Tricky Dick’s Legacy

Tricky Dick’s Legacy

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
by Rick Perlstein
Scribner, 2008, 748 pp., $37.50

For decades, liberal scholars and journalists have been trying to figure out how it came to this. How did we end up with a deeply polarized society, in which conservative leaders, ideas, and policies have defined national politics? After all, from the fall of Joe McCarthy through the end of the 1960s, a national consensus in support of liberalism seemed to have become entrenched. Conservatism appeared atavistic, on the wrong side of the tide of history. Boy, was that wrong.

Nixon did it, sort of, says Rick Perlstein, in his epic Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. For Perlstein, Nixon was the central figure in a national agony of violence, recrimination, and division that occurred between 1964 and 1972, whose “sides have hardly changed” since. “We now call them ‘red’ or ‘blue’ America.” Nixon, Perlstein argues, helped rip the country apart by campaigning and ruling with strategies and lies designed to cleave the electorate in such a way that a dominant Republican or conservative bloc would be created, which would empower him and shape the country’s future.

Nixonland is a throwback to a type of book that headed the bestseller lists in Nixon’s own era, the big book of journalism about big national events. Rich in description and storytelling but lacking analytic rigor, Nixonland leaves it to the reader to draw out its implications, either for understanding the past or thinking about the future. Perlstein offers up a sprawling political narrative, a detailed rendering of the 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972 national elections and the events that surrounded them. It is Teddy White come back from the grave, with a zippier style and pumped up sensibility appropriate to our age of enveloping hyperbole. Newspaper headlines, campaign speeches, urban riots, political scoundrels, trigger-happy National Guardsmen, clever admen, student radicals, shady operatives, and angry citizens of every stripe inhabit this massive effort at immediacy, at making the reader feel like he or she was there, a book that strives to achieve weightiness through, well, weight—748 pages of text and well over a hundred more of notes and index. This is writing about the recent American past in the tradition of David Halberstram and J. Anthony Lukas (to whom Perlstein dedicates his tome), but without the shoe leather. Rather than the large number of interviews that were the stock in trade for earlier generations of journalists turned book authors, Perlstein relies mostly on published accounts, some archival material, and the vast array of sources now available on the Internet, from newspapers to presidential recordings to campaign commercials.

At their best, Whit...

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