Books Are Pretty

Monday, December 15, 2008


"You're still reading that book?"

I heard this a lot over the past six weeks. I was reading Rick Perlstein's 881 page analysis of the political climate in the United States that lead to the election, and re-election, of Richard Nixon immediately after a liberal Johnson landslide and the apparent disintegration of the Republican party.

I don't have a lot of free time for reading anymore. When I'm not at work or taking care of the kids, I have 2 hours twice a week, and Sunday afternoons. That's it. And much of that "free time" is spent doing laundry, grocery shopping, repainting the dining room, cleaning the house, and blogging about my six-year-old farting on my hand. So mostly, I read this book in the car on my way to work, while stopped at traffic lights. So yes, I'm still reading it. I could have given up on it for the time being, and maybe I should have, but I really didn't want to, because Nixonland was fascinating.

After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson was overwhelmingly elected over the ultra conservative Barry Goldwater, winning 44 out of 50 states. Goldwater's nomination split the Republican party. His supporters happily subscribed to the ideology that "calamitous Liberal nonsense - ready acceptance of federal interference in the economy; Negro "civil disobedience;' the doctrine of 'containing' the mortal enemy Communism when conservatives insisted it must be beaten ... was symbol and substance of America's moral rot." The other half of the Republican party, the progressive party of Lincoln, thought they were nuts, that this sort of ideological, anti-intellectual, reactionary politics had no place in the Republican party.

A few well-placed ads later, and Johnson was ready to lead a Liberal America toward a bright, shining future.

Armed with a Liberal Congress, Johnson enacted sweeping progressive legislation - The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the "war on poverty," the "Great Society" of prosperity - and it seemed as though Liberalism had a lock on things.

"These are the most hopeful days since Bethlehem," said Johnson while lighting the White House Christmas tree.

And the media loved it, printing stories of the Great Society and often omitting certain details such as our dubious, then disastrous entry into Vietnam, and a small problem with the Civil Rights Act, which was that nobody enforced it, or had any intention of enforcing it. Segregation was now officially illegal, but since there wasn't an Open Housing law, barring homeowners from refusing to sell their homes to families whose skin color rendered them untrustworthy, it didn't matter whether the Civil Rights bill was passed or not. People of color couldn't leave Watts, couldn't leave Cabrini Green. In fact, claims Perlstein, if you took a map of Chicago and put an X on each spot where an African-American was attacked by Whites, when you were done you'd have rings of Xs, and inside those rings would be the housing projects. And yet the Great Society mythology chugged along for over a year, until 1965, when Watts exploded in fiery riots.

The White middle class freaked out, as the White middle class is wont to do, a backlash ensued, and Richard Nixon sailed in on the crest of it, successfully exploiting white fears and anchoring himself firmly into the White House by 1968. In four short years, the United States had gone from being overwhelmingly Democratic to being overwhelmingly Republican.

How could this have happened so quickly? Could it really have been just White panic? Nixonland is a massive investigation into the fracturing of America into two deeply divided camps, and the answer Perlstein comes up with is: Not really. In actuality, it was dozens of incidents striking terror into the heart of middle America, and Nixon juggled them all expertly. The narrative of Richard Nixon, his dogged determination to win out over the fancy, slick pretty boys who always won everything, is in fact a metaphor for the remaking of the Republican party from being viewed as dispassionate intellectuals into a group of people that voted for George W. Bush. Twice.

A crop of politicians sprung up alongside Nixon, touting a call for Law and Order, which, after the destruction of Watts and other projects in American cities that were inexplicable to White people (we gave them the Civil Rights Act, why are they still complaining?) and promising a return to a time when the streets were safe. California Governor Ronald Reagan, who somehow took Goldwater's fringe extremism and made it look jolly, and George Wallace, the psychotic Alabama governor who, along with Southern Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, and Georgia governor Lester Maddox, a restaurateur elected solely because he refused to serve African-Americans, chasing them out of his restaurant with a pick axe handle, were among the most prominent and popular Law and Order backlashers. Nixon gingerly handled Reagan, the largest threat, simultaneously applauding and undermining him, and with the Southerners, he put his head together with Strom Thurmond's and created what is known as the Southern Strategy. Essentially, Nixon promised that he would not press the South to integrate if they would support his presidency against Johnson, who obviously they had some issues with.

The South switched sides, Dixiecrats became Republicans, and the party that was once racially progressive ceased to be so.

As the yearning for law and order became stronger, the opposition to the war and Jim Crow ramped up. Black kids were turning into Panthers, and white kids were turning into Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Girls were cursing and having sex while turning their backs on marriage and motherhood, and God was dead. The police began systematically brutalizing the opposition, from the horrible riots in Newark to the slaying of students at Kent State to the cold-blooded murder by the police of Black Panther Fred Hampton, and the silent majority finally spoke up - in approval of these acts.

This, as Nixon carefully pointed out, was the Democrats' fault, and it kind of was. Their conventions were disasters. Where once the Republicans had been divided, now it was the Democrats. Torn between old school racists and young progressives, the party spiraled down into incessant bickering and really just looked awful. The Republicans, led by square Nixon, were in control. (The scheming done by Nixon to ensure that said bickering occurred is cataloged in detail as well.)

Speaking of awful, Nixonland really solidified my dislike of Yippies. Their extreme obnoxiousness, from Jerry Rubin telling students the first step in the revolution would be to kill their parents, to Abbie Hoffman just never shutting up, did way more good for the opposition than for their own team, and the idea that they managed to change anyone's mind is difficult to believe.

As long as people like Spiro Agnew didn't look like the Yippies, they were in. Which is how we got people like Spiro Agnew in government in the first place; a man who publicly called a Hawaiian reporter a "fat Jap," and, when asked why he didn't campaign among the poor, said, "if you've seen one slum, you've seen them all."

Americans would vote for anyone, as long as he bathed and promised to quell the Negro problem. In reality, none of the politicians had any principals at all. Even crazy Wallace referred to his own constituents as "nuts."

As long as you pretended to be reasonable, it didn't matter that you weren't, an appeal, says Perlstein, that continues today. After Nixon's election, America was divided into two camps, each passionately believing that the other would destroy the very foundation of America. Instead of today's "Guns, God, and Gays," it was "Bombs, Blacks, and Bohemians," and then, as now, only the Republicans can keep you safe.

Nixonland satisfies any cravings you may have for detailed political history. One of the reasons history and politics has started to have such appeal for me as I grow older, is finally getting all the old pop culture references that used to go over my head.

While I was in the middle of the book, I watched the Katherine Hepburn/Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? In the beginning of the movie, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's daughter announces her upcoming marriage to Dr. John Prentiss (Poitier). She's going to marry him, and she would do it even if, she says, looking at Spencer Tracy, "you were the Governor of Alabama."

"I mean," she then says, catching herself, "if Mom were."

Had I not been reading Nixonland, I would not have known that after George Wallace was no longer allowed to run for Governor, he forced his cancer-riddled wife Lurleen to run in his place, openly announcing that she would just be a figurehead and he would actually be running the state. She won, so Katherine Hepburn gets to be the racist Alabama governor.

I love stuff like that, and if you do, too, then you'll be happy to know that Nixonland is full of all kinds of anecdotes that loop you in on 40 year old jokes, as well as cutting-edge celebrity gossip about Dr. Spock, Tom Hayden, and "Hanoi" Jane Fonda. I began Googling everything: Spiro Agnew wristwatches, his hilarious, William Safire-written speeches - wouldn't you love to hear a politician use the phrases "pusillanimous pussyfooting" or "nattering nabobs of negativism" again? Sure you would. And by the way, did Jerry Rubin have kids? Did they kill him? If not, why not?

Although Perlstein is obviously left-leaning, he does not shy away from the flaws of the Democrats, showcasing how out of touch they had become with examples such as actress Shirley McClaine, while campaigning for George McGovern, telling a room full of poor Black women that they knew better than anyone that money wasn't important, that America valued the wrong things. She was met with "a stony silence," and, baffled, had to be told by a young black man that being lectured by a rich White woman about the meaninglessness of money was a bit too much, particularly when money was what these women needed more than anything else. When he shows how Nixon appealed to what later became known as "values voters," not Hollywood elites, the idea of the "silent majority" clicks into place and you can clearly see how a generation of working class began to identify with Pat Nixon and her "Republican cloth coat," a phrase delivered by Nixon in his famous "Checkers" speech, as he fought to keep his place on the 1960 Presidential ticket by downplaying his wealth, and mistakenly viewed the Republicans as being the party for the everyday Joe, kicked around and laughed at by the snobs.

Was Nixon the central feature in the split of modern America? Maybe, maybe not, but the idea of such a deeply paranoid, ruthless man managing to unite the majority of America by tapping into our own paranoia and ruthlessness is both fascinating and unnerving, and well worth six weeks of sitting at the traffic light.


by Rick Perlstein
May, 2008 by Scribner
Hardcover, 881pp
ISBN: 0-7432-4302-1

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