The subtext of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein’s brilliant morality play about Richard Nixon and his times, is both unstated and immediately recognisable. Not less than 30 pages into the work, there is the man himself, winning a Congressional seat in his first bid for national office by declaring his opponent a communist. A few pages later, he wins a Senate seat by calling his rival “pink right down to her underwear”. The inference is clear: Nixon as patriarch to the political rhetoric, culture and ecology of George W Bush’s America, as if the old man had sired a litter of squealing albino Rotweillers as his political heirs.
The end of the Second World War produced a new generation of Republicans – Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were most prominent among them, and Barry Goldwater was their patron saint – who bridled at the party’s restrained, Brahmin establishment. Fear of communist infiltration was a wedge issue for the taking, and Nixon, who catalogued and cross-indexed grudges and calumnies like a prissy librarian does books, was the first to understood its full potential. He attacked Franklin D Roosevelt’s inner circle as “appeasers” and kept a list of enemies that included academics, peace activists, homosexuals, civil rights leaders, the counter-culture movement, the press, and anyone else with the potential to provoke fear and loathing among malleable middle-class voters. Playing the victim, Nixon submerged his opponents under a slurry of raw innuendo, sly implication and dirty tricks.
For those who think contemporary American politics are singularly vicious, Nixonland is a superbly written and healthy corrective. Relentless and uncompromising, Perlstein reanimates a mean and violent era when race riots gutted cities, assassins thinned the country’s political ranks, racists occupied high office, hippies fouled the urban landscape, terrorists bombed government agencies and Southeast Asia was reduced to a charnel house. After detailing the brutal murder in 1965 of a 21-year-old women in her home in a leafy Chicago suburb, Perlstein quotes from an article that appeared later that year in the New York Times Magazine: “The policeman’s inner world is bound by ‘us’ and ‘them’.” All a cop can swing in a milieu of marijuana smokers, interracial daters and homosexuals is a nightstick.” (This from the grey lady of liberalism.) Confronting swastika-clad demonstrators while marching peacefully in Richard J Daley’s Chicago in the early 1960s, Martin Luther King suggested “the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate”. Hate – tribal hate, blind hate, blood-feud hate – is Nixonland’s leitmotif.
But no one can accuse Perlstein of bias. His narrative, exhaustively researched and well annotated, is lousy with terrorists, brigands, liars and demagogues of all stripes, of which the principal character is merely the scoundrel-in-chief. There are no heroes here, only perpetrators in a nation gone mad with primal fear and those who would exploit it. This is what gives Nixonland resonance in our present-day renditions of “us” and “them”.
True, the levels of rancour, nativism, and constitutional subversion ran deeper under Nixon than they have under Bush. But the difference is of degree rather than kind. While the war in Vietnam destroyed many more American lives than has the war in Iraq, both conflicts were needless; Nixon spied on his enemies and expanded wars in secret, while Bush has been favoured with a supine Congress that enables his assault on civil liberties, as it did just this month by legalising warrantless surveillance. Nixon’s crimes were caught on tape; Bush and his advisers were smart enough to purge entire databases of White House e-mail traffic. Both men obstructed justice, but (unlike Nixon) Bush has yet to pay a price proportionate to his transgressions.
Perlstein resists overt comparisons between the ad hominem style of politics as practised by Nixon and Bush, though he is certainly winking at readers with recounts of how Nixon and his acolytes thrived in a nuance-free political culture. “Pat had the greys and Reagan had the black and whites,” he quotes a Bobby Kennedy aide responding to Ronald Reagan’s 1966 defeat of California incumbent governor Pat Brown. Nixon, warns George McGovern in his failed bid to unseat the incumbent president in 1971, “is out to destroy the Democratic Party” – a goal embraced openly by Karl Rove, Bush’s attack dog. (Rove makes a brief cameo in the book as a young Nixon campaign operative.) “If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them in San Francisco,” the Labour boss and Nixon supporter George Meany said in 1965, anticipating by nearly 40 years the intellectual truss for Bush’s “war on terror.”
Just as Bush leveraged post-September 11 fears for political coin, Nixon mined grass-roots anxiety, bigotry, and ignorance to sustain an endless struggle against a nebula of confected threats. At the crest of his investigation into Alger Hiss, the State Department official accused of treason and later indicted for perjury, Nixon warned that “communists are everywhere … and each carries the germs of death for society”. Defending his decision to continue fighting in Vietnam, he warned in an address to the nation that “if, when the chips are down, [we] act like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations”. On the eve of voting in 1971, Nixon reminded voters how “the leaders in Hanoi will be watching” to see if they choose “peace with honour or peace with surrender”. It was cheap, gratuitous hyperbole. And it worked conclusively against Democrats who could find no way to counter.
“Republicans really believe that if they can make you afraid enough or angry enough, you can be tricked into voting against yourself”, was the best presidential candidate Ed Muskie could do. Muskie lost badly in the primary elections to McGovern, who insisted on taking the high ground against Nixon. A Second World War bomber pilot from South Dakota, McGovern campaigned largely against the war in Vietnam, which was hugely unpopular with voters. He ended up losing to Nixon by one of the largest margins in US presidential election history.
In that regard, Nixonland is as much a mediation on middle America as it is political biography. It is sadly instructive that Americans could abide as divisive a figure and as maladroit a campaigner as Nixon, let alone a white supremacist like George Wallace, whose sequential bids for the White House were so compelling that Nixon had to appeal to southern hardliners by promising to stall racial integration. Fans of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report will be amused to learn that a 1968 survey revealed most Americans got their news from humour columnists, and only one in four respondents said they trusted the national newscasts. A day after that year’s riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago, during which Daley unleashed truncheon-welding police on peaceful protesters, a factory worker defended the violence.
“Those hippies … were wearing beards,” he told Democratic Senator Abe Ribicoff, who had condemned the police attacks, “and anyone who wears a beard, he deserves to get beat up.” Hippies then. Muslims now.
Perlstein’s conceit does stretch things a bit. Richard Nixon didn’t “invent” the politics of hate and division any more than Ernest Hemingway invented the martini. But it’s fair to suggest that Nixon – both “serpent and sage,” as the author elegantly distils this most paradoxical of men – refined the black art of modern politics for a new generation of thugs and knee-cappers. Nixonland is not for the faint-hearted; it offers little to inspire and much to repulse. But it is an indispensable account of how vulnerable democracy is to demagogic pandering and how short are the memories of its benefactors.