THE SURPRISES begin right away in “Nixonland.” The book opens with the Watts riots, a singularly unconventional starting point for a narrative built around Richard M. Nixon, who was not in office and not involved with the 1965 events or their aftermath. But these passages in Rick Perlstein’s rambunctious, ambitious, energetic tour through the Nixon era set both the tone and approach that distinguish this remarkable work.
As the initial setting makes clear, Perlstein is after something other than biography here. And wisely so. The world almost certainly has enough Nixon biographies; few subjects have tantalized writers more than the troubled soul of Yorba Linda’s favorite son. Instead, he tells the story of Nixon’s America, a country of division and resentment, jealousy and anger, one where politics is brutal and psychological, where victors make the vanquished suffer. Perlstein, who covered some of this ground in “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” aims here at nothing less than weaving a tapestry of social upheaval. His success is dazzling.
His method is worth noting as well. “Nixonland” is not, fundamentally, a work of primary research. Its sources largely are news accounts and other books; although there are occasional citations to personal papers and interviews, this is a synthesis, not an investigation. Written with verve and a ranging, incisive intelligence, “Nixonland” re-defines the fissures of that period as the product of conflict between two forces, which Perlstein dubs the Franklins and the Orthogonians after two fraternities that claimed opposite corners during Nixon’s Whittier College days.
The Franklins were the dapper, refined Big Men on Campus; in the larger story of “Nixonland,” they are the Ivy Leaguers, the U.S. Supreme Court clerks, men of privilege like Alger Hiss and Jack Kennedy, Jerry Voorhis and Eugene McCarthy. This was not Nixon, who co-founded the Orthogonians for the strivers and loners, the shirt-sleeved and tough. Nixon, as is well known, met his wife by driving her on dates with other men, simmering and persisting until eventually she accepted him. He was drawn to others like himself, and he found them on the outskirts of every kind of organization, even in sports, where most observers saw glamour or fame. “It was an eminently Nixonian insight,” Perlstein writes, “that on every sports team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous, strategy is to concentrate on the non-spectacular -- silent -- majority. The ones who labor quietly, sometimes resentfully, in the quarterback’s shadow: the linemen, the guards, the punter.”
THERE began a lifetime of positioning, of nurturing and exploiting the nation’s deepest resentments, of rallying the silent and the glum to their champion. This cleavage defines “Nixonland,” and the resulting tensions make the riots the right place to start, for it was in those bloody days that the American consensus, such as it was, melted in the streets of Watts, just months after President Johnson crowed about American civilization at its apex, about a nation prepared to deliver “abundance and liberty for all.”
As Perlstein tracks the rise and fall and rise and fall of Nixon, he hews to the knife’s edge of conflict, opting for the cultural over the narrowly political. Student activist Tom Hayden makes more appearances in “Nixonland” than Justice William O. Douglas, and that’s appropriate. This broad scope opens up the narrative, and through it flutter the personalities, large and small, who populated the late 1960s and early 1970s so colorfully. We find Abbie Hoffman and H. Rap Brown, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Herbert Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and John Wayne, H.R. Haldeman and Spiro Agnew. These figures come back to us in Perlstein’s able hands, a reunion of old friends and enemies drawn together and mutually repelled by Nixon’s influence. They make a dashing backdrop to this exegesis on love and war, politics and art.
Perlstein sends home some scintillating snapshots from his ‘60s tour. His account of the Chicago Seven trial is superb, as is his portrayal of the nation’s response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His writing is occasionally overwrought, but more often modulated, breezy in the decade’s lighter moments, deliberate when appropriate. Thus, he observes, candidate “Richard Nixon’s summer of love was spent abroad.” And, “Some people wanted peace because they didn’t want America to be humiliated. Some people wanted peace because they preferred America’s humiliation. Now the president invited Orthogonians to join him in defining themselves by the split -- in a wager that the majority on his side would grow for it.”
Although Perlstein has produced an exuberant reconstruction of these years, he does, regrettably, adopt one of the period’s less admirable qualities. He embraces hyperbole and, as columnist George F. Will noted in his recent review of “Nixonland” for the New York Times, chalks up a few errors along the way. None are devastating, but they are distracting; one reveals a weakness in Perlstein’s reliance on secondary sources. Describing the 1970 Kent State massacre, he writes that residents of Kent, Ohio, “were thrilled to see the tanks and jeeps rumble through town” and later describes children climbing around the tanks. That appears to be drawn from James A. Michener’s account (in “Kent State: What Happened and Why”), but no tanks appear in the extensive photographic and journalistic record. (There are references to armed personnel carriers, but not tanks.)
ANOTHER error, harder to explain, caught my eye, in part because it detracts from what should be a signature scene, Nixon’s 1969 inaugural address, when the long-suffering politician finally claimed the presidency. The occasion had special resonance because the oath was administered to Nixon that January day by Chief Justice Earl Warren, who had sparred with Nixon for decades, going back to Warren’s time as California’s governor. So deeply did Warren detest Nixon that the chief justice had tried to retire earlier the previous year, in part to prevent Nixon from choosing his replacement on the court. (Warren eventually left in 1969, and Nixon replaced him with Warren Burger.) Perlstein, however, incorrectly reports that Justice Hugo Black administered the oath, not only getting the moment wrong but also robbing it of much of its consequence.
These mistakes are distracting, but hardly debilitating. Once they are remedied, what will be left is a superb history of a period too often glamorized beyond recognition. Perlstein’s grand epic revolutionizes the history of those revolutionary times and does something more as well. Through it, through Nixon, he delivers a new understanding of some of the divisions of our modern life. The coarseness and recrimination that undermine our political civility today have deep roots in the Nixon era. If we now live in a country where politics swallows its victims, where victory must be total, where opponents are demonized rather than having their arguments debated, well, Nixon carries his share of the blame.
Perlstein may make too much of that. Not all conflict is between the camps of “Nixonland,” and there are plenty of evils in modern America that have nothing to do with Nixon; indeed, our current president has managed to invent more than most. But for those inclined to minimize Nixon’s demerits, to insist that he only got caught at what all presidents do, Perlstein reminds us who Nixon was and what he wrought.
Here’s one small but telling anecdote, in which Nixon is taped berating Haldeman and other top aides to use the Internal Revenue Service to punish administration critics: “We have the power, but are we using it? To investigate contributors to Hubert Humphrey, contributors to Muskie, the Jews, you know, that are stealing everybody. . . . Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. . . . Could we please investigate some of these [expletive deleted]?”
Nixon may not have invented a divisive America, and today’s divisions may not all be his fault, but it’s hard to read those words and not acknowledge that he was in a class of his own. And yes, as Perlstein concludes, we all have paid a price for it. *