Establishment Democrats have always had a hard time believing someone like Newt Gingrich could ever be president. He’s too radical, too, well, “unstable,” to project him in the role of national father figure, let alone answering the red phone at 3 a.m. But Jon Meacham got me thinking that as usual I am missing something. To understand Gingrich’s appeal and power, one has to go back to another underestimated — at least by liberals — American political figure: Richard Nixon. (I doubt I’m the only one who wishes Bill Safire were still alive so he could write one of those imagined conversations between the ghost of Nixon and Newt.) The Nixon reference reminded me of one of the books I go to when I need some perspective — perhaps the best book written about contemporary politics: “Nixonland,” by Rick Pearlstein, a book Meacham also cites.
In his book, Pearlstein explains so much about where we are today, even though it is about elections that happened four decades ago. He writes about how we went from Lyndon Johnson’s landslide in ’64 and the Great Society to Richard Nixon’s landslide just eight years later. Could history repeat — this time on an even tighter time frame? Could we really go from Barack Obama and the politics of hope to Newt Gingrich and the politics of resentment?
Pearlstein doesn’t answer that question, directly, of course — his book was written in 2008 — but he surely speaks to it: ”Politicians. . .make their life’s work convincing 50 percent plus one of their constituency that they understand their fears and hopes, can honor and redeem them, can make them safe and lead them toward their dreams.. . .” In the 1960’s, “America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which. . .” In 1964, the voter “pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else. . .seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”
Sounds at least plausible today, doesn’t it?