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Nixon: the one

Exploiting the anxieties of a chaotic age, he set the table for conservatism to triumph

Nixon's presidential win in 1968, Perlstein writes, 'seemed to point the way toward an entire new political alignment.' Nixon's presidential win in 1968, Perlstein writes, "seemed to point the way toward an entire new political alignment." (Team Productions)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bruce J. Schulman
May 11, 2008

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
Scribner, 881 pp., illustrated, $37.50

In August 1970, eager aides pressed into President Nixon's hands "The Real Majority," a political manual by two disaffected Democrats, Richard Scammon and Benjamin Wattenberg. The crucial swing voter, the book asserted, the key to assembling a winning coalition, was a "47-year-old Catholic housewife in Dayton, Ohio, whose husband is a machinist." Since the 1930s, that woman and her family had looked to liberal Democrats for economic security: strong unions, cheap mortgages, college loans for their children. But the social conflicts of the 1960s and their most disturbing side effects - street crime, campus protests, race riots, and dangerous drugs - had unmoored these prototypical voters from their longstanding political loyalties. They were ready to defect to the Republicans, to vote conservative on social issues, to form what Nixon envisioned as a new conservative majority.

Americans like that housewife and her blue-collar husband are the main characters of "Nixonland," a vivid, cinematic history of American politics in the 1960s and early 1970s. In bracing prose, Rick Perlstein propels us through the epic events, the assassinations and protests, somber news broadcasts and irreverent television comedies, as he recounts the dramatic decade-long turnaround that continues to shape our national life.

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson celebrated a dazzling electoral victory over conservative Barry Goldwater (the subject of Perlstein's previous book). Carrying more than 60 percent of the popular vote, LBJ's coattails swept in liberal majorities in both houses of the Congress. After Democrats grabbed five of seven House seats in staunchly Republican Iowa, the landslide even raised some doubt about the fundamental order of the universe. After all, according to a popular saying, "Iowa would go Democrat when Hell went Methodist."

Only four years later, the liberal consensus had fractured. Johnson's successor as Democratic presidential candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, eked out a paltry 42.7 percent of the vote. Humphrey finished a close second to Republican nominee Richard Nixon, but together Nixon and third-party candidate George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, tallied almost as many votes as Johnson.

The 1972 election only confirmed the nation's repudiation of the liberalism it had all but unanimously approved eight years earlier. Nixon won reelection by a historic margin, exceeding the proportions of Johnson's own landslide victory. And the president began his second term by warning his fellow Americans not to expect too much from Washington. "In trusting too much in government," Nixon cautioned, "we have asked more of it than we can deliver."

But if ordinary voters occupy the leading roles in Perlstein's account, a "strange, stiff man" lurks in the shadows, never far from center stage. Nixon grasped the demands of a new age of mass media (however bad he looked on television himself). Driven by rages and resentments, Nixon also embodied the insecurities that ate at the hearts of millions of white, middle-class Americans, for whom the turmoil of the '60s - war and protest, the violence in Watts and other inner cities, the outrageousness of the counterculture, pornography and affirmative action - had proved deeply unsettling. By 1972, thanks to Nixon's shrewd strategy, they positively seethed "in their daily struggles with existential humiliation at the hands of the liberals, the know-it-alls, the slovenly, the loud, the them."

Rejected in his 1960 bid for the White House, consigned to history's dust heap after his humiliating defeat in the 1962 California governor's race, Nixon masterfully exploited those anxieties to make the greatest comeback in American political history. He not only won the White House, Perlstein concludes, but redefined the political order. Between 1965 and 1972, he created Nixonland, the strange landscape that, in Perlstein's view, still dominates our contemporary politics of red-and-blue America.

Bucking the conventional wisdom, Perlstein recognizes Nixon's central role in the rise of the American right. In the standard accounts, Goldwater became the Moses of the conservative movement, steering it through the political wilderness until Ronald Reagan could lead it to the promised land of power.

In this view, Nixon played only a bit part; nothing more than an opportunistic politician or even a liberal in disguise, he pursued detente with communists, proposed a guaranteed income for the poor, and treaded political water until the arrival of the Reagan Revolution. But Perlstein rightly insists on Nixon's crucial role in recasting the Republican Party into a vehicle for an anti-elitist, populist conservatism that appealed to longtime Democrats. Just as Franklin Roosevelt had assembled an enduring liberal coalition in the mid-1930s, so Nixon built a new Republican Party that made conservatism the most dynamic force in modern American politics.

Still, Nixon's achievements (and his trespasses) may have been less impressive than "Nixonland" makes them out. The "liberal apotheosis" that Nixon unraveled - the consensus that Perlstein asserts dominated post-World War II America - was never as pervasive as it seemed in the heady days of LBJ's landslide. In the 15 presidential elections since 1945, only two Democratic candidates won a majority of the popular vote: Johnson in 1964 and Jimmy Carter (very narrowly) in 1976. Harry Truman didn't, nor did John Kennedy. And Bill Clinton never did. That astonishing statistic suggests that conservatism remained potent even in the heyday of American liberalism - a fact nobody understood so well or exploited so effectively as Richard Nixon.

Perlstein dedicates his book to the memory of "the dozens of Americans who lost their lives at the hands of other Americans, for ideological reasons, between the years of 1965 and 1972." Those victims, the casualties of what "Nixonland" describes as a second civil war over racial discrimination, antiwar protests, and other issues, haunt us still. The enduring polarization of American politics marks a legacy of the world that Nixon wrought and that this book so passionately and perceptively exposes.

Bruce J. Schulman is the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University and author of "The Seventies" (Da Capo).

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