Review

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

by Rick Perlstein

Earlier this month the New York Times Book Review
asked a wide range of American writers what books they would
recommend to the then three remaining candidates for President of
the United States. Suggested titles ranged from classical
literature such as ANNA KARENINA to books on health care and
economics. Conspicuous by its inclusion as one of the few
contemporary books on American politics was NIXONLAND by Rick
Perlstein. It is an epic recounting of the political era that
spanned the final third of the 20th century and continues to leave
its footprint on our nation’s politics and the forthcoming
presidential election.

Perlstein has become a respected historian of the post-World War II
American political scene. In 2001 he authored BEFORE THE STORM:
Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. As the
title reflects, the focus was on the 1964 election battle between
Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. At the time, Johnson’s
landslide victory appeared to signal the beginning of a second New
Deal era for American liberalism. But within one national election
cycle, liberalism was on the wane and the movement nurtured by
Goldwater seized control of American politics. Richard Nixon,
Ronald Reagan and George Bush would be the beneficiaries of the
Goldwater movement. While Nixon’s political career pre-dated
the conservative movement, the political vacuum created by
Goldwater’s defeat also made possible Nixon’s political
rebirth.

The members of Nixon’s political generation were the products
of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Those experiences
tempered their political philosophy and created a Republican Party
that was forced to eschew economic policies identified with Herbert
Hoover. Domestic politics was what elected Democrats, and
Republicans were forced to become a party that built its foundation
upon anti-communism. Nixon was a master at this game; using that
platform he was elected first to the House of Representatives, then
to the U.S. Senate and finally became Vice President. Narrowly
defeated for President in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, he returned to
California to seek the Governor’s office in 1962. His defeat
in that election resulted in his famous bitter concession when he
lambasted the media and announced, “You won’t have
Nixon to kick around anymore.” Those words, however, were a
lie, and he immediately began to plot his return to the national
political stage.

But despite its title, NIXONLAND encompasses far more than the
story of our 37th President. After the election of 1964, the cadre
of voters who had previously been faithful supporters of Franklin
D. Roosevelt and the New Deal began to leave the party. Perlstein
argues that white middle-class dissatisfaction with crime, civil
rights and economic woes made Republicans out of a critical mass of
Democrats. Nixon exploited that anger and political disenchantment
with his “Southern Strategy” of 1968. Reagan and both
President Bushes refined his work to cement a solid Republican
political majority.

More than a book about politics, NIXONLAND is a brilliant narrative
of the entire social, political and cultural history of an era that
began with optimism after World War II and turned into post-war
cynicism with Vietnam. The events of the ’60s and ’70s
--- the politics, riots, wars and assassinations --- are detailed
in an exquisite style.

Political upheavals such as the elections of 1912, 1932, 1964 and
1972 are often difficult to pinpoint with accuracy. Indeed,
historians frequently must identify these cataclysmic events years
after the fact. While Perlstein suggests that the political
revolution detailed in NIXONLAND may remain with us for another
generation, there are signs that he may be incorrect. It remains to
be seen whether the election of 2008 between the hopeful politics
of Barack Obama and the old politics of John McCain will emerge
victorious. Perlstein will be ready to offer his analysis in a
future political history, for which readers can be grateful.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 13, 2011

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
by Rick Perlstein