An Unreview of a Review of a Book I Haven't Read.
Will, a columnist for the Washington Post (WaPo in webspeak) and Newsweek, reported on the Nixon white house back in the day. When asked by the book review staff how Nixon fits "into the larger story of modern conservatism" Will answers, "He doesn't. His tenure was an empty parenthesis." Ouch for Perlstein; that's pretty much the premise of the book.
Perlstein's big book prior to this one was "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Concensus". Seems he's got a theme: We were once not so divided a nation. And our current divide, still raw, has its sources.
You hear a lot about Goldwater these days as we grind through what the Democratic Party hopes is the bitter end of the presidential nomination campaign. Hillary Clinton was famously a Goldwater girl in 1964, a point that Obama supporters bring up to prove her right wing bent, and that everyone brought up when she was campaigning in Alabama to negate her claims of support of Martin Luther King.
Obama's campaign has been compared to Goldwater's repeatedly. The enthusiasm, the electoral map, the throngs of volunteers, and the use of new technology as an effective campaigning tool have reminded many of Goldwater's 1964 campaign for the white house which saw large numbers of young people mobilized by his message. He may have lost the campaign but those mobilized voters were ready for the next election.
Barry Goldwater was a major general in the Air Force and a five term Senator from Arizona (he preceeded John McCain) before he ran for the presidency against Lyndon Johnson. In his opposition to New Deal policies he is credited with the resurgence of the conservative movement that later brought Reagan to the presidency. Goldwater opposed Johnson's social policies and was strongly against unions, the welfare program and big government. But he lost soundly to Johnson in 1964 and in the 1980s even condemned the Christian Right for it's positions on abortion and gay rights.
An aside: Phyllis Schlafly, the contested candidate for an honorary degree from Washington University, wrote her first book, "A Choice, Not an Echo" on Goldwater, attacking liberal republicans.
One of Goldwater's legacies, many claim, is turning the traditionally Democratic south over to the Republicans; indeed the south has remained a Republican stronghold ever since with some few exceptions like Carter. Hence the hoopla over Obama's recent big win in North Carolina (not to say, as the Clinton campaign does, that presidential candidate races go the way that primaries do).
But that's Goldwater and I started off with Perlstein's Nixonland. Will writes:
"In Perlstein's mental universe, Nixon is a bit like God - not, Lord knows, because of Nixon's perfect goodness and infinite mercy, but because Nixon is the explanation for everything. Or at least for the rise of the right and the decline of almost everything else."
Why does Will praise his Goldwater book but not "the second installment of Perlstein's meditation on that era's and, he thinks, our current discontents," Nixonland? Among the criticisms are, "too engergetic", his language has caught "the 60's disease of rhetorical excess", the narrative is "pell-mell" and "piles up jejune incongruities", and "calls to mind a Pieter Bruegel painting of tumultuous peasants." Say what?
But, most importantly to Will, Perlstein misses the big point: "Having cast the Nixon story as a psychodrama, Perlstein has no need to engage the ideas that were crucial to conservativism's remarkably idea-driven ascendency, ideas like the perils of identity politics and the justice of market allocations of wealth and opportunity." Because he "dwells on motives" and compares our current political divide, comparably, to the turbulent, "boiling", violent 60s that voted for Nixon.
"So exquisitely sensitive are Americans today, they worked themselves into a lather of disapproval when Hillary Clinton said that Lyndon Johnson as well as Martin Luther King was important in enacting civil rights legislation." In other words, we're way left these days and no longer fighting the divides.
Yes, as he points out, a woman and an African American are running for president, but I don't think we're as far left as he does. Perlstein is one year younger than I am and comes to the book without the history that Will has. Is this view of Nixon generational? Is there no mention of the Christian right and their devastating influence on human rights, foreign policy, and women's rights in all of this? There is a divide so do we have to be relative to be worried about it?
I guess I might have to read the book now after all, "pell-mell" be damned. The Right still scares me, or rather, the Right scares me more than ever. One read of Katha Pollitt's Backlash Spectacular and the brink nature of women's rights alone will make you look at the Obama campaign with great expectation. Of course we want answers.