Rick Perlstein’s ‘Nixonland’: A Gripping Look at the Nixon Era

Rick Perlstein’s ‘Nixonland’: A Gripping Look at the Nixon Era

Rick Perlstein’s ‘Nixonland’: A Gripping Look at the Nixon Era

Historian Rick Perlstein explores the resentment and polarization sparked by the Nixon era’s cultural and political strife.


AP ImagesDelegates on the third night of the Republican National Convention in Miami, August 23, 1972

To borrow a colorful phrase that Newt Gingrich coined to lambaste his Democratic critics, I was a “counterculture McGovernik,” albeit a premature one. In the election of 1972, my locker partner John Murphy and I ran the fifth-grade McGovern/Shriver campaign at St. Mary of Redford School in northwest Detroit. We lost big. Of the eighty or so kids in Sister Zita and Sister Mary Ann’s classes, only about a fifth joined us in supporting the Democratic ticket. The one black student in the class was with us. We also had a strong hunch that Sisters Zita and Mary Ann, both enthusiastic about the post-Vatican II liberalization of the Catholic Church, were closet McGovern supporters. But most of our classmates, just like their white working- and middle-class parents, voted for the re-election of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.

I didn’t know about “acid, amnesty and abortion” at the tender age of 10, but my parents did–as did most of my classmates’ moms and dads. Some of them patrolled our neighborhood at night, their eyes alert for any black person lurking on a white-only block, who could be there for only one reason: to commit a crime. As parochial school parents whose children were safe from court-mandated school desegregation, they still joined the cry against “forced busing,” which they considered a form of utopian social engineering perpetrated by out-of-touch elites. And as the city’s economy spiraled downward, the result of stagflation, the oil crisis and deindustrialization, they found a ready villain in affirmative action, a cousin to welfare fraud, both of them examples of blacks taking something they didn’t deserve right out of white folks’ thin wallets. Many parents lost sleep at night fretting over their teenage children succumbing to the freshly mainstreamed temptations of marijuana and premarital sex. For them, the election of 1972 was about holding the liberal horsemen of the apocalypse at bay.

Counterculture McGoverniks and anxious parents alike, we were all inhabitants of what Rick Perlstein calls Nixonland, a nation where “two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.” Perlstein is the hypercaffeinated Herodotus of the American Century, an indefatigable researcher who has assembled material from the pages of every major newspaper, weekly magazine and nearly every history of the 1960s–important or obscure–into the raucous and gripping narrative of Nixonland. He offers a convincing explanation of how and why some 60 percent of the American electorate joined my classmates’ parents in casting their lot with the Republican Party in one of the greatest landslides in American history, just eight years after they had swept Lyndon Johnson into office, leading the ever hyperbolic Texan to declare that “these are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

Like Perlstein’s first book, Before the Storm, an account of Barry Goldwater and the rise of the New Right, Nixonland is peopled with strongly drawn characters: angry conservatives, raging leftists, hubristic liberals, Nixon and his operatives, and a news media that amplified and exaggerated their voices to great effect. But the most important protagonists in Perlstein’s epic are white Middle Americans, those working-class and precariously middle-class folks like my parents who stood horrified on the sidelines of the cultural and political civil war of the 1960s until they found succor in the politics of resentment and polarization. Perlstein skimps on describing the lives his Middle Americans were living, but he does offer a vivid portrayal of their visions of a social cataclysm, stoked by media-savvy operatives in the orbit of Tricky Dick. He reads the papers they read, listens to the speeches they heard and, perhaps most important, sits on the couch and joins them in watching countless hours of television.

The heart of Nixonland is an account of the dysfunctional triangular relationship between Middle America, the news media and that bitter but endlessly creative Californian who lost his bid for the presidency in 1960, in large part because of his inability to master the new genre of TV, and won in 1968 largely by turning the medium to his advantage. The ’60s was a war of representations, as the news media, ever hungry for conflict and ever prone to simplification, fashioned a Manichaean world of good and evil, discipline and debauchery, white and black, mainstream and counterculture–all shadowed by the question “What side are you on?” Rather than attempting to bridge divisions or, better yet, to solve the underlying problems that produced them, Nixon pegged his future on exploiting them. In one of his most memorable locutions, Perlstein defines the polarities with terms from Nixon’s life: “Franklins” versus “Orthogonians,” the names of two student societies at Nixon’s Whittier College. The former was made up of hale fellows well met and the latter, Nixon’s own creation, was a big tent of the square, the hardworking, those not to the manor born. Nixon’s Orthogonian vision, one of a society composed of haughty, out-of-touch cultural elites lording it over the “silent majority,” became his most enduring contribution to American political discourse, the perfect language to make sense of the tumultuous ’60s. Peace would come only when the Orthogonians once and for all put the Franklins in their rightful place.

Perlstein’s overview of the late 1960s and early ’70s, more so than anything in print, captures the cacophony, madness and bitterness that pervaded the social and political movements of the era, even if his account of fracturing and division, of extremism, violence and revolutionary delusion recapitulates a familiar story line. But Perlstein is too smart to stumble into the obvious pitfalls of ’60s historiography. He rejects the old saw that before the ’60s, America was dominated by a “liberal consensus,” writing instead of the “supposed American consensus.” Influential grand narratives of the ’60s by writers as diverse as Allen Matusow, Thomas and Mary Edsall, Michael Tomasky, Ronald Radosh and Todd Gitlin put the onus of responsibility for the “unraveling of America” on liberals and the late New Left. But unlike the previous generation of ’60s scholars, Perlstein is neither a liberal who was mugged, nor a cranky neoconservative pining for the “proud decades” of the 1940s and ’50s, nor a white New Leftist wistfully recalling the days before Maoists took over Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), nor a wannabe revolutionary longing for a rebirth of the Weathermen or the Republic of New Africa.

No one emerges unscathed in Nixonland. Perlstein is unsparing in his accounts of liberal hubris, especially on the Vietnam War (though he is also, surprisingly and correctly, more charitable toward Johnson’s domestic policies than most of LBJ’s critics). He unflinchingly and unromantically describes the self-destructive impulses that coursed through much of the left, and he offers a useful antidote to the historical amnesia about the violence and extremism of the right. In a gripping account of the 1967 Newark riots, he reminds us that white vigilantes took to the streets and that most of the deaths came at the hands of “scared officers of the law committing officially sanctioned murder.” He also recounts the grim history of right-wing terrorism that flourished in the late ’60s with far more devastating consequences than the well-publicized acts of revolutionary bravado by the Weathermen and the Black Panthers. In 1968 alone anti-Castro Cuban radicals bombed thirteen sites in New York City, the British Consulate in Los Angeles and the Mexican government’s tourist office in Chicago. And in Connecticut, survivalist Minutemen raided a pacifist commune and battled the police. Of the clashes between “insurgents and patriots,” writes Perlstein, the “two sides were not symmetrical. Only one had the power to put the other in jail.”

That said, Perlstein shares the mainstream media’s fascination with conflict, and in so doing he downplays the mostly forgotten history of countless activists, particularly liberals and leftists, who eschewed chiliastic rhetoric and worked for social change mostly out of the glare of the flashbulbs and TV cameras. In their search for tele-worthy stories of violence and conflict, the media favored certain groups and ignored others. In his recent history of the NAACP, Freedom’s Sword, Gil Jonas, who was the civil rights organization’s publicist in the mid-’60s, recounts the difficulties in placing executive director Roy Wilkins on talk shows after Black Power burst onto the scene. Producers gave airtime to the Black Panthers and other radicals, but in the overheated climate of the late ’60s, “moderate” leaders like Wilkins were too mainstream and ultimately not newsworthy. The result was a great exaggeration of the power and influence of groups like the Panthers that had, at best, a few thousand members nationwide. The NAACP, by contrast, was one of the largest mass-membership organizations in the country, with more than 460,000 members in 1969. Likewise, the media headlined the Weathermen, a minuscule sect that broke from SDS, while ignoring the thousands of everyday organizers who defended tenants, set up food cooperatives and created health clinics. And while a handful of radical feminists monopolized media accounts for their theatrical protests at the Atlantic City Miss America pageant in 1968, working-class and liberal feminists were engaged in mostly invisible but ultimately more newsworthy actions like lobbying Congress and litigating the anti-sex discrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The relentless barrage of images of disruption fertilized the darkest imaginings of people like my parents. In their minds, the simultaneity of urban riots, sexual liberation and the expansion of the liberal state could not be mere coincidence. Of crime, welfare and pornography, Perlstein writes, “All this moral anarchy; all of it felt linked.” Nothing mattered more than the poisonous politics of race, which Perlstein expertly traces from the Northern backlash against open housing in the election of 1966 to the twists and turns of Nixon’s civil rights program, which led him to embrace the states’ rights, anti-busing but ostensibly colorblind politics of Goldwater as the GOP reached out to angry urban whites and latter-day Dixiecrats bitter at the Democratic Party’s betrayal of their “way of life.” Perlstein brings more than a little outrageous gallows humor to the story, whether it be his characterization of Georgia’s racist Governor Lester Maddox as “Saint Lester of the Blessed Ax Handle” or his description of Nixon’s appeal to disaffected Iowa Democrats who “were afraid that Martin Luther King would send Negro biker gangs to rape their children.”

The mainstream media’s exaggeration of the power of radical social movements–compounded by activists’ self-aggrandizing sense of their place in history–played right into the hands of Nixon and his aides. Perlstein’s most important contribution is to describe the ways Nixon manipulated representations of chaos, amplifying them for political gain. It is a truism of 1960s history that John F. Kennedy was the first master manipulator of the new medium of television. The camera loved JFK, and he loved it back. Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, had a troubled relationship with the major networks, railing against their critical coverage of the war, committing gaffes like showing off the scar from his gall bladder surgery and then, in his darkest moments, avoiding the media altogether. For their part, increasingly skeptical journalists rewarded him by highlighting his Administration’s credibility gap. By contrast, Nixon and his team fashioned a media strategy that was far more effective than Johnsonian cussing and tantrum-throwing. (Nixon did a lot of that as well, mostly in private and often with the tape recorder on–but he seldom let his anger interfere with plots of manipulation and revenge.) Nixon’s crack media team completely changed the rules of the game, in ways that continue to shape American electoral politics.

Among the extraordinary team of image-makers Nixon assembled in 1968 was the 26-year-old Roger Ailes, the “TV producing prodigy” who by 25 had one media miracle to his name. He had turned Philadelphia talk-show host Mike Douglas into a “national icon of square chic.” Nixon, edgy, sweaty and never photogenic, was a more difficult but more rewarding charge. Ailes carefully staged climate-controlled “televized panel shows” packed with rank-and-file Republicans to give the impression that Nixon was one of the people, not some out-of-touch, meddling social engineer. Nixon’s ad team also produced brilliantly effective campaign spots, with ominous music and shots of angry protesters and rubble-strewn streets, which captured Americans’ anxieties about civil disorder.

Nixon’s message was massaged into words by a peerless team of speechwriters led by Pat Buchanan and William Safire. Buchanan captured the anger and resentments of white Middle America, especially those of working-class Catholics (Protestant America’s religious Orthogonians), while the protean wordsmith Safire coined sonorous turns of phrase to highlight Nixon’s presidential qualities and catchy locutions like “nattering nabobs of negativism” to help Spiro Agnew further his agenda of “positive polarization.” From the 1968 campaign through Watergate, Nixon’s handlers devised another brilliant strategy to highlight his law-and-order politics: they admitted a few angry protesters into rallies and let them shout out some epithets. Forewarned, Nixon turned them into his unwitting tools, using their appearance as evidence of the need for law and order. Nothing was more effective an appeal to America’s Orthogonians than for the square, awkward Nixon to put a few long-haired AmeriKKKa- hating Franklins in their place.

Not unlike Nixon, most historians of the ’60s can’t get past 1968. Everything thereafter is tragic denouement. But that year comes and goes (with fireworks) less than halfway through Nixonland. Perlstein’s detailed account of domestic and international politics in Nixon’s first term is a reminder that, in many respects, the disruption and violence had only just begun. One of the many ironies of the Nixon Administration was that the Orthogonian who was elected promising to undo liberalism’s excesses and put a lid on protest utterly failed. During the campaign of 1968, Nixon pledged that he had a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, yet once in office he escalated the war and commenced the bombing of Cambodia. The law-and-order President was as powerless as his predecessor to curb campus unrest, which swelled in 1969 and 1970. Black Power activists grew even more vocal in his first years in office. Feminism was stronger than ever during the years of the Nixon Administration. And although Nixon had nary a good word to say about gays and lesbians, their visibility grew on his watch. Even crime, which Nixon highlighted in his 1968 campaign, skyrocketed, and he couldn’t do anything about it. Nixon presided over a country that followed a course his supporters despised.

But as Perlstein shows, Nixon did not want to restore order. Instead, he stoked the fires of discontent to shape an enduring conservative majority. He needed polarization and disruption, so long as liberals would keep taking the fall. Nixon succeeded brilliantly in blaming the Democrats for just about everything unpopular. Liberals took the heat for school busing. When white voters rallied against programs like affirmative action, which the Nixon Administration implemented, the White House pointed its finger at the Democrats, who were not about to abandon a civil rights program even if it was not of their making. And when the Senate rejected right-wing segregationist Supreme Court nominee G. Harrold Carswell, Nixon took the occasion of a nationally televised speech to upbraid liberals and openly empathize with “the bitter feelings of millions of Americans who live in the South about the action of regional discrimination that took place in the Senate yesterday.” Nixon even cheered the 1970 protests in New York where construction workers brutally attacked peace protesters. “Thank God for the hard hats!”

In the climate of antagonism that he fostered, Nixon grew increasingly conspiratorial. Rather than resting content with the wizardry of his image-makers, he pioneered especially devious tactics to burnish his image and undermine his critics. To guarantee that the news media got the message that ordinary Americans were displeased with criticism of the President, Nixon aides set up a nationwide letter-writing campaign, flooding the press with letters, posted from all over the country, carefully drafted by party operatives expressing their outrage at the liberal media. It was a steep and slippery slope from there to using IRS audits to harass Administration enemies, and from there to the break-ins that led to Watergate. Perlstein builds on the well-documented histories of Nixon’s paranoid and effective tactics to neutralize his opponents leading up to the 1972 election. The story here is familiar, but Perlstein’s telling is wonderfully rich, right down to his detailed accounts of “ratfucking” that Nixon’s campaign perfected–from planting spies in Democratic campaign offices to sending out fake letters attributed to Democratic front-runner Edmund Muskie.

Perhaps the only place where Nixonland falls flat–and where its thesis overreaches–is its discussion of the Nixon Administration itself. Presidents don’t just run for office; they establish policy priorities, shape legislation and issue executive orders. Nixon’s politics and his Administration’s rhetoric were so lurid and inflammatory that it is easy to view the entire history of the Administration through the distorting prism of its dirty tricks. Perlstein acknowledges that Nixon did not care much about domestic politics; as the President once said, “I’ve always thought the country could run itself domestically without a president.” But just because he was indifferent to everyday policy-making doesn’t mean that his Administration was. The work of the executive branch went on, sometimes with agents of polarization and division wreaking havoc. (Perlstein offers a particularly juicy tale of a young lawyer in the obscure Office of Telecommunications Policy named Antonin Scalia, who drafted a series of memos about turning the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into a tool of the White House.) But many of Nixon’s key policies were shaped by Rockefeller Republicans. The efforts of bureaucrats slogging away in the cubicles of the Department of Labor or regulators in the Department of Energy were seldom newsworthy. But they were enormously influential.

On policy matters, Perlstein’s judgments are sometimes too polar. For example, he argues that Nixon embraced affirmative action solely to aggravate the split between blacks and labor in the Democratic Party. This is true–but by no means the whole story. Nixon aides also hoped to buy off black discontent, and some saw it as a relatively cost-free way to improve the economic opportunities of blacks (for a short time some even, quite wrongly, believed they could capture black votes). While Nixon exploited the hot-button issue of busing to foster racial division, his Administration created the Office of Minority Business Enterprise and even appointed some prominent civil rights activists, including Congress of Racial Equality founder James Farmer, to administrative posts. The Nixon Administration expanded funding for bilingual education, giving the controversial program legitimacy and political legs. Above all, Nixon had to cut deals with the still-overwhelmingly Democratic House and Senate. Perhaps the most far-reaching and long-term legacy of the Nixon Administration was its dramatic expansion of the regulatory powers of the state: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission were just two. Perlstein interprets Nixon’s creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, rather implausibly, as an attempt to undercut governmental power. Tell that to the antiregulators who have spent the past three decades trying to eviscerate it.

Indeed, to scrutinize Nixon’s policy record is to learn why so many of his fiercest critics came from the right. In 1971 the ever volatile Pat Buchanan penned an angry memo complaining that conservatives “are the niggers of the Nixon administration.” To National Review publisher William Rusher, Nixon’s expansion of the regulatory power of government was apostasy, and he called on all good-thinking rightists to walk away from Nixon in 1972. Many Goldwaterites and Reaganites viewed Nixon as a liberal appeaser, someone insufficiently devoted to the doctrine of small government. They were not wrong. Nixon played to what he perceived to be the liberal center of American politics. The divisive politics of Nixonland were tempered by the reality that liberals, however embattled, were far from dead, and Nixon, sometimes inadvertently, furthered many of their goals.

Ultimately, Perlstein’s argument is one about culture, rhetoric and representation, and on those subjects he is utterly persuasive. Nixon’s polarizing impact was profound and long-lasting. He governed in the center but ran to the right. The two Nixonian strategies–polarization and ratfucking–enabled the electoral triumph of the New Right. Even if he did not dismantle government, he delegitimized it, blaming liberal elites for betraying the public trust while betraying it himself. Watergate brought Nixon’s demise, but perversely, the scandals reinforced his core message that government could not be trusted. In 1960 Goldwater had launched his conservative insurgency by declaring that the greatest enemy of freedom was government. After Vietnam, Nixonian polarization and Watergate, Goldwater’s antigovernment maxims were no longer marginal. For millions of ordinary Americans, they became conventional wisdom.

No one suffered the consequences of polarization more than the losing candidate in 1972, George McGovern. He was a plain-talking, strait-laced war hero who had won the support of plain-speaking South Dakota farmers. “I can present liberal values in a conservative, restrained way,” asserted McGovern. “I see myself as a politician of reconciliation.” Known for his fundamental decency, McGovern, a man of principle, an “antipolitician,” pledged to govern from the middle. He hoped to heal divisions, he never supported acid or even the legalization of marijuana, and he was hostile to abortion, which he thought was a matter best left to the states. But McGovern’s actual positions did not matter once Nixon ran him through the thresher. The fact that the Yippies endorsed McGovern and that the Democratic delegates, despite McGovern’s pleading for “moderation,” demanded floor votes on then-controversial issues like gay liberation, only added fuel to the fire. Nixon–a President whose policies had been profoundly antilabor–found himself the beneficiary of the AFL-CIO’s decision not to endorse McGovern, for, in George Meany’s words, the “Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like johns.” The McGovern my classmates sent to resounding defeat in 1972–and the McGovern of their parents’ nightmares–was not a real man. He was a spectral creation of the politics of polarization, the ultimate Franklin who haunted the dreams of bitter working-class whites and God-fearing Middle Americans. Various similar specters have haunted national politics ever since. Forty years after 1968, will they ever be laid to rest?

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