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Rick Perlstein. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. New York: Scribner, 2008 pp. 881 ISBN:0743243021


The story of Richard Nixon is one of cultural and political warfare. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland makes the argument that it was Richard Nixon who devised the strategy of uniting working class white Americans and evangelical Christians against the “liberal Democrats.” His Silent Majority was an army of conservatives who felt threatened by the liberal reforms of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. “What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans.”(748) Nixon spoke for the “value voters” who resent intellectuals and people that challenge the status-quo. Liberals, hippies, elitists, Democrats—these were the groups that Nixon lumped together and pushed Americans to fear. They were un-American, probably even secret communists.

Nixon’s hate for the elite dated back to his school years. While attending Whittier, Nixon ran up against a group of students who called themselves the Franklins. “The Franklins were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slick.”(22) Nixon, who was of meager origins, was anything but a Franklin. But the Franklins ran the Student Body, and Nixon was already obsessed with gaining power. So, he founded the Orthogonians, whose base was the athletic students and those who were not academically motivated. The Orthogonians "was for the strivers, those not to the manner born, [and]the commuter students.”(22) As the leader and founder of the Orthogonians, Nixon beat out a Franklin for student body president. He had learned an important lesson. By harnessing the power of those who saw themselves as commoners, Nixon could overpower those he called elites by persuading them he was one of them and showing how the "elites" threatened them.

Nixon would continue to make a name for himself by fighting against the establishment and intellectuals--all the while working his way into positions of more power and influence. In Congress, he made his name in the Alger Hiss case. Nixon rode the anticommunism wave better than anyone by successfully presenting himself as a true defender of the American way of life. Nixon was power hungry and as ambitious as a man can be. He took whatever position necessary to gain the upper hand. His “Checkers” speech, given when his vice presidential chances were imperiled in 1952, is an example of how well he could manipulate the American public. Under investigation for taking bribes, Nixon spoke about his meager possessions for a television audience. He was able to connect to Americans in a way that people almost forgot that he was a politician. Although a sitting U.S. Senator and previously a two-term Congressman, Nixon was one of them. He had a wife, two young children, a dog, and was just struggling to get by.

After he barely lost the 1960 Presidential Election to John Kennedy and then the California gubernatorial election, many assumed that Richard Nixon’s political career was dead. But there was a great conservative rumbling taking place in the country. Beginning in California and radiating out, a new brand of conservatives were organizing at the grassroots and demanding change. Though Barry Goldwater did not manage to win the Presidency, the organization that he helped create set the stage for conservatives to come. Nixon saw an opportunity and took it. He immediately began refashioning himself. Refusing to admit that he was indeed a candidate for president, Nixon began laying the ground work for his campaign. He courted conservatives from across the country, made speeches deriding FDR’s forced reforms. Although there was some fear that Ronald Reagan might launch a presidential campaign after beating Nixon’s former rival, Governor Pat Brown of California, Nixon never stopped campaigning--albeit always campaigning for somebody else while denying his own ambition.

By 1968 the country was torn apart. The Democratic Party was in pieces and its Convention was an embarrassment. The Civil Rights movement was split on questions of violence. Nixon positioned himself as the candidate of law and order. With Nixon as the Republican nominee, things looked promising for the GOP. Nixon argued that the chaos and corruption of the past few years was the result of un-American, un-Christian leadership in Washington. Nixon won, and gained further victories in the 1970 midterm elections and a landslide reelection in 1972. It was as though the country uniformly rejected the Great Society.

There is one quote that sums up this backlash against Democrats: “It is a lesson of the sixties: liberals get in the biggest political trouble—whether open housing, civilian complaint review boards, or sex education programs—when they presume that a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress. It is then that they are most likely to establish their reforms by top-down bureaucratic means. A blindsiding backlash often ensues.”(509) All Nixon had to do was harness the backlash.

The book finishes with the election of 1972 and Watergate. Perlstein does not go into great detail about the Watergate break in and simply acknowledges that it happened and explains how the plumbers were formed. The reader knows that Nixon is going to be forced to resign, but the book ends before the full extent of the Watergate cover-up is discovered--as it is the subject of Perlstein's subsequent work.


David Houpt, Fall 2008

This is no ordinary biography and somebody looking for a lot of information on Nixon’s personal life or childhood should look elsewhere. Nixonland is a political-biography. It sticks to Nixon’s political life. Perlstein gives a fair amount of context as well—none of which is particularly new or groundbreaking. What is fascinating is Perlstien’s portrait of Nixon. Nixon is portrayed as somewhere between a genius and a con-man. He was “a serial collector of resentments” who “raged for what he could not have or control.”(21) Yet, he was able to come across to voters as just another guy trying to make it in a world made difficult by Democrats. This was made possible by keeping Nixon’s interaction’s with individual voters or hostile press to a minimum.

There are some interesting parallels between the lives of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson. Both men came from meager backgrounds and were always resentful of those born with a silver spoon. Nixon and Johnson both feared/hated the Kennedys for this very reason. The two men were also very insecure about a lot of things. Johnson hated to sleep alone at night and Nixon was convinced that somebody was always plotting against him. There was also a unique political drive in both men that allowed them to work harder and longer than one would think humanly possible. Finally, they were both willing to shift and remake themselves in order to get power. Nixon was constantly “reinventing himself” to be more likable. Johnson could be conservative at one moment and then liberal at the next depending on political winds.

Nixonland is a fun read with great insight into the development of modern campaigns. Reading this book in the midst of an election it is quite remarkable to see how many techniques being used now can be traced back the 60s. This can be both a positive and negative attribute. Making the ties to modern elections draws the reader into the narrative and makes it more real. At the same time, there were points were it seemed almost like Perlstein was going out of his way to make these parallels instead of just letting the history speak for itself.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

Nixonland is an fascinating to read as it is difficult to categorize. It's certainly not a biography, nor is it really even a political biography, although the political biography of Richard Nixon provides much of the narrative framework. As Perlstein puts it, Nixon isn't the main character in this book; it's the voter who voted for Johnson in 1964 because it seemed necessary for the country, and did the same in 1972 for Nixon for the same reason. (xiii) The book is too adventurous in tone and speculative (not in a bad way) in its asides to be a work of academic history, but it is very well researched and densely textured for a work of popular history. It is impassioned and nakedly partisan, but it would be very hard to dismiss it as mere polemic. It is certainly not a work of political science, or even political history. It can be considered a history of the 60s and early 70s (as it is often cataloged), but doing so ignores the author's contention that "Nixonland" is a description of the America we have lived in ever since. Perhaps it is best to consider this book the answer to the question "Why has America become so polarized on political and cultural matters?"

Which is not to say that this isn't a work of substantive historical scholarship. At just under 750 pages, Perlstein has produced a richly detailed potrait of an era in which the concerns of the white majority began to shift from a search for economic security (met by the New Deal) to cultural and social security. That later need was artfully--and amorally--not so much addressed as harnessed by a man who was an immensely skilled politician who ultimately could not distinguish between his own political survival and the larger needs of the country. Nixon was possibly the most successful--because the most influential--demagogue in American history because he chose to tap into the insecurities and anxieties of a "silent majority" that he willed into being. The fears and other darker, lesser impulses he appealed to were real; it was the new political realities and new political dichotomies he was able to create out of those amorphous tendencies which were his own creation. One theme which recurs repeatedly through this book--in "Nixonland", things which had never before been the province of political discussion because central to politics and defined new partisan and ideological identities. Polarization was a favorite tactic of the Nixon administration; Nixon is gone, but that polarization remains. In order to destroy liberalism, Nixon had to destroy the liberal consensus it rested on. In the process, he made any consensus almost unfathomable.

David McKenzie, Spring 2015

As the previous commentators have noted, Nixonland is a difficult book to categorize. Is it a political biography? A work of academic history? A work of popular history? An analysis of why the United States has become so polarized? Perhaps the answer to those questions is simply: Yes. Nixonland is all of those.

Perlstein argues that since Richard Nixon's rise, because of tactics he used in his rise, the United States has been Nixonland, "where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans" (46). Although Nixon is the largely unsympathetic protagonist of the book (hence the political biography aspect), it is more of a biography of the time period, whose central question, as other commentators have noted, was why Lyndon Johnson—he of the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act of 1964—won in a landslide and why Richard Nixon did so eight years later.

The answer, according to Perlstein, is that the supposed liberal consensus, touted after Barry Goldwater's campaign went down in flames in 1964, was a figment of many imaginations. Rather, the country was already divided in 1964, and polarized in the ensuing years. Nixon did not cause the polarization—the seeds were already sown—but Perlstein suggests that Nixon watered, indeed fertilized, the plants that sprung from those seeds. That is an important distinction, for Perlstein never argues that the United States was the halcyon land free of internal dissent until Nixon comes along, but he also does not absolve Nixon for blame in creating and subsequently exploiting polarization.

Perlstein's use of the terms Franklins and Orthogonians—drawn from Nixon's days at Whittier College—can be overwrought at times. One does have to wonder: Did Nixon continue to think of the world in these terms? On this, Perlstein is not clear. But the terms do provide a useful means to illuminate the worldview that he analyzes—a zero-sum world of "haves" and "have-nots," or "insiders" and "outsiders," and play well as part of the political biography aspect of Nixonland.

Appropriately, Perlstein published this work—the second in a series of four on the rise of American conservatism—on the eve of the election of the first African American president, one whose election heralded breathless declarations of post-partisanship. That, of course, has not happened—far from it. The events of the last six years make this book even more valuable, not just for academics but for lay readers, for understanding the deep roots of U.S. political polarization.

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