Monday, August 23, 2010
BOOK REVIEW: RICK PERLSTEIN’S “NIXONLAND”
I knew I was eventually going to be reading Rick Perlstein’s 750-page nonfiction history of Richard Nixon and the times he presided over & helped to stoke/flame, from the moment this book hit the bestseller lists and I found out about it. Perlstein wrote my favorite book I read all of last year, and one of the best pieces of history I’ve ever read: “BEFORE THE STORM: BARRY GOLDWATER & THE UNMAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSENSUS”. You can read my review of that book by clicking here. This book picks up more or less where that one left off, after a few chapters about Nixon’s childhood and rise to power – his Vice-Presidency under Eisenhower, his loss to Kennedy for the presidency in 1960, and his premature exit from politics soon thereafter (the famous “you won’t have Nixon to kick around any longer”). More importantly, these early chapters are not a rote recitation of biography, but set up the dichotomy that Nixon exploited time and again his entire career: the resentment felt by the common, “left-behind” everyman and everywoman at the gains made by the pointed-headed liberal intellectual types, who brushed away the turmoil of the 60s that was tearing up cities, neighborhoods and families with a condescending sweep of hand (or phrase). The common folk were presciently dubbed The Silent Majority by Nixon and his people, and this phrase captured the mood of the US electorate like no other before or since. I might add that no politician as inherently unlikeable (or as hideously paranoid and self-loathing) as Richard Nixon has done so much with so little since then as well.
That sort of thing. OK, that’s my parody version, but when you read the book – and I whole-heartedly suggest you invest the time – you’ll see what I mean. The book is a totally immersive plunge into the American mindset of 1964-1972, and I won’t look at that time the same way again after the experience. It’s that good, and that all-encompassing. Perlstein has the gift of being able to make the seemingly mundane pace-quickening, and despite my kidding above, does a great job capturing real snippets from the American zeitgeist to capture the mood. The United States has never been torn asunder the way it was during these tumultuous years, and never has it had a politician so good at exploiting the divisions for his own advantage. When Nixon is finally brought down, at the end – as you knew he would be – the curtain abruptly closes without a whole lot of detail on Watergate and the resignation, leaving one to wonder what Perlstein’s next move might be. The Ford era (ha!)? The Church commission, the CIA hearings, the backlash election of Jimmy Carter, followed by the rise of Reagan? Now we’re talking. I’ll spend another 750 small-type pages and many, many weeks devouring that one.