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.”