on the part of the McGovern people to the fact that they
were the bad guys in this narrative.
But on the other hand, there was a genuine economic populism in a lot
of what Wallace said. He talked about "the barber and the beautician
and the cop on the beat"that's who he was speaking for. Of course,
he did mean the white barber, the white beautician, the white cop on
the beat. As late as 1968, he was quite explicit about that.
Part of this cultural condition that I call Nixonland is a style of
Americans alienating themselves from other Americans. George Wallace
would say, "The next protester who lays down in front of my
limousine, that'll be the last limousine he ever lays down under."
People would give him a standing ovation. And that guy lying under
the limousine was probably a McGovern voterand called "the cop on
the beat" a "pig."
That's a lot of conflict. That's a lot of rage. And the people whose
job it was to figure out what the battle lines were in this
incredibly cacophonous ideological situation were not necessarily
well-equipped to do so. They didn't have the perspective, they didn't
have the hindsight we have. So you'd get someone like [New York Times
columnist] James Reston writing that McGovern's politics appeal to
the "conscience" constituency and blacks and women and helping
professionals, and is obviously a much more viable political
expression than Spiro Agnew's antiquated appeal to the prejudices of
the past. Well, Agnew was the one who won the day in '72.
reason: Having written a book about Goldwater and a book that's
largely about Nixon, how do you compare the two as historical figures?
Perlstein: Nixon is a profoundly more (long pause) capacious figure
than Goldwater. Goldwater was not a quote-unquote "great man" in the
sense that Nixon was.
One of the interesting things about 1965 to 1972 is what drops out of
the story: the conservative movement. Nixon almost takes up the space
that the conservative movement occupies in Before the Storm. Because
he's such a huge figure. He commands every space that he's in.
Goldwater in a lot of ways is a kind of a minor figure. He was
charismatic, he was handsome, he was straight-shooting, but he was
diffident and he didn't have that incredible will to power that all
great politicians, for good or ill, have.
reason: Do you think he wanted to be president?
Perlstein: Goldwater? No. He said as much. Whereas not only could
Nixon not imagine any other satisfying job, he didn't even find the
presidency satisfying. That's how big the hole in his soul was that
he had to fill with power and the ability to order the universe.
reason: The other two right-wing figures moving in the background are
Reagan and Wallace.
Perlstein: Sometimes people reveal themselves in intimate moments.
What George Wallace would tell his children at dinner was that the
only things that matter are money and power.
He was a very black-hearted man. He did bear certain similarities
with the classic psychological profile of a fascist.
reason: How so?
Perlstein: He loved having crowds respond to his violent rhetoric. He
lived for it. He took a very perverse pleasure in that.
He's a fascinating fly in the ointment. He's this extraordinary
figure who ducks in and out and throws the machine off in strange ways.
reason: And Reagan?
Perlstein: Where to begin. First of all, I think that Ronald Reagan's
1966 gubernatorial campaign is the most important political campaign
in American history that I've studied. It really midwifed the
language that campaigns still follow: liberal elites vs. conservative
salt-of-the-earth hardworking folks. The greatest politicians are not
market takers. They're market makers.
One of the things people loved to say about Reagan back in the day,
when it was a lot harder for liberals to muster up any respect for
him, was that he was a totally programmed candidate. People like Gary
Wills made much of the fact that his handlers hired a consulting firm
called BASICO, which claimed to use social science techniques to
manipulate public opinion. They had big binders of positions he
should take. This was seen as evidence that ultimately Reagan was an
empty suit that twists with the wind. But when these people came to
him and said, "Stop talking about all this nonsense about the student
uprising at Berkeley, it doesn't show up on our polls as a concern, "
Ronald Reagan said, "No, I'm not going to stop doing it. Every time I
talk about it I get a standing ovation."
You can't tell a pollster "This is an important political issue to
me" if you don't even know it's something that's available to vote
on. Reagan's genius was intuiting that he could tell a new story
about how to order society that made things that didn't seem
political before into voting issues.
Now, it's important to understand a lot of the sadism and cruelty
that was behind a lot of what Reagan was doing. When he would tell a
crowd, "Look at that sign over there, 'Make love, not war'I bet that
guy can't do either" or "I'd like to harness their youthful energy
with a strap," the stereotype of Reagan as a sunny optimist leading
us to morning in America breaks down a little bit.
reason: You included some other stories that were the flipside of
Reagan's "make love, not war" remark.
Perlstein: Sometimes I felt like I was writing a book about the
history of sexual neuroses in the American '60s. You had cops saying
about antiwar protesters, "You pull down their pants, and they ain't
got no pecker." You had a janitor after the march on the Pentagon
being quoted in Time saying this absurd, impossible thing, that all
the garbage was panties. You had Richard Nixon saying in 1971, when
these brave anti-war Vietnam veterans are encamped in the Mall,
"They're just screwing chicks in their sleeping bags." On the other
side, you have one of the leaders of the Columbia University strike
in 1968 telling women that the cops are so sexually screwed up that
if you "pick up your shirt, they won't know whether to jerk off or go
blind." You have people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin describing
their ideological adversaries as "menopausal men." Basically you have
every side accusing the other side of sexual dysfunction because of
their ideological disagreements.
Sex was a weapon. Everything was a weapon. During the Kent State
situation, which ended with four students being shot by the National
Guard, part of the provocation these National Guardsmen felt was that
women were looking up their names on their nameplates, calling their
wives in Akron, and saying, "Guess what? I'm screwing your man over
here at Kent State!"
Even putting a flower in the barrel of a gun is to a certain degree
an act of cruelty. If you have someone whose job it is to follow
orders and do their duty, and you taunt them for not being able to
respond on a human level to an act like that, you're basically just
lording your superiority over them. Love can be a hateful thing.
reason: To what extent was that gesture lording your superiority, and
to what extent was it an invitation, maybe a naive invitation, to
drop the gun and come over to the hippie side?
Perlstein: Oh, they did that also at Kent State. Women would say to
the National Guardsmen, "Come up to my dorm room. I'll make it worth
reason: You like to mix cultural history with political history.
Bonnie and Clyde is one of the central texts in the book.
Perlstein: My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important
text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by
Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument
about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was
completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made
no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good
guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guysyou cannot
underestimate how strange and fresh that was.
reason: But there's a long history of heroic outlaws in American storytelling.
Perlstein: Yeah, and they always end up dead in the end. (pause) As
did Bonnie and Clyde. But then you get into some interesting, much
too academic issues of psychology and spectatorship, how you can
identify with a character that you're supposed to hate.
reason: I think that flux you described in political history is even
stronger in cultural history, where you don't have to build a
coalition. One person who loved Bonnie and Clyde, was obsessed with
it for a while, wrote a song inspired by it, was Merle Haggardwho
also wrote one of the right-wing cultural texts you discuss, "Okie
from Muskogee," the anthem of the Silent Majority.
Perlstein: And with the I-35 bridge crashing in Minneapolis and the
New Orleans levies collapsing on the other end of the Mississippi
River, he recently came out with another song that said, "Let's
rebuild America first." (Laughs.) A social democratic song about an
reason: Or maybe a populist isolationist agenda.
Perlstein: Yes, also quite isolationist, in a discomfiting way I
think. But all these things are in play. In the realm of culture, it
almost gets to the level of subatomic physics, these strange
paradoxes that are delightful to play with.
reason: Earlier you said the conservative movement almost disappeared
while Nixon was on the stage. You gave a speech in 2005 where you
asked, "What to make of the fact that some of the names who pioneered
this anti-Nixonian movement of principle showed up in the dankest
recesses of the Nixon administration?" And specifically about [Young
Americans for Freedom leader turned Nixon dirty trickster] Tom
Huston: "What does it mean that the member of Nixon's staff who was
closest to the conservative movement, who was best-versed in its
literature and its habits, was not merely the most ruthless
malefactor on Richard Nixon's staff but the one most convinced he was
acting on principle?"
Perlstein: I think that conservativesand maybe even libertarians,
I'm not really sure, you guys are pretty strange, I can never figure
out where to put you guysneed to confront this fact.
reason: What does it say that Tom Huston took the career path that he did?
Perlstein: It says bad faith. Let me give you an excellent example.
When Fred Thompson was beginning to cast about for his presidential
campaign, I saw this guy quoted in an article as a kind of Thompson
supporter/adviser. His name is Ken Rietz. And I said, "Where have I
heard that name before?" I did a search on my hard drive and found
that he was a Watergate figure. He was the head of Youth for Nixon,
which was part of the Campaign to Re-Elect the Presidentwhich,
incidentally, Karl Rove worked in.
Ken Rietz was all over the Watergate hearings. He was the guy whose
job it was to pass the secret documents that were stolen from Edmund
Muskie's campaign to the White House. At the time he was a rising
star in the Republican National Committee, and because his name was
in the papers around Watergate he was cashiered and lost his job at the RNC.
Well, in 1976 he shows up as the campaign manager for Ronald Reagan's
presidential campaign in California. I found myself saying to myself,
"What does it take to get thrown out of this movement?"
They made Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy into conservative talk
show hosts. We're talking about felons. We're talking about a guy,
Liddy, who's on the record saying he was willing to murder a
newspaper columnist [Jack Anderson] on behalf of the president of the
This is obviously a part of the patrimony of the conservative
movement. We know about the black spots of both the liberal left and
the radical left. We know about everything from the gulags to
arrogant urban renewal throwing people out of their houses because of
these cockamamie schemes of government bureaucrats. To a large
extent, speaking as a liberal, my movement has reckoned with those
sins. I'm not sure conservatives have reckoned with theirs.
reason: The book is framed by the two landslide elections in 1964 and
1972. It seems to me that there's a major difference between the two
that has to be brought into the picture: LBJ had coattails and Nixon did not.
Perlstein: They're just fundamentally different politicians. Lyndon
Johnson comes out of a legislative milieu. He was "the master of the
Senate." Lawmaking was in his bones. When he was a kid, he used to
run around the Texas legislature and watch his dad. So it makes
perfect sense that he had a high commitment to campaigning for
congressional candidates, and that the voters would intuit a
connection between voting for Lyndon Johnson and voting for a
legislator who would support Lyndon Johnson's legislative program.
I'm not sure people even knew what Nixon's legislative program was in
1972. He was a very different politician, with contempt for
lawmakers. One congressman, Jerry Ford, said he treated them like
"the chairman of the board of a large corporation regards his
regional sales managers."
reason: Your book describes the Orthogonians' resentment for how
liberals reacted to the riots, the idea that they could just throw
money at the problem. You didn't write about Nixon's Black Capitalism
Initiative, but in his first year in office, he basically decided to
spend more money in the ghettos and try to co-opt some radicals with
it. One effect, perhaps, of the conservative movement disappearing is
that there's very little in the Nixon administration that
conservatives can be proud of ideologically.
Perlstein: Yeah. Although it's an interesting question: What would
have happened in a second Nixon term, had he been unconstrained? He
did have genuine contempt for the welfare state. The reason he liked
the guaranteed minimum income, along with our buddy Milton Friedman,
is because he could fire all the social workers.
In 1972 [Attorney General] John Mitchell was quoted saying this
country is going so far to the right you're not even going to
recognize it. It was a drunken remark at a party. It's hard to say
what he meant. Did he mean, "We're really going to kick some ass on
'law and order'"? Or did he mean, "Once we finally get this election
behind us, we're going to dismantle the welfare state"?
Nixon's quote in regard to domestic policy was that it's all
"outhouses in Peoria." He just basically didn't care. The path of
least resistance was just following the liberal status quo of the
day. The reason he made these gestures toward environmentalism was
because it polled really welland his number one rival, Edmund
Muskie, was the leader of the environmental movement in Congress. He
certainly wasn't going to spend political capital on eliminating Aid
to Families with Dependent Children when he had a war to end. He was
much more interested in his secret diplomacy with China and in
aggrandizing his own power.
reason: The last line in the book is, "How did Nixonland end? It has
not ended yet." It says something about the book that this felt
really compelling as I read it.
reason: But then I thought, hold on. Do we live in Nixonland today?
The intensity of the violence and paranoia that you describe actually
feels pretty alien. Now the hard-core Red Team and Blue Team
partisans have to work themselves up artificially into the sort of
frenzies that came naturally to people in the '60s.
Perlstein: It's a fair criticism. When I say Nixonland is with us
still, that could literally mean that things are just as
ideologically intense as they were from 1965 to 1972. Or it could be
that things were so ideologically intense from 1965 to 1972 that
we're still kind of trailing off the exhaust fumes.
I think the latter is true. There's a lot of surplus rage from the
'60s that was never really worked through publicly. I think a lot of
that rage still exists, and I think you see that when John McCain
runs a commercial that beats up on Hillary Clinton's earmark for a
Woodstock museum. I have a friend whose people live in Sulphur,
Louisiana, and they still talk about Woodstock as basically a
visitation from hell.
reason: In the Goldwater book you wrote that both major presidential
candidates in 1964 "would serve up rhetoric that autumn that tingled
with the strains of utopianismintercut with equal and opposite
strains of apocalypticism." Is that the story of Nixonland as well?
Perlstein: Yes. I think the thing that made the '60s "the '60s" was
this transit between apocalypticism and utopianism. It just suffused
everyday life. In Nixonland I quote an ad for an almanac: "'Great
Society' or Nation in Crisis: Who Are You to Believe?" It said, "Is
America's star rising toward a new utopia, or sinking into a morass
of overpopulation, poverty, and crime? Are we making enormous strides
toward a golden era of peace and prosperity, or rapidly digging our
own collective grave?"
The only thing that was left out of that formulation was the idea
that we were living in a moderately interesting time that wasn't
going to be particularly different from the time our parents lived in
or our children were going to live in. The '60s excluded banality
like oil excluded water.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An
Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).
By David Weigel
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
(Scribner, 896 pages, $37.50)
Seven years ago, William Ayers, the Weather Underground
bomber-turned-leftish education scholar, published a memoir of his
criminal career and embarked upon one of the most damaging
promotional tours in literary history. He sat for a profile in
Chicago magazine, then stood up to dance on an American flag as a
photographer clicked away. He told the New York Times that he didn't
regret setting bombs, in an interview that landed on doorsteps the
morning of September 11.
Ayers's book, a solipsistic yawner, became a bit of a sensation. The
liberals who remembered what he and the Weather Underground did got
understandably worked up. When Ayers arrived at a reading in
Evanston, Illinois, one of those liberals confronted him about it.
"I personally spent all of 1972 working all day and all night to
elect George McGovern," the former activist said, "and I will tell
you that your tactics made it harder to vote the Richard Nixons out of office."
"I'm not going to disagree," Ayers said, disagreeing with him. "The
American people did vote, three times, to end the war. We voted for
Johnson because Goldwater had his finger on the trigger... and then
we voted for Nixon as the anti-war candidate, and he also escalated
it. It would be a big stretch to say that the left brought McGovern down."
WELL, NOT THAT BIG of a stretch. The Weathermen make several
appearances in Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President
and the Fracturing of America. They are the ultimate examples of
left-wingers who crippled their cause with violence, overreaction,
and a general need to frighten Middle Americans.
Take one example from early 1971. The U.S. Senate was responding to
the Army's scandalous abuse of spying, against such hot targets as
Arlo Guthrie and Adlai Stevenson III, and civil libertarians had the
upper hand. But the Weathermen had just bombed the Capitol building,
giving Nebraska Republican Roman Hruska a ladder onto the moral high
ground when he defended the spying.
"The people," Hruska said, "must receive every protection possible
against those elements who consider even the United States Capitol
Building as a legitimate object of their violence."
Perlstein, a man of the left who has accused George W. Bush of
"stealing our democratic birthright," is also America's best living
historian of the conservative movement.
He has achieved this, in part, with exhaustive research. Nixonland,
like its predecessor Before the Storm (the best history of
conservatism in the years around Barry Goldwater's presidential
campaign), is a trove of original documents, primary sources,
long-forgotten magazine clips, interviews, and archived letters.
Perlstein often pays tribute to the "iron-assed will" of Richard
Nixon, who could sit for hours to win poker hands. He could be
talking about his own ability to lock himself in a library.
He has also achieved his status by understanding the motivations of
conservatives. He has pure contempt for conservative politicians,
like the "ratf-----s" who, as he recounts, sabotaged every 1972
Democratic candidate's campaign to smooth a path for the unelectable
George McGovern. But he understands why middle-class whites, ethnic
voters only a generation or so removed from Europe, and George
Wallace Democrats rejected the left and embraced Nixon and his brand
of resentment politics.
Perlstein's subject is the voter who cast a ballot for LBJ in 1964
"because to do anything else...seemed to court civilizational chaos,
and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for
exactly the same reason."
This is what Nixonland adds to the cornucopia of Nixon books already
on the shelves. Other studies focus on the man's psyche, his
friendships, and his downfall, and make it hard to understand how he
rose to the pinnacle of American politics.
Plenty of these analyses focus on Nixon's inability to pay for a
Harvard education after the school accepted him. Perlstein considers
that important, but he hones in one what Nixon did when he arrived at
Nixon was rejected from the Franklins, the elite clique that ran the
campus, so he founded a club called the Orthogonians "for the
strivers, those not to the manor born, the commuter students like
him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one's unpolish was a
nobility of its own."
PERLSTEIN'S INSIGHT IS that Nixon kept up the chairmanship of this
club for the rest of his political life, drafting new members at
every critical juncture. The "Checkers" speech is the first and best
example, as, over the jeers of liberal intellectuals, nearly 2
million people saved Nixon's career by sending telegrams supporting
his position in a campaign finance scandal. "They interpreted the
puppy story just as Nixon intended it," writes Perlstein, "as a jab
at a bunch of bastards who were piling on, kicking a man when he was
down, a regular guy, just because they could do it and he couldn't fight back."
It was good practice for the turmoil of the 1960s, and Perlstein is
clear-eyed enough to see why, as the decade closed, Nixon was so
successful. He identifies the reasons all historians of the left
identify -- a heated backlash against the civil rights movement, an
even stronger backlash against integration. He locates nasty letters
that angry white voters sent to Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Illinois):
"While you sit on your butt in Washington Martin Luther King is
violating everything I bought and paid for." He excavates oddball
rumors that swirled in white communities, like the fear, in eastern
Iowa, that black gangsters were traveling from Chicago on motorcycles
to attack their communities.
Myth after myth about the 1960s is punctured. The saintly Robert F.
Kennedy actually wheezed over the finish line in Indiana and
California, stitching together a coalition of white liberals and
blacks, not uniting all voters. Ronald Reagan wasn't a sunny
optimist, but a political flirt who bashed college students and tried
to steal the 1968 nomination from Nixon.
Perlstein, however, does not argue that the backlash of the 1960s and
1970s (the book ends with Nixon's defeat of McGovern) was all the
fault of the backlashers. He excoriates the far left for egging all of this on.
The Chicago Seven trial -- the subject of a hagiographic animated
movie just last year -- is recounted as a battle between
self-aggrandizing, cartoonish leftists and an embittered
establishment that didn't know better.
Perlstein digs up wacko event after wacko event, writing the
proceedings in a deadpan voice as his subjects condemn themselves. At
the 1968 New Politics Conference, convened to nominate a third party
ticket of Martin Luther King and Benjamin Spock, "one delegate
offered himself for endorsement for president of the United States
and said the 1966 Italian art-house Blowup was his platform. He was serious."
At the 1972 Democratic convention, a delegate gloats about voting on acid.
THROUGHOUT HIS NARRATIVE, Perlstein produces examples of contemporary
media that completely missed both stories -- the alienating effect of
the left and the perfidy of Nixon's organization. Editorialist after
editorialist is quoted praising the courage and freshness of the
young generation, and contrasted with middle Americans who openly
fantasize about beating their brains out -- when they're not actually
Perlstein mocks the lefty theorist Charles Reich and his book The
Greening of America (endorsed by Justice William O. Douglas and Sen.
George McGovern) as head-in-the-clouds pap: "His New Jerusalem would
just sort of happen. Automatically. No more riots, no more cataclysm,
no more protests, no left, no right -- no politics."
This is by no means a conservative book. It is bigger and better than
ideology. It is also, to Perlstein's delight, becoming less pointed
by the day. While he concludes that Nixonland "has not ended yet,"
he's told interviewers that the rise of Barack Obama and the collapse
of fearmongering Republicans has given him confidence that the
country is really moving away from the "national berserk."
Is he making Arthur Schlesinger's mistake after the 1964
Goldwater-Johnson race, reading one election for proof that the
Republicans would never win again? Perhaps not. The Weathermen have
been reduced to college professors. The new drug epidemics are
happening in the Great Plains, not college campuses. The Republicans,
not the Democrats, own the latest war. With nothing for the Silent
Majority to backlash against, the Left might finally win.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.