Rick Perlstein: Nixonland

Rick Perlstein: Nixonland

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Nixonland

Author: Rick Perlstein
Publisher: Scribner

If Richard Nixon were writing this review, he would probably open with "Some have asked me whether I am important or relevant at all to 21st-century America." It was a rhetorical technique he often used in his speeches, whether or not anyone had ever posed the question he was answering; after 1968 primary opponent George Romney appeared to go soft on the Vietnam War, Nixon opened a press conference with the words, "People ask me, 'What will you give North Vietnam?'" This faux-populism appears over and over in Nixonland: The Rise Of A President And The Fracturing Of America, Rick Perlstein's exhaustively detailed tome on how the 37th president shaped American politics.

Perlstein frames Nixon's rise and his personal approach to politics through the dueling forces of the Franklins and the Orthogonians—the fraternity that refused to accept him in college, and the one he co-founded in reaction. This division expressed Nixon's long-building resentment toward privileged politicians from Alger Hiss to John F. Kennedy, and his conviction that disadvantaged men like him deserved to be in charge. He developed this narrative through his two unsuccessful campaigns, eventually calling the Orthogonian forces the "silent majority" who believed the vocal anti-war movement and the reforms of the Great Society had gone a little too far. Once he'd created and exploited that social gap, nothing he did in office or toward his exit could bridge it. When he famously told the press corps in 1962, "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more," Perlstein argues, Nixon planned to return (and did), surrounded by a phalanx of foot soldiers to his mythology.

Nixonland doesn't particularly emphasize the parallels between the elections it covers and more recent contests, because it isn't necessary: If the back-room regional politicking doesn't seem eerily predictive of today's color-coded electoral maps, the bloody fights for primaries and the spin machine which allowed Nixon to overcome his image as a loser will. But Perlstein takes great care to contextualize Nixon, from the debate over public-school sex education to the inner leadership of the Yippies and the rise of Ronald Reagan, who defeated the gubernatorial incumbent who beat Nixon in 1966. Rich in description and occasionally terrifying, Nixonland revisits the '60s not only from the side of the counterculture, but from the counter-counterculture which carried Tricky Dick to the White House by invoking the cues that built a majority, no matter how fractured it really was.