Monday, August 25, 2008

Summer Reading Four

In general, I consider myself fairly well-versed in American history, especially when it comes to the post-World War II era and especially when it comes to politics. Therefore, I was surprised (pleasantly) when I read Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America to discover just how much I didn't know about what transpired politically in the United States from 1965 to 1972. I also never fully realized just how messed up the country was at the time and the extent of the riots, protests, crime, and moral decay.

In "Nixonland," Perlstein provides an exhaustive (748 pages of material) and well-researched (746 noted references) look at why American voters went from delivering LBJ to the White House in a landslide victory in 1964 to re-electing Richard Nixon by an even larger margin in 1972. This tectonic shift in the political landscape is documented by Perlstein in an informative and usually interesting manner.

One of the fascinating aspects of the book is the number of names that you come across from that time who would later play larger roles in American cultural and political life. Just a quick perusing of the index brings forth:

Roger Ailes
Julian Bond
George W. Bush
Johnnie Cohcran
Bill Clinton
Mike Gravel
Al Gore Jr.
Gary Hart
John Kerry
Richard John Neuhaus
Leon Panetta
Charlie Rangel
Karl Rove
Donald Rumsfeld
Richard Mellon Scafie (buh-wah, buh-wah, buh-wah)
Caspar Weinberger

A lot of them cut their political teeth during this period and the tumultuous environment of the time influenced their later decisions in life.

Perlstein is a man of the Left and his partisan perspective on events is not hard to detect. His views reflect the Left's obsessions about the Sixties (and today to a certain extent): race, Vietnam, and Nixon. There's a racial context to almost everything, either overt or covert. He accepts the standard narrative on Vietnam; that it was an unwinnable war that highlighted America at its worst. And he views Nixon as a sort of contemptible but at the same time pathetic evil genius, giving him far too much credit for orchestrating, manipulating, and influencing the course of events (similar to the way that many lefties view Bush today).

A lot of the political dirty tricks (a.k.a. rat f***ing) employed by Nixon and his cast of cronies were juvenile, stupid, and for most part ineffectual. Perlstein exaggerates their impact if not their intent. He also is obsessed with the language Nixon used and likes to decode the words to reveal the "real" message being sent. This is an extremely subjective area of course and a lot of the secret meanings that Perlstein finds seem to be more a product of the writer's slightly paranoid imagination than the politician's subliminal messaging.

All that being said, "Nixonland" is still a valuable resource for anyone who wants to understand the politics of the period and how we're fighting many of the same battles today. Perlstein believes that we're still living in "Nixonland" and the level of antagonism between the two sides of the political spectrum isn't much better. Personally, I'm more optimistic and glad to live in a time when we're attacking each other verbally in books and blogs rather than physically with bullets and bombs.

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