Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (Scribner Book Company $37.50) is far and away the most absorbing and fascinating history I have read in a long while. Of course, I came of age during the period he describes so well, and it resonates for me. At times, while reading, I’m embarrassed by the exuberance of my youth; at other times I remember the passion of my youth fondly. But even if you missed the sixties, you will also be transfixed by this narrative.
Beginning with the apotheosis of Lyndon Johnson and his social agenda in 1964, and the debacle of the Goldwater candidacy, Perlstein moves onto the social forces that ultimately brought down his presidency. At center stage is Richard Nixon, carefully repairing his reputation after the 1960 presidential race and his loss to Pat Brown for Governor of California in 1962, and exploiting every fissure that surfaced in American society to his advantage.
The social movements are there: the growing Anti-war movement and the Civil Rights movement that morphed into a different kind of thing after the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, both ultimately coalescing in Martin Luther King, hated and vilified by many, loved and sainted by others. Both merge in the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the police riot that ensued.
The personalities are there too: a young Nixon speechwriter, Pat Buchanan; Timothy Leary; Richard Speck; Senator Edward Brooke; Eugene McCarthy; Robert Kennedy; George Romney; Seymour Hersh; Norman Mailer; the Berrigan Brothers; Abbie Hoffman; Ronald Reagan; Barry Goldwater; Nelson Rockefeller. The list goes on.
And ironies are noted. Humphrey’s staunchest supporters are the southern delegates; many were the same ones who walked out on his brave Civil Rights speech in 1948 and began the Dixiecrat party with Strom Thurmond at its head. That would be the same Strom Thurmond who made secret deals with Nixon before the GOP convention in 1968, ensuring a Nixon candidacy.
Perlstein’s contention is that the United States was about as close at this time to civil war as it had been since the 1860’s. He reminds us why. It was a time that the conservative Chicago Tribune could editorialize on the day of Martin Luther King’s funeral that “ The murder of Dr, King was a crime and the sin of an individual…The man who committed the act must come to terms with him maker..(The) rest of us (are) not contributory to this particular crime”. It was this kind of fine analysis that could drive any red-blooded human being to rebellion.
This book is 748 pages long in text, with an additional 100+ in notes and index. I am about half way through and will follow up this report with another next week. In the meantime, go get a copy and read this work. It’s worth the money.
Rick Perstein will be interviewed by Jimbo Hoyer at Virtually Speaking in Second Life 6 pm PST/SLT, May 29th.