Friday, May 24, 2013

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

It starts with a riot and ends in an elegy, a deep feeling of loss. In between is almost nonstop frantic energy and bad moods. This is not a biography of Nixon, though he broods and connives throughout like Milton’s Devil, this book is a panorama or Boschian landscape of the era that brought this deeply paranoid, inferiority complex plagued man to power. The title of Nixonland is taken from an Adlai Stevenson quote, “a land of slander and scare, of sly innuendo, of poison pen and anonymous phone call and bustling, pushing, shoving-the land of smash and grab and anything to win.” Civil Rights, and populist backlash against it, the restlessness of the baby boomer generation, the reckless and worthless escalation of the war in Vietnam created a confluence of factor that led to a civil war within the Democratic party, breaking the back of the New Deal (though ironically elements of it still continued in Nixon’s domestic policy). A revolution was also brewing in the Republicans as Barry Goldwater’s failed campaign left in its shattered wake a takeover by the conservative elements of the party. Arguably Perlstein is presenting nothing new in this book but he synthesizes seemingly everything in a thoroughly novelistic narrative. My Lai, race riots, the start of the culture wars, terrorist attacks, Attica, The Siege of Chicago, Nixon’s brilliant campaigning and crippling doubt, LBJ’s hubris, the turbulent presidential campaigns of 68 and 72, the assassinations, hippies, political trials, all get pulled into an entirety. He makes some mistakes along the way (the New York and L.A. Times reviews are good sources on these), but when juggling this much I will forgive him for a dropped ball or two. He is very fair when addressing all the various political factions and personalities in this narrative. He in the end has provided a riveting history of a turbulent era whose mistakes and children are still with us.

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