The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
Scribner. 881 pp. $37.50
There is so much literature about various aspects of Richard Nixon -- his foreign policy, his domestic policy, his rise to power, his time in power, his fall from power, his comeback, his relationship with Vice President Spiro Agnew, his trip to China -- that it would seem difficult to find an original approach to the man. But, in Nixonland, Rick Perlstein has come up with the novel and important idea of exploring the relationship between Nixon and the 1960s counterculture, a rebellion of mostly young people against society's conventions and authority in general. Perlstein is quite right in identifying this rebellion -- and the reaction against it -- as critical to Nixon's rise and his strange hold on the American people. One might even consider Perlstein's book to be primarily about the counterculture and only secondarily about Nixon, since he devotes nearly half of it to a brilliant evocation of the '60s.
The decade had begun quiescently, with a general acceptance of the conventional mores of the '50s and the Cold War. But midway through came upheaval: hippies, yippies, be-ins, the drug culture, the Weather Underground, the "summer of love." Then the traumas of 1968: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, campus unrest, urban riots. And, of course, Vietnam. A nation unhinged.
Perlstein astutely follows the reaction against all of this by a large part of the American people, whose deep resentments and fear Nixon shrewdly observed and exploited. In the 1968 election campaign, he offered America peace and quiet, law and order. But once in office, he delivered mass arrests of peaceful protesters against the war; his allies in the construction unions beat up demonstrators on Wall Street. Perlstein's Nixonland is a land of rebellion and reaction, each faction stirring up the other.
Perlstein previously wrote Before the Storm, a well-received book about Barry Goldwater. Now, once again, he has done a prodigious amount of research to give us a fat volume on a key figure who shifted our political ground. Perlstein is a fine writer with a well-developed capacity for seeing irony and absurdity; his storytelling skills make this an absorbing book, full of surprising details. His recounting of the 1968 Republican convention includes a marvelous description of Nixon making a deal with Strom Thurmond to get Southern support in exchange for promising to halt government desegregation efforts and to appoint Supreme Court justices and a vice president acceptable to the South Carolina senator. (Thurmond suggested Agnew, who had not even been on Nixon's list.) Perlstein's account of the Democratic convention in Chicago is so vivid as to make one feel right there on the chaotic convention floor and amid the bloody demonstrations outside the convention hall. In keeping with his theme, he makes it clear that most of the American public sided with mayor Richard J. Daley, who denounced the demonstrators in earthy terms and whose cops beat them up. Richard Nixon understood this very well.
But Perlstein's book is weaker on Nixon's presidency than on what led up to it. He certainly catches the anger that Nixon carried into office and fatefully acted upon; he writes, acutely, that "Nixon was a serial collector of resentments." He also captures the assorted gumshoes and clowns who were brought into the White House to snoop on and harass Nixon's perceived "enemies." But while Perlstein is perceptive about Nixon, he isn't reflective about him. He does not examine the phenomenon of a president drunk and out of control, barking orders to aides in the early hours of the morning -- orders they had to decide whether to carry out. Nor does he stop to reflect on the true menace of a president using the power of the state against political opponents and trying to interfere with the inner workings of the opposition party.
Perlstein makes too much of Nixon's college experience: Rejected by Whittier College's elite fraternity, the Franklins, Nixon started a new fraternity of outsiders, the Orthogonians. (Nixon told fellow members that the word meant "upright" or "straight shooter.") From then on, by Perlstein's account, Nixon saw the world in terms of Franklins and Orthogonians.
But the metaphor becomes tiresome and is simplistic. From his childhood on, Nixon felt looked down upon by those who were better off. As president, he resented the elites in the State Department and CIA, and others from privileged backgrounds. But his antipathies extended far beyond that, to include blacks, Jews, intellectuals, political opponents and much of the press (with the exception of those he could manipulate).
In his source notes, Perlstein attributes his ability to gather so much material to the wonders of the Internet, but he sometimes seems indiscriminate, if not self-indulgent, in his use of the available information: Do we really need to know the details of the trial of the Chicago Seven? Why are we suddenly being told about the murder of actress Sharon Tate? All the jump-cutting is disorienting, and he makes some small, avoidable errors: The townhouse Nixon bought in New York after his forced retirement was on East 65th Street, not Fifth Avenue; the Washington Post reporter who asked Lyndon Johnson an uncomfortable question was Chalmers Roberts, not Chalmers Johnson.
Perlstein's thesis about the clash between the counter-culture and much of the rest of the country, and his explanation of Nixon's place in it, is on target. But at the end of Nixonland, he becomes carried away and pushes his theme too far. In a peculiar passage, he writes, convolutedly: "Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not."
Well, I, for one, don't find it so hard. Nevertheless, Nixonland is a highly readable book and an important contribution to the literature about our arguably most interesting president. ·
Elizabeth Drew is a journalist and author whose most recent book is "Richard M. Nixon."