Saturday, April 24, 2010

NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein

First, a few voices from Nixonland:

"Sing one more freedom song and you are under arrest." -- policeman's warning to a group of schoolchildren in Selma, Alabama, 1965

"You'll never make it in politics, Len. You just don't know how to lie." -- Richard M. Nixon

"Can anyone tell me what's in my legislative program?" -- Gov. Ronald Reagan, during a press conference

"[John] Wayne might sound bad to people in New York, but he sounds great to the schmucks we're trying to reach through John Wayne. The people down there among the Yahoo Belt." -- Nixon advisor Kevin Phillips

"Nothing would bring the real peaceniks back to our side unless Hubert urinated on a portrait of Lyndon Johnson in Times Square before television--and then they'd say to him, 'Why didn't you do it before?' " -- one of Hubert Humphrey's advisors, 1968

"Those hippies...were wearing beards, and anybody who wears a beard, he deserves to get beat up." -- a Connecticut factory worker, speaking of the 1968 Democratic Convention

"It would have been better if the Guard had shot the whole lot of them that morning." -- a resident of Kent, Ohio, after the Kent State murders

"If I ever find out you're a Communist, Jane, I'll be the first person to turn you in." -- Henry Fonda, to his daughter

"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending fifty thousand young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood." -- Sen. George McGovern, in a speech to the Senate on Vietnam

"The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sakes!" -- Nixon to Kissinger

"Is there anything braver or more noble about burning up children who live north of the seventeenth parallel or who live in Cambodia or Laos? They all feel pain. They're all children of the same God. Those it seems to me are the kind of conditions we have to recover if we're going to save the soul of this nation." -- McGovern on the campaign trial, responding to a question about the famous photograph of a South Vietnamese girl running from an American napalm strike, 1972

"Goddamn it, forget the law!" -- Nixon to Attorney General John Mitchell

Nixonland is a great book. It's 748 pages long, and when I reached the last page, I didn't want it to end. I hope Perlstein plans to continue his narrative history of American conservatism with a volume focusing on Ronald Reagan and the Republican party's hard right turn after the Watergate wipeout. (A turn that was nothing compared to what's happening today: the Republicans openly embracing the most psychotic and delusional elements of the American right. Today we're living through the not-yet-written fourth volume of Perlstein's project.) Perhaps the best way to state the difference between Perlstein's and every other history of America in the period 1964-72 is to say that Nixonland is the best book Thomas Pynchon never wrote. This is history as a Pynchon novel, with all the absurdity, black comedy and paranoia of The Crying of Lot 49 or even Gravity's Rainbow. (And isn't Richard Nixon the shadowy, almost unseen presence haunting Pynchon's entire oeuvre, from V. to Vice?) Perlstein also shares Pynchon's drive to recapture events that have been lost to history--and the recent past is always in the greatest danger of oblivion, since it bears more directly upon the present. All the usual landmarks are here, of course (Watts to Woodstock, My Lai to McGovern), but even more impressive are the events Perlstein rescues from the rabbit hole of the recent past: his coverage of the Newark riots, which is as good as Howard Zinn at his best; his account of the media's quick change from criticizing the Daley regime to parroting the Daley line on the 1968 Democratic Convention; his revelation of the now conveniently forgotten fact that millions of Americans wanted to kill Martin Luther King (and his somewhat more doubtful assertion that millions of others would've been willing to die for him); his balanced account of Jane Fonda's antiwar activities. Probably most important for future studies of the late 1960s New Left is his demonstration of the fatal flaw in that pet doctrine of radical Marxists, "heightening the contradictions." The leftists failed to take into account one fact that Nixon knew very well: when state violence is provoked by nonconformists, at least as many Americans will cheer the cops as will support the protesters, and the pro-fascist cheering will be amplified by the megaphones of power. This is why when Nixon received a memo warning him of upcoming campus unrest in 1970, he scrawled across it a single word: "Good."

One obvious criticism: Perlstein overuses the Orthogonian/Franklin dichotomy. Even though he builds a convincing case that it's a defining factor in Nixon's worldview, it remains too simplistic a sociology to build a history upon--a fact evidenced by Perlstein's own description of the Hard Hat Riot (another important event he draws out of the rabbit hole). During the riot, 'Orthogonian' construction workers and 'Franklin' Wall Street stockbrokers joined forces to brutalize antiwar demonstrators. The American class structure defies easy dualisms, as do the various Republican strategies for keeping the different classes at each others' throats. America since Nixon has been like the '72 Democratic primaries: the classes set against one another by right-wing rhetoric while the Richard Mellon Scaifes of the world laugh all the way to their offshore banks. Yes, Tricky Dick ratfucked America--and that's nothing compared to what he did to the people of Southeast Asia.

Perlstein does a marvelous (and wonderfully readable) job of reminding Americans of their recent past, but Nixonland is still just one monkey wrench tossed into the Great American Amnesia Machine. We need many more. May 4 of this year is the 40th anniversary of the murders of Allison Krause, William Schroeder, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Lee Scheuer at Kent State University. Let's see if anyone notices...


Rick Perlstein said...

Thanks for the kind words! I am indeed working on the sequel right now--1973 to 1980.

By the way, Selma was in 1965, not 1964.

BRIAN OARD said...


Thank you for a truly great book. I look forward to your next. (And my blog post stands corrected on the date of Selma.)