It’s very odd when you find a book that’s about 800 pages, and find it’s too short. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is an in depth look at Nixon’s political career from the beginning up to the outcome of the 1972 election, as well as how America’s political scene went from perceived consensus in the LBJ era to the bitterly divided right versus left, red state/blue state split. The lead-up to the election is so fast-paced and exciting, it almost seems like an abrupt ending, even though it’s a logical one — though, given the subject, there were some interesting things to happen afterward, like the resignation of Agnew, and something about a break-in of some sort.
Perlstein has really done his research; not only does he flesh Nixon out very fully, explaining a lot of why he was the way he was, but the world at the time. He makes it very clear that not only was the consensus a veneer, but that it contributed to making the fractioning so bloody. It’s accepted that prior to the mid-sixties that America on the subject of race was less than enlightened. People forget that it wasn’t especially noble after King, either. Segregated schools lasted into the ’70s in the American South, due partially to Nixon’s courting of the southern vote (the first Republican since the Civil War to do so successfully). Nixon kept pushing back the deadlines set by the Supreme Court as to when desegration was to happen. But that was only one example of the deep racial tension. Nothing gets people angrier than when they’re told everything is fine and happy when they’re so clearly not.
The public weren’t the only ones being divided; the Democratic Party was as well. LBJ and many of the old guard Democrats were for the Vietnam war, while much of the “New Left” was defined at least in good part by their opposition to it. Perlstein makes the good point that not only did Nixon benefit greatly from this party squabbling, he did what he could to prolong it. Perlstein illustrates how Nixon and his Committee to Re-Elect the President basically chose McGovern as the Democratic nominee by attacking the other candidates relentlessly but leaving McGovern alone as they felt he was the easiest to beat. Once McGovern did get the nod, alienating the old Dems (including the traditionally Democratic-voting Labor block), Nixon didn’t have to work as hard to get votes — which he did; 60% of the popular vote and every state in the Electoral college but Massachusetts.
Nixon has always been an incredibly intriguing person — even if you disagree with him on almost everything (like I do) and found him morally bankrupt (again…), there’s no denying the man was brilliant. He knew exactly what he had to do politically to win. Nixon sullied the White House almost irreparably as his Administration was (as Perlstein shows) one of the most corrupt of recent history, but his legacy lives on in the Republican Party, as it continues to position itself as being the party of Just Plain Folks, the Silent Majority, while the Democrats are the out-of-touch liberal intelligensia. It might not be accurate, but it often works — and we’ve got Nixon to thank for that technique. Nixonland is an incredibly interesting and enlightening book, though you’ll probably be pretty angry in places when you read it — not because of Perlstein, but because of the subject. But, Perlstein’s argument is that we’re still living in Nixonland, and he makes a pretty damn good case for it. If you’re curious about not only the political culture in America, but how it got this way, Nixonland is a must-read.