Nixonland: America’s Second Civil War and the Divisive Legacy of Richard Nixon 1965-72 by Rick Perlstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Perlstein brings us back to Nixonland, and it is not a pretty picture. I had read the earlier book “Before the Storm” by Perlstein, and “Nixonland” brings us from Goldwater to Nixon, positing that Nixon planted the seeds that grew into the current huge divide in American political life. Perlstein had shown us the the rise of the right wing dominance of GOP politics in “Before the Storm”and the comfort that the American left took in the drubbing of Barry Goldwater by LBJ in 1964. Despite Perlstein coming from the left he shows how that “comfort” on the left after the LBJ landslide masked the deep divide that was about to become evident in American political life. And Perlstein is not afraid to show how the left so badly misunderstood some of the currents running through the country that brought us the Presidency of Richard Nixon.
This book is not a biography of Richard Nixon but rather a snapshot of a crazy time in American life and politics. It is very detailed, and covers lots of ground. We see how Richard Nixon began his comeback from the political abyss, doing the nitty gritty of hard work in the 1966 mid-terms, traveling the country for the GOP, and being in a position to take some credit (and gather some chits) for a gain of 47 Republican seats in the House, and 3 in the US Senate. Perlstein shows how the Republicans (and Nixon in particular) came to exploit the deep divide over Vietnam as well as the fears and prejudices of race in America. Race divisions are a large part of this book, and I think Perlstein is on mark there. I have read some reviews of the book that claim Perlstein has overstated the impact of this era and Nixon on our current divisions. On race I would have to disagree with that assessment. With the Democratic Party embracing Civil Rights, and Democratic majorities (driven by LBJ and the Movement itself) in Congress enacting major legislation and leaving behind its segregationist (racist) wing Nixon and the GOP saw opportunity and votes in the South, which brought us the Nixon “Southern Strategy”, frankly embracing the racist element and trying to dress it up as a “states right” movement. That determination by Nixon and the GOP drove African-Americans to the Democratic Party, and has led to a GOP dominance with white voters, especially white males. I would have to say that Perlstein has that part of Nixon’s legacy exactly right.
Perlstein does have plenty of criticism of the left as well. We see how the outrages of 1968, where Hubert Humphrey won the Democratic nomination without winning a primary, led to the reforms of 1972, which badly split the Democratic Party. Perlstein shows Nixon (“the Master”) not only ruthlessly exploiting these divisions but through a myriad of dirty tricks helping to create them. (Yes we get another look at Donald Segretti and Dwight Chapin). We get another look at the Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago, and how the Yippies and assorted other youth groups created street chaos, and how that chaos was exploited by Nixon. That street violence and the divide between police and demonstrators brought the type of divisions we are seeing today, with Nixon appealing to the “Silent Majority” against “scrubby and dirty” demonstrators.”And let me also say, ladies and gentlemen, I can assure them that they are a very loud minority in this country, but they are a minority, and it’s time for the majority to stand up and be counted.” Nixon, responding to demonstrators at a campaign stop. Seems to have some applicability today.
Watergate of course leads us to the end of Nixon’s Presidency, but for me the biggest indictment Perlstein makes is relative to Nixon’s conduct (as a candidate) in undercutting the LBJ opportunity to make gains in peace talks with North Vietnam, and the utter mess that became Nixon’s Vietnam policy (as President), colored by cynical political calculation and a willingness to be absolutely brutal in his conduct of the war.
I must concur with the evaluation of Richard Nixon, love him or hate him, as one of the most influential Presidents of the 20th Century. This book does not paint RMN in a very positive light, but I think it hits the mark much of the time. On “the more things change the more they stay the same” front Perlstein highlights a Nixon ad attacking the George McGovern proposal for a guaranteed income for every American: “According to an analysis by the Senate Finance Committee, the McGovern bill would make forty-seven percent of the people in the United States eligible for welfare.’ Slowly, angrily:’Forty-seven percent. Almost every other person in the country would be on welfare. The camera moves on the bustling, blaring street below- the 53 percent.” Maybe Mitt Romney read the book. The GOP playbook still has many pages written by “The Master”, Richard M. Nixon.