A review of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein

Only two men have been nominated five times for national office by one of our two great political parties. One of them was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The other was Richard M. Nixon. Personally and by the long shadow they cast, both shaped American politics and government for a generation or more. Each of them polarized the nation, with most voters coming out most of the time on his side, but with an uncomfortably large number—including many prominent voices in the press—never reconciled to the legitimacy of the man or his works. Roosevelt is perennially rated as one of our best presidents, and I think justifiably so, whatever you may think of his domestic policies, because of his brilliant success as commander-in-chief in World War II. Nixon is perennially rated as one of our worst presidents, and here I disagree, for I have come to think that Nixon, for all his sins, left the country better off than it was when he came to the White House.

That might seem counterintuitive or nonsensical. Against the picture of Roosevelt departing suddenly from the scene as the nation neared the moment of absolute victory, we have the picture of Nixon, physically awkward as ever, making the "V" sign as he boarded the helicopter that would take him away from the White House as the first president so disgraced that he was forced to resign. But if we grant, as I think most Americans would, that the nation was better off in April 1945 than it had been in March 1933, I also think a strong case can be made that the nation was better off in August 1974 than it had been in January 1969.

Rick Perlstein, the gifted author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, seems to disagree. Perlstein is a young man of the Left who won many admirers on all sides with his previous book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001). There he showed the capacity for a sympathetic understanding of a man whose ideas he does not share; here he struggles to do the same for a man whose ideas often were much closer to his own. But of course Goldwater, who never really wanted to be president, was gifted with an appealing personality while Nixon, who longed to be president, was not. My impression is that Perlstein's attempts to understand Nixon left him loathing him all the more, and regretting the nation—"Nixonland"—he left behind. "How did Nixonland end?" he concludes his book. "It has not ended yet."

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Yet my reading of this book left me more appalled by Nixon's enemies than by Nixon. I lived through this period, while Perlstein knows it only second hand. But I have to say that my own attempt at political narrative, Our Country: The Shaping of America from Roosevelt to Reagan (1990), which Perlstein acknowledges, offers a far less vivid and emotionally rending picture of America in the years from 1965 to 1972 than Perlstein's. He begins his narrative with an account of the Watts riots in Los Angeles in August 1965 based on television footage from KTLA's first-of-its-kind helicopter and notes, a few pages later, that it broke out five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act. That law, the most immediately effective civil rights act, was the product of a national consensus for equal rights and against Southern segregationists' violent obstructionism. The riot was an advance warning that that consensus would produce not domestic contentment but something more like war.

The most vivid scenes in Nixonland are not those featuring Nixon but those showing the violence and craziness of his times. Most but not all of it came from the Left or forces associated with the Left—rioting blacks and students, war protesters and feminists, hippies and criminals. Perlstein's pointillist narrative of the Democratic National Convention of 1968 shows how wrenching the violence in Chicago was; his similar description of the Democratic National Convention of 1972 brings out the zaniness of the proceedings.

Perlstein's accounts of the violence and hatreds loose in the land fortify my judgment that Nixon came to the presidency at the third most difficult time in our history to do so, the others being March 1861 and March 1933. And I would agree that the ultimate failure of his presidency, together with the recent memory of the assassination of John Kennedy, undermined Americans' belief in a beneficent national narrative.

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Even so, I see two Nixons, one of them treated rather glancingly in Nixonland. This is the Nixon who came to office promising to respond to the sign the girl held up in Deshler, Ohio, "Bring us together." This Nixon embarked on creative public policies intended to form a new national consensus at a time of violent division. For that purpose he brought on staff two Harvard professors, Henry Kissinger and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, with whom he had no previous friendly connection. Perlstein gives little attention to policy in Nixonland and mentions Moynihan only a couple of times. Kissinger, an accomplice in some of Nixon's misdeeds, appears more often, but without much emphasis on the one great initiative which Nixon envisioned even before Kissinger—the opening to China. This Nixon also advanced liberal policies on school desegregation in the South (admittedly made necessary by court decision), on the environment and Indian tribes (here John Ehrlichman was a key aide), and on racial quotas and preferences. Yet he got virtually no credit for them from liberals.

At the same time, he led a major effort to restructure our politics by actively seeking a Republican majority in the Senate in the 1970 off-year elections. This was the year, by my count, which had more seriously contested Senate elections than any other in our history. Perlstein makes it clear that the campaigns of many of these senators were in tension with the thrust of Nixon's policies. But he also makes it clear that many of the Democrats who opposed Nixon's policy on Vietnam were behaving dishonorably: the same people who meekly supported Lyndon Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War savagely opposed Nixon's attempt to salvage victory even as he withdrew forces. Nixon had reason, I think, to believe that his opponents were operating in bad faith and reason, I am guessing, to believe that if he secured Republican majorities in Congress he could lead them toward some national consensus. But he fell short. Republicans gained seats in the Senate, but not enough, and they lost seats in the House, in a recession year, as they had in recession years since the 1930s. Nixon's attempt to reshape partisan politics had failed. In response, he decided to fight for his own survival—he was anything but a favorite for reelection during much of 1971 and 1972—and let his party fend for itself.

Here I think Nixon capitulated too soon, lacking the imagination to see what could be done. In his younger years Nixon was always a fighter. In Perlstein's view, he was not just shaped by but suffused with a resentment of those one step up on the social ladder—a hatred of the Franklins at Whittier College (he headed the rival Orthogonians), of well-connected Harvard graduates like Alger Hiss (Nixon had been turned down at Harvard and was turned down by Wall Street law firms), and of the New York Herald Tribune establishment Republicans who tried to force him off the ticket in 1952. His response was to work harder, to identify the other side's weakness, and to strike a fatal blow by appealing to the resentments of those on the rungs of the ladder below him. His exposure of Hiss was one great success; the Checkers speech another. They came early—Nixon became vice president at 40, the second youngest in history—and, in Perlstein's view, they reinforced his impulse to make such appeals again and again.

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The second Nixon I see, the Nixon of the period after the 1970 elections, certainly did so. This Nixon seemed to consider all the old political rules still in place. He no longer thought that the Republicans could become a national majority. Instead, he appointed the still-Democratic John Connally to his cabinet and at the instigation of the former Texas governor issued wage and price controls. He devoted much of his 1972 campaign media budget to ads in which Connally argued that George McGovern was an unacceptable Democrat, with the implication that it was all right to vote for less radical Democrats lower down the ballot. Then Nixon authorized or set in motion the dirty tricks squads and Watergate burglars. He well understood that Roosevelt and Kennedy had employed such methods, and he knew that the press had observed an ethic that held you shouldn't print things that would disillusion Americans about the purity of U.S. presidents. He didn't realize that that rule was changing—in the wake of the violence of the late 1960s and early 1970s and out of liberal-left baby boomers' confidence in their own purity and disgust with the larger society. The press's willingness to expose a president's shady tactics proved politically fatal for Nixon in 1974.

Nixon, writes Perlstein, "rose by stoking and exploiting anger and resentment, rooted in the anger and resentments at the center of his character…. What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans." Nixon took the side of (in terms I used at the time) the dutiful people over the beautiful people. Perlstein is careful not to argue that one side was all right and the other all wrong. "Both populations—to speak in ideal types—are equally, essentially, tragically American." Maybe so. But in Perlstein's narrative the beautiful people look very ugly—sometimes uglier than Nixon himself.

Consider that other president nominated five times for national office. Franklin Roosevelt, like Richard Nixon, at times used hateful language against a widely despised elite. "I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match," Roosevelt declared in October 1936 in Madison Square Garden. "I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master." Master—a pretty tough word in the decade of Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin. And Roosevelt's hatred, as with Nixon, was directed at those one rung above on the social ladder: the DuPonts, the Mellons, and the Vanderbilts whose wealth dwarfed that of the squire of Hyde Park.

But for Roosevelt, I think, the hatred was faux, political artifice, adopted in the heat of battle but dispensed with when circumstances dictated. Roosevelt was quite ready, when faced with international disaster and the daunting challenge of winning a third term in 1940, to call in Herbert Hoover's secretary of state to run the army and Alf Landon's running mate to run the navy. He recruited Wall Street operators and big corporate executives to run much of the war effort in the years that followed. Roosevelt, who never showed his hole cards to anybody, was a faux-hater. Nixon, at least according to Rick Perlstein, was the real thing.

That was arguably a terrible political handicap. Yet in policy terms Nixon had his successes. His China policy, denounced by every successful presidential candidate but one since his day, remains in place, a more important part of American policy than ever. Some of his leftward domestic policies do, too. But the major difference, perhaps, between Roosevelt and Nixon was that the people Roosevelt professed to hate were still willing to serve with him because they wanted America to win a war. The people Nixon sincerely hated wanted America to lose a war. And, as we have seen in the past few years, the descendants of the people Nixon sincerely despised still want America to lose a war. Rick Perlstein's indictment of Nixon is an even harsher indictment of the people who cheered when he was brought down. Michael Barone is a senior writer for U.S. News & World Report, principal co-author of The Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), and author of Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers(Crown).