Leslie's Reviews > Nixonland: America's Second Civil War and the Divisive Legacy of Richard Nixon 1965-1972

Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
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Dec 29, 10

bookshelves: history

This book taught me a great deal about the directions American politics has taken in the past few decades. It's not a biography of Nixon, but rather an examination of the shifts in American politics and culture from the early sixties to the early seventies, and Nixon provides a good lens through which to see those shifts. What we get in the mass media about the sixties is pretty rose-coloured these days, full of peace signs, civil rights, and idealism (prompting laments that kids these days aren't nearly as idealistic and nonmaterialistic--hah!), or caricatured (stoned hippies, goofy clothes, people dancing funny to old music--the stuff of retro nights or costume parties). We all like to think that, if we'd been there, we too would have been fighting the good fight, cheering on Martin Luther King, Jr, hoisting anti-war signs; WE wouldn't have been taken in by all that nasty racism and that grossly unjust, mishandled war. Really? Most people then were scared witless by the changes of the sixties that seem so charming or stirring to many now, and people who are scared witless do very stupid things, believe what seems comforting, are very easy for unscrupulous operators to manipulate. Nixon was very, very good at using people's fear (of uppity blacks, of smelly hippies, of pushy women's liberationists, of unpatriotic war resisters), at encouraging it and whipping it up, so he could put it to work in shoring up his own power; he could distract them from messy facts with canny stage managing, sabotage of the opposition, a willingness to tell any lie or do any dishonest deed, and a skillful use of their anger. So they let themselves be lied to, because the lies were more comforting and believing that their president and their military and political leadership were lying to them was too terrifying. And Nixon's approach has dominated the political scene ever since. Keep people angry, keep people afraid (of school busing and prayers in classrooms, of blacks and "wise Latinas", of gays who want to get married, of abortion, of affirmative action and "reverse racism," of vaguely defined terrorists whose primary characteristic is that they're different from us) stage manage the hell out of everything you do, leave nothing to chance, whip them up with enthusiasm about vague words and slogans (freedom! the dignity of marriage! tea parties!), and they might not notice as you rob them blind.

As much as I liked this book, I must make one criticism: the copyediting was frequently terrible. Really, a publisher like Scribner's should do better. If they have competent copyeditors on contract, none of them worked on this book. The errors are everywhere, errors I'd be ashamed to have missed if I were the copyeditor. Here's one small example (and there are many, many more): "The officers clamored roofward to hunt him down" (384). The word intended here is clearly clambered. One error like this is a minor problem (even the best copyeditors miss things), but the misused words, ungrammatical sentences, and tangled punctuation aren't occasional but typical. That aside, I think this book is essential reading for anyone interested in American politics or who is affected by American politics, as those of us who aren't American frequently are, whether we like it or not.
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