Author: Rick Perlstein
Title: Nixonland:The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
Something a bit different today. I know, I know, except for Pokemon there hasn’t been much fantasy/SF on our blog lately 😉 I promise that’ll change… at some point, certainly. There will be new Marlon James book review coming soon, at least ;). But for now, a totally non-fiction, modern history book.
We live in interesting times, that’s for sure. Wars, pandemics, economic crises, global warming… The list goes on and on. But because we are so deeply enmeshed in our everyday life, we tend to forget that this uniqueness, this craziness, is in fact nothing new. That not long ago, the world was an even crazier place, at least in some localities ;). That, compared to those not so olden times, our present time is actually quite tame. If you thought Trump was something else, a new phenomenon, think again. Or even better, read Nixonland.
Nixonland deals with the fraught period in American history between the Watts riots (1965) and Watergate (1972). It tells the story of Richard Milhous Nixon’s rise to power, but perhaps even more, it tells the story of American society’s total, infinite craziness in that period. Oh, it was bonkers. It was even more bonkers than I thought, and I have read plenty of source material about that time. But Perlstein’s book has one unquestionable strength, and that’s his storytelling skill which compresses the events while maintaining their unique character. Perlstein does a great job in infusing some semblance of logic into the avalanche of chaotic happenings of the time. He depicts the events in a chronological order, but he also tries to compile them by theme. By focusing on Nixon as the catalyst and the product of those violent changes in American society, Perlstein manages to create a cohesive picture of this time.
Is Perlstein’s vision true? Is it fully reliable? That’s for the readers to judge. I admit I was a bit dismayed that the author has not even tried to remain objective. Oh, I know objectivity is an impossible goal, particularly in social sciences and humanities, but it is one I feel we should all strive for. From history books I expect at least that – some effort, some endeavor for objective assessment, at least an attempt at balanced depiction of events and people. In this regard, Perlstein unfortunately fails, big time – and it looks as if he wasn’t ever considering trying not to fail. He approaches his subject with an emotionally charged opinion, and he portrays different aspects of the times with that opinion foremost in his mind. And because he hates Nixon’s guts, his book is quite amusing. It’s more a case of a laughter through tears, to be fair, but nevertheless makes for an entertaining (like horror can be entertaining) read.
And I freely admit, my opinion about Nixon is not that different from Perlstein, because Nixon was one crazy, ruthless, absurdly ambitious and controlling … (your choice of expletive here). He tried to sabotage the Vietnam War peace talks in his bid for presidency, he led an amazingly complicated and illegal effort to compromise Democratic candidates in the next elections, he made so many unethical, destructive decisions just to get to power and stay in power. He exploited fault lines and divisions existing within the society of the United States, enhancing them in the process. You could say that Tricky Dick was at once the godfather and the midwife of American culture wars. But he did not create them; he just dug out the embers and poured gasoline on them, gleefully watching the fires explode everywhere. At the same time, however, he made the Cold War even colder, deftly exploited growing differences between China and USSR in the Communist bloc, reopened China-US relations, signed the SALT treaty, and generally did a lot to improve the state of global security. It looks like many of his decisions in foreign affairs actually laid the foundation for the collapse of the bilateral post-WWII order. A deeply conflicted heritage left by a tragically destructive and horrifyingly ambitious person. If there’s one word that would perfectly describe Nixon for me, it’s hubris.
Perlstein sketches a compelling depiction of Nixon as a deeply flawed if brilliant man. It is, however, tainted with the author’s obvious dislike for the subject, which ultimately leads to enhancing Nixon’s faults and failures and diminishing his successes. And the worst part is that Perlstein really didn’t need to do it. It’s like kicking a man who’s already down. Nixon truly doesn’t need any snide comments from historians. He had already compromised himself, without any outside help; his arc couldn’t have been imagined any better than what life brought him: from the utmost bottom to the very top, and then back down in a fiery, all-consuming fall.
As a portrait of Nixon, then, Perlstein’s book falls short. But the true value of Nixonland lies in the portrayal of the social and political background of Nixon – in the depiction of the US society of the time, conflicted, violent, self-destructive and almost hysterical in its moral outrage and all-out culture war. It’s absolutely fascinating, riveting, and almost unbelievable. Just a few facts, as an example:
In two years, between 1970 and 1971, the number of terrorist and violent extremist attacks that took place in the United States reached seven hundred and fifteen. Yes, 715 domestic terrorist attacks.
There were multiple bombings and shootings, done both by the radical left and right. Police brutality was a fact of everyday life. Police officers were being killed in the line of duty, and they in turn were killing suspects and innocent civilians. The violent movies from the ‘70s? That wasn’t some dystopian vision of the future – it was everyday life.
There was even a trial of a group of Catholic priests and nuns, plus one Pakistani political science professor, who were charged with the conspiracy to kidnap Kissinger! (Harrisburg Seven, for those who want to learn more. What a story! Even a librarian was jailed, for defending academic freedoms ;)).
All in all, while Perlstein’s book is far from faultless, it makes for a fascinating read. If you can separate the author’s dislike for Nixon from the facts he so assiduously gathered and described with vivid detail and impressive storytelling skill, you’re in for a wild ride. Put your discerning glasses on and buckle up. Worth it.