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

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Politically insightful, Nixonland recaptures the turbulent 60s & early 70s, revealing how Dick Nixon rose from the political grave to seize & hold the presidency. Perlstein's account begins with the '65 Watts riots, nine months after Johnson's landslide victory over Goldwater appeared to herald a permanent liberal consensus. Yet the next year, scores of liberals were tossed from Congress, America was more divided than ever & a disgraced politician was on his way to a shocking comeback.
Between '65 & '72, America experienced a 2nd civil war. From its ashes, today's political world was born. It was the era not only of Nixon, Johnson, Agnew, Humphrey, McGovern, Daley & Geo Wallace but Abbie Hoffman, Ronald Reagan, Angela Davis, Ted Kennedy, Chas Manson, John Lindsay & Jane Fonda. There are glimpses of Jimmy Carter, Geo H.W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry & even of two ambitious young men named Karl Rove & Bill Clinton--& an unambitious young man named Geo W. Bush.
Cataclysms tell the story: Blacks trashing their neighborhoods. White suburbanites wielding shotguns. Student insurgency over the Vietnam War. The assassinations of Rbt F. Kennedy & Martin Luther King. The riots at the '68 Democratic Nat'l Convention. The fissuring of the Democrats into warring factions manipulated by the dirty tricks of Nixon & his Committee to ReElect the President. Nixon pledging a dawn of nat'l unity, governing more divisively than any president before him, then directing a criminal conspiracy, the Watergate cover-up, from the Oval Office. Then, in 11/72, Nixon, harvesting the bitterness & resentment born of turmoil, was reelected in a landslide, not only setting the stage for his '74 resignation but defining the terms of the ideological divide characterizing America today.
Filled with prodigious research, driven by a powerful narrative, Perlstein's account of how America divided confirms his place as one of our country's most celebrated historians.

881 pages, Hardcover

First published May 13, 2008

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About the author

Rick Perlstein

13 books527 followers
Eric S. "Rick" Perlstein (born 1969) is an American historian and journalist. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in History in 1992. He is a former writer for The Village Voice and The New Republic and the author of numerous articles in other publications. Until March, 2009 he was a Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America's Future where he wrote for their blog about the failures of conservative governance.

Perlstein is also the author of the books Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008). Before the Storm covers the rise of the conservative movement culminating in the nomination and campaign of Barry Goldwater and how the movement came to dominate the Republican Party despite Goldwater's loss. Nixonland covers American politics and society from 1964 to 1972, centering on Richard Nixon's attempt to rehabilitate himself politically and his eventual successful use of the resentment of settled society against the social unrest of the day to rebuild the Republican Party.

His article for the Boston Review on how Democrats can win was published in book form under the title The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, together with responses.

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Profile Image for Matt.
908 reviews28.1k followers
January 18, 2020
“Call the America they shared – the America over whose direction [the Right and Left] struggled for the next fifty years, whose meaning they continue to contest even as this book goes to press, even as you hold it in your hands – by this name: Nixonland. Study well the man at Nixonland’s center, the man from Yorba Linda. Study well those he opposed. The history that follows is their political war…”
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

In Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein told the epic story of the 1964 presidential campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater. The election ended in Johnson’s overwhelming annihilation of Goldwater, one of the most decisive victories in American history. The pundits proclaimed the end of conservatism and the creation of a permanent liberal majority. Of course, that permanent majority lasted all of a single presidential term. Moreover, as Perlstein demonstrates, Goldwater’s defeat planted the seeds of the modern conservative movement, which culminated in the Age of Reagan.

Before the Storm is an amazing book.

The sequel is even better.

Nixonland is bigger (748 pages of text), wilder (riots, bombings, assassinations), and even more relevant (the splintering of American society into political camps) than its predecessor. It covers the period from 1965, with the vast ambitions of the Johnson Administration (“These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem”),to 1972, with Richard Nixon mopping the floor with George McGovern, despite the murmurs of a connection between the Watergate break-in and the White House.

These years were absolutely bonkers. One war raged in Vietnam; another flared in American streets. Watts erupted in flames. The National Guard was deployed in Newark. The Democratic Party went to Chicago to hold a convention, and decided instead to burn itself to the ground, live on national television. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed. Martin Luther King was shot and killed. The odious George Wallace was shot and paralyzed. Weathermen planted bombs. Soldiers shot kids on college campuses. As president, Nixon stewed, plotted, dropped bombs on Cambodia and Laos, and surrounded himself with buffoons who were full of bizarre schemes and had ready access to slush funds. He cheated and broke laws and acted small and vindictively. He also had the far vision to look at Communist China and see the possibility of friendship rather than the inevitability of conflict.

With so much going on, Perlstein is obviously not able to cover everything in depth. Instead, he hones in on the social-political aspects of these years, focusing on the way that politicians spoke to the electorate, and how the electorate reacted in turn. In doing so, he looks beyond the campaigns to survey movies, television shows, and books, as a way to gauge changing moods.

Perlstein narrates these events with rare artistic flare, utilizing a relentlessly breathless pace and a literary style that is Richard-Ben-Cramer-meets-Robert-Caro. He not only does an incredible job capturing the kaleidoscopic sweep of events, but does so in an incredibly entertaining fashion. For instance, in riffing on Nixon, he refers to him as:

[The] strange, stiff man from Whittier who scaled pool-house walls rather than be photographed in a time and place not precisely of his choosing, who practiced McCarthyism before McCarthy had thought of the idea, who bravely faced down the snobs who wanted to kick him off General Eisenhower’s ticket in a speech that forever divided Americans; who braved the rocks and mobs in South America and the televised onslaught of a bronzed Adonis named Kennedy; who inspired the protective love of millions of white middle-class Americans in their daily battles with existential humiliation at the hands of the media, the liberals, the know-it-alls, the slovenly, the loud, the them - who proved that he could take it, like Lincoln, like Churchill, and come back; the cross-bearing embodiment of the Silent Majority’s humiliations, humiliating their shared tormentors in return; the bomber of dikes and the builder of miraculous new alliances with former enemies…

Perlstein is a liberal historian, tackling the history of the conservative movement. Despite his leanings, this is not an anti-conservative polemic. Certainly, he writes from a liberal perspective, as he seeks to understand how and why America shifted from the progressive years of the New Deal to an entirely different kind of era. But he does not utilize this perspective simply to criticize this transformation. To the contrary, he is sympathetic, at times even empathetic, to parts of the movement. For example, he has an easy time accepting why many Americans would react negatively to the outbreaks of lawlessness in which social protest appeared an excuse to smash windows, set cars afire, and loot anything not bolted down.

To be sure, Perlstein has very few good things to say about Nixon (though he gives him credit where its due). At the same time, he does not hold back on criticizing liberals and Democrats, either. Lyndon Johnson barely receives a golf clap for his Great Society. The “Happy Warrior” Hubert Humphrey, the man Senator Paul Douglas called “the orator of the dawn,” is presented as churlish and opportunistic. When John Kennedy is mentioned, it is typically with distaste.

No, if Perlstein has a bias, it is a bias against politicians in general, and he writes of these (mostly) men in a tone that just avoids self-righteousness.

In Before the Storm, Perlstein positioned Goldwater’s doomed White House bid as a starting point of a crusade. Though he lost badly, his grassroots support – in terms of small-dollar donations – had been strong.

In Nixonland, Perlstein gives us the painful process of realignment, as old coalitions cracked, broke apart, and reformed in new ways, in different places. Spurred by the backlash to the civil rights movement, the white working class began to abandon the Democratic Party that had catered to them since the days of Franklin Roosevelt. Spurred by the backlash to the Vietnam War, those who remained in the Democratic Party began to turn on each other.

Richard Nixon watched as this unfolded before his eyes. And he exploited the hell out of it:

What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image: a notion that there are two kinds of Americans. On the one side, that “Silent Majority.” The “nonshouters.” The middle-class, middle American, suburban, exurban, and rural coalition who call themselves, now, “Values voters,” “people of faith,” “patriots,” or even, simply, “Republicans” – and who feel themselves condescended to by snobby opinion-making elites, and who rage about un-Americans, anti-Christians, amoralists, aliens. On the other side are the “liberals,” the “cosmopolitans,” the “intellectuals,” the “professionals” – “Democrats.” Who say they see shouting in opposition to injustice as a higher form of patriotism. Or say “live and let live.” Who believe that to have “values” has more to do with a willingness to extend aid to the downtrodden than where, or if, you happen to worship – but who look down on the first category as unwitting dupes of feckless elites who exploit sentimental pieties to aggrandize their wealth, start wars, ruin lives. Both populations – to speak in ideal types – are equally, essentially, tragically American. And both have learned to consider the other not quite American at all.

Nixonland was originally published in 2008, at the tail-end of eight tumultuous years of terrorism, war, and recession. While it is easy to forget now, in light of our present situation, but the presidency of George W. Bush was hugely tumultuous, and Perlstein wrote from that frame of reference.

Sadly, things have not changed. They have, it seems, gotten even worse. Indeed, in many ways, Nixonland feels more relevant now than ever. It feels like it was written yesterday, not ten years ago. That is not a comforting thought, as far as thoughts go. Nevertheless, it speaks to the incisiveness of Perlstein’s perceptions regarding our national drift away from compromise, bipartisanship, and good faith.
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,751 followers
May 13, 2011
Call us America the Schizophrenic.

How else can you explain a country that embraced a right wing philosophy after a devastating terrorist attack that led to blindly following a moron for eight years, yet finally overwhelmingly rejected those politics by voting in the liberal opposition only to seemingly overnight turn into a nation of screaming maniacs who consider spending a dime on anything but guns and prisons a waste of tax payer money?

The cold comfort I got from reading Nixonland was that America’s maddening division between left and right and the lack of a consistent philosophy isn’t anything new. Apparently we’ve always been this stupid.

After JFK was killed, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats won landslide victories in 1964. The country’s economy was booming, and the elections seemed to signify a new unification of the public behind liberal policies. Many pundits thought conservative politics and the Republican party were as dead as Abraham Lincoln. LBJ seized the moment and began pushing legislation on civil rights for blacks and his plan to end poverty and create a ‘Great Society’.

Four years later, LBJ declined to run again knowing that he may not even be able to win his own party’s nomination, and the country was tearing itself apart along right wing/left wing battle lines. And Richard Nixon got voted in as a president leaving everyone to scratch their heads and wonder what the hell just happened.

What this book does brilliantly is examine how that split occurred and how Nixon, and other right wingers like Ronald Reagan, both took advantage of and did everything they could to widen that gulf. The standard history class will tell you that it was Vietnam, and it was certainly one of the major factors. However, it wasn’t just about the war. Working class whites were generally OK with Johnson pushing the South to end segregation, but when policies like open housing and forced bussing impacted them directly, they got angry with northern cities like Chicago showing a kind of racism that caused Martin Luther King Jr. to say it was worse than Mississippi. Black communities, angry after years of racism and repression and frustrated with slow progress, erupted in riots and militant groups began to form. The war caused a split within the Democratic party and led to the rise of the counter culture.

So when your average Joe Six-Pack and Susy Homemaker (who were a generation that had grown up during the Great Depression and World War II and just wanted a little peace and quiet) turned on their TV’s and saw the country seemingly ripping itself apart while their kids turned into dirty hippies, they got pissed.

That well of white rage and resentment is what Nixon tapped into and encouraged. Republicans like to point to Reagan as their patron saint, but the modern right wing resembles Nixon’s black soul much more than Reagan. Resentful, paranoid, and insecure, Nixon’s personality became the blueprint for Republican politics that’s still used today.

Nixon always felt snubbed by the east coast ‘intellectuals and elitists’, and he used that to tar the high ranking Democrats as limousine liberals who were completely out of touch with ‘real Americans’. Nixon also played up his hatred of the press to convince people that the media had a left wing agenda and was run by more liberals. (He was so successful in this that many people refused to believe the stories about the My Lai massacre even after the army convicted Lieutenant Calley.) Nixon hired his own media people (including a young Roger Ailes, the current president of Fox News) to carefully control and craft an image of reliable steadiness. All the while, he also engaged in back room political deals like promising former Democrat and all-around evil fuck Strom Thurmond that he’d have the government drag it’s feet on enforcing the end of school segregation in exchange for Southern support.

But Nixon’s most diabolical play was in doing everything he could to keep the Democratic party in disarray. Nixon used back channels to sabotage LBJ’s Paris peace talks to North Vietnam to keep the war going before the election while promising that he had a secret plan to end the war. Once in office, he regularly drew down ground troop levels and talked peace in public while escalating the bombing and still seeking a ‘knock out blow’ that would force North Vietnam to come to favorable terms.

Nixon was more than willing to reap the political benefits of the war. It was an on-going propaganda campaign for him where he could go on TV and seem reasonable while shaking his head at all those crazy hippies tearing up college campuses. He made sure that his public events always allowed a few protesters in so that cameras could show the crowd and security turning on them, and his secret ‘rat fuckers’ launched constant sabotage operations against Democratic campaigns to make them look chaotic and confused.

The Democrats helped by shooting themselves in the feet repeatedly. While the counter culture fought the old machine bosses for control of the party, they were so busy trying to include special interest groups that they effectively lost the white working class and union voters who had been their backbone for years. That started a shift that the Republicans continue to exploit to this day.

All in all, this was a fascinating book that deeply explores the issues that led to the splitting of America into factions that has made it nearly impossible for politicians to just provide reasonable public policies. It also does a lot to debunk some of the favorite myths of the Baby Boomers about how they claim to have changed the country. If you buy into the book’s well made argument, the counter culture played right into Nixon’s hands and gave him the White House and led to the rise of the current right wing nuts. Thanks for that, you ole damn dirty hippies.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,179 reviews9,246 followers
September 12, 2013
You’re trudging slowly along one of those interminable moving walkways you get in airports; you have your political luggage with you. Each side of the walkway a thousand things are happening, it’s hard to take them all in – newspapers, blaring tv debates, screens showing footage of all kinds of violent bombings and assassinations, there's yelling ranting crowds on each side, there are looming politician’s faces spewing statistics and believable cures for cancer; and raining down on you a steady drizzle of pamphlets from all manner of weird unheard-of groups, each more extreme than the other. Somewhere in the back of all this racket, you can hear Jimi Hendrix's version of The Star-Spangled Banner.

So you put Nixonland down for today. But when you pick it up tomorrow, you’re back trudging along the interminable moving walkway, again. It's June 1969. There's a long way to go.

And just when you think – oww, my mind is obliterated, this is death by facts – along comes something you actually always wanted to know about, and how it fit in to the 60s, Attica, Soledad, Angela Davis, Jerry Rubin, all those half-heard names. Here they all are, bawling in your ear, dancing in your face.

This is history as total immersion. Perlstein blasts every fact and factlet about every political month, week, day, almost hour, onto the page - and there is so so much to say about absolutely everything that happened, this 1965-72 period, it was one long helter-skelter of HUGE happenings, every day another city burning, another assassination, another pig riot, another lie from Nixon, another Vietnam atrocity, society coming apart at the seams, murder in the very air. Every time I thought - I can skip this - nah, along would come something unmissable.

RP projectile vomits this stuff relentlessly, every paragraph packed solid, every sentence a heavy one, and he writes like a slightly toned-down Tom (Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) Wolfe, all, slangy and impudent, a maximalist historian as DWF and Pynchon are maximalist novelists. Shove everything in. Everything.


What I believe RP wishes me to extract from this howling tumult was three big ones. RP characterises the 50s and early 60s as a time of optimism, culminating in LBJ’s civil rights legislation 64-66. But then it all splintered . What happened NEXT was

a) Vietnam – its immorality became too painful, the American dead unignorable – 50,000 by 1970; and the draft meant that YOU or your son might be next up


1965 1,863
1966 6,143
1967 11,153
1968 16, 592
1969 11,616
1970 6,081

Like Country Joe sang in 1968, be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box. Vietnam drove everyone mad. If you were for it, you were okay with the idea of burning little children with napalm or machinegunning them, like at My Lai; you thought that My Lais happened all the time in war. If you were against it, you were part of a conspiracy to impose the Communist way of life on America and destroy its freedom forever.

b) Civil rights for black people – specifically, now that Johnson got the legislation passed in 64-66, actually enforcing the laws whereby segregation in schools and housing was outlawed. I didn’t know how much organising and upsetting people Martin Luther King actually did, now I do, and it’s surprising he wasn’t shot before 68 as the blatant race hatred on display here is stunning.

Also worth mentioning is the background noise of the youth counterculture with its long hair, bell bottomed jeans (those bell bottoms seemed to especially rile some people) and promotion of dope.

So - a time of extremes, the longest and nastiest war perpetrated by the USA which everyone from the Pentagon down could see them LOSING – the largest ever generation gap – look at what happened in seven short years from 1963 to 1970, from Pat Boone and Connie Francis to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Which ones died in pools of their own drugged vomit? Clue : not Pat or Connie. Students were taking their professors hostage and burning down schools, National Guardsmen were shooting them DEAD, bombs going off here, there and everywhere thanks to nut jobs like the Weathermen. You can see why the reactionaries were panicking.

Everybody likes to analyse Nixon, it’s fun for all the family. Perlstein sticks to the known script here – Nixon always had a chip on his shoulder about rich people telling the less well off how to run their lives, he was a bitter and resentful man and he used all that well during this scary period in which everyone had somebody they were hating on. Well, I got tired of RP banging on with his Orthogonians vs. Franklins cute little formula. (Nixon formed a club called the Orthogonians in college because he wasn’t accepted by the upper class student society.) I got it by page 50 but it gets repeated at regular intervals for the whole 750 pages. Anyway, it is quite true that Nixon harnessed the white working class/lower middle class bitterness/fear/resentment of the anti-war filthy hippy youth crowd and the privileged liberal class who abetted them and created these cursed civil rights laws, the Kennedy gang, the McGoverns, you know who, and the blacks like those terrifying Panthers and the even more terrifying ones who think they have the right to move in next door to you just because they’ve got the asking price for the house. How did they get that much dough anyway? What’s happening to this country? Nixon was good at putting all of that simmering detestation into square, solemn language. You knew where you were with Nixon, he hated the same people you did.

Nixon’s journey from derided two time loser (1960 for president, 1962 for governor of California) to presidential candidate in 1968 is fascinating stuff. (The other half of that story is how Johnson went from clouds of civil rights glory in 1964/5 to hated buffoon in 1967 – we only glance at that story from the outside here, so I will be grabbing a Johnson bio very soon.) Nixon knew two things – the public are fundamentally conservative, and the press are fundamentally liberal. That meant he would win, but it would be a struggle. By 68 it was clear he couldn’t lose, that’s how much Johnson had unravelled. But then it turned out winning, being the actual President, wasn’t enough. He still didn’t have the control he wanted because of a hostile Congress. He needed a second term. He began to believe that he was the only person who could set things right in America. Obviously the vile Democrats couldn’t, but nor yet could the other fools in the Republican party. As far as RN was concerned, RN was America’s only hope.

That meant everybody which might stop a second term must be squashed. This is where the illegal stuff came in. Which as you know, if the President does it, that means it’s not illegal. Right? Right. So he won in 72, a gigantic landslide, 49 states. But Republicans still couldn’t get into Congress. The story of 72 was that Americans still liked Democrats EXCEPT McGovern.

Perlstein’s boiling geyser of facts'n'info finally stops in page 746 and he gives himself 2 pages to sum everything up. He’s making the argument that the vicious social and political divide over which Nixon presided and abetted set the fault lines of American politics for decades, that they’re still there, not so violent now but quite clear – look at the way the map divides into the red and the blue states; look at the anti-abortionists, the Tea Party and the Truthers; look at the way it’s an article of faith for many Americans to disbelieve everything their own government ever says. That's me speaking there, he doesn't use those examples).


Is Nixonland just a printout of the notes RP took while he read through his complete sets of Time, Life, USA Today and TV Guide (plus all surviving video footage from Huntley-Brinkley) 1965 to 1972? After all there's the matter of telling wood from trees which is what we hire these damned historians for anyway, what use are they otherwise? Whatever happened to discrimination? The telling detail? The organising principle? RP seems to think every detail of American life during these years was telling. Is this maximalism or is this abdication? So that is why by page 500 the fifth star was beginning to flicker on and off. But finally I thought well, this is some kind of achievement all right. It really is. And now I need a looooongggg rest.


My favourite quotes from this remarkable book are here

Profile Image for Tim.
130 reviews53 followers
January 6, 2022
What a wild ride. Nixonland describes national politics in America from about 1965 to 1972. If you are looking for in-depth reporting of a particular event, this isn’t your book. But the breadth is very impressive. Perlstein seems to include just about anything you can think of that is related to the major political stories of the time, even pop culture events involving movies, television or celebrities. If you’ve ever been at the Disneyland attraction “Soarin’ Over California” where you are virtually flying across California, from the mountains to the orange groves to the beaches, it felt a little like that. Flying through the era at 5000 feet can be useful; you might see some patterns that get lost when you focus on individual incidents.

Perlstein sees some patterns and has his own story on what the major takeaways should be. There is something I should be taking away about how Nixon is a flashpoint or symbol for how everything changed. I didn’t always follow the author’s logic for how we should connect the dots into his central narrative. However, it never failed to be interesting, so I did enjoy the ride.

There were a couple things that stood out to me. Things that, maybe in retrospect aren’t that surprising, or maybe I actually already knew, but stood out with a little more clarity with the 5000 foot tour.

One was just how turbulent the time was. The unrest we saw in 2020 with the protests seems like a drop in the bucket compared to the late ‘60’s. I wonder what it was like to live through this. Did it feel that civil order might completely break down, or that we might be heading towards a Civil War? Violence at protests were common, typically instigated or aided by police overreactions. And while most protestors themselves were non-violent, there were some fringe groups that did foment violence, and these groups would typically get a lot of the attention. It seemed like America was so divided that reconciliation was impossible. There were black men dying in Vietnam at disproportionate rates while also suffering gross unfairness back home – how do you expect them to go away quietly? Crime rates were rising, perhaps not as much as people perceived, but sometimes the perception matters more.

Another was just how slimy the Nixon dirty tricks team was. The Watergate break-in is common knowledge, and many also know about the break-in of Daniel Ellsburg’s psychiatrist, but there were other break-ins and illegal acts that are not as well known. Like how they sunk Edmund Muskie’s presidential campaign by forging a letter claiming Muskie called French-Canadians “Canucks” (what a weird time it was!)

I also got a little better sense for why Nixon was a successful politician. He’s not charming, handsome, and doesn’t come from a rich and famous family. Though Perlstein is a liberal, he speaks almost admiringly about Nixon’s political skills. Nixon was quite a clever politician. He could use McCarthy tactics to appeal to the right wingers but keep his hands clean enough to pivot to centrist positions when needed. He was adept at finding where the dividing points were on the left, so he could target the more conservative Democrats and isolate the liberal wing. And he had an ability to appear “normal” and “serious”, giving an impression that he is the experienced level-headed statesman who can fix things and restore order. Perlstein has some personal stories of what Nixon was like in private which shows the irony of this “normal and statesmanlike” image, as he was actually really weird and insecure.

If you want to get a feel for how Nixon was sold, there are two things available on Youtube that were mentioned in the book that are worth watching. One is his campaign commercials from 1968. They were simple, scary, and convincingly good propaganda. Another is the “panel show” he did, with the famous football coach Bud Wilkinson as host. The show had several panelists asking Nixon questions, and was meant to give an image of Nixon being battle tested with tough questions, and Nixon demonstrating his intelligence, experience, and forthrightness in his responses. Of course, the whole thing was orchestrated, but it looks very effective. It even gave him a chance to tell jokes (really lame jokes) and talk casually in a way that made him seem more approachable.

The book also shows the gradual path of the Republican party away from Civil Rights and towards catering to southern racists. The book points out that in 1958 both parties were seen as equally friendly to Civil Rights. There doesn’t seem to be any pivotal moments, but just a gradual change. In 1970 Nixon nominated segregationist G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court, and stuck to his guns as more and more awful stories came out about him, ending with his nomination narrowly losing in the Senate by a 51-45 vote. I did find it amusing that Senator Roman Hruska, in response to Carswell being labeled a “mediocrity” as well as a racist, defended him by saying that mediocre judges deserve representation too.

There are a lot of other interesting random stories in the book. Like when George Wallace’s VP candidate said during an interview that we shouldn’t be so squeamish about nuclear weapons and that it should be part of our strategy for the war in Vietnam. I’d love for the point of this story to be that the only person Wallace could get as his running mate was some random clown. But this was Curtis LeMay, former Chief-of-Staff of the Air Force and military advisor to presidents. How did we get past this era without destroying ourselves?
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,179 reviews9,246 followers
September 12, 2013
A supplemental review! - this is just some of my favourite outrageous quotes from Mr Perlstein and his mostly less than merry pranksters - starting with a jarring fact I found quite jaw-dropping:

…an LA cop stopped a black man named Leonard Deadwyler for speeding through Watts. He had been speeding [his wife] to the nearest hospital, miles away; there was no hospital in Watts, an area twice the size of Manhattan. P89

Here's something that will ring a bell with anyone who watches the news:

The Pentagon claimed what civilian casualties there were [in Vietnam] came from the Communists’ deliberate emplacement of surface-to-air missiles in populated areas. P 196

Ah, that old one – wasn’t our fault! They made us kill all those women and children! A song which has been sweetly sung by everyone at one time or another, most recently by President Assad. They make me kill these children just so that I look really bad! How mean of them! Don’t you realise their little game?

The problem was facing the wrath of all those decent Americans who didn’t want to face that their government was mad. P171

Mendel Rivers, House Armed Services Committee chairman, 1966 :

Flatten Hanoi and tell the world to go fly a kite. P171

After a big Stop the Draft targeting the Pentagon in October 1967 :

Two contending sets of rumors circulated: that cleanup crews found “nothing but bras and panties – you never saw so many”. And that two marchers had been dragged into the building and summarily executed. P 216

On Martin Luther King in 1967 :

He now frankly called himself a socialist. P250 (I didn’t know that)

A cop in 1967 talks about hippies :

Here’s a bunch of animals who call themselves the next leaders of the country…I almost had to vomit. It’s like dealing with any queer pervert, mother raper, or any of those other bedbugs we’ve got crawling around the Village. As a normal human being, you feel like knocking every one of their teeth out. It’s a normal reaction.

And why? Because of this kind of thing:

We will burn Chicago to the ground! We will fuck on the beaches! We demand the politics of ecstasy! Acid for all! Abandon the Creeping Meatball! YIPPIE!! Chicago – August 25-30. P291

At the trial of the Chicago 8 :

Questions asked during jury selection:

Do you know who Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are?

If your children are female, do they wear brassieres all the time?

Abbie Hoffman rose with a flourish and blew a kiss at the jury.
The Judge, sternly : “The jury is directed to disregard the kiss from Mr Hoffman.”

Rand Corporation’s Vietnam experts :

Short of destroying the entire country and its people, we cannot eliminate the enemy force in Vietnam by military means. Reported in the New York Times, October 1968. P423

Nixon quoted talking to a White House aide, late 68:

It’s a piece of cake until you get to the top. You find you can’t stop playing the game the way you’ve always played it or because it is part of you and you need it as much as an arm or a leg… You continue to walk on the edge of the precipice because over the years you have become fascinated by how close to the edge you can walk without losing your balance. P460

Jerry Rubin. 10 April 1970 :

The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. And I mean that quite literally, because until you’re prepared to kill your parents you’re not ready to change this country. Our parents are our first oppressors. P475

(I think Pol Pot was a Yippie then – his revolution was only five years in the future).

A Gallup poll found 58% blamed the Kent State students for their own deaths. Only 11% blamed the National Guard. P489

By that time National guardsmen were posted on 21 campuses in 16 states, 488 universities and colleges were closed (three quarters of the schools in Nevada and Maryland), the entire public school system in New York City was shut by order of the board of education… p490

Nixon in 1970 :

Certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans – mostly under 30 – are determined to destroy our society. P518

Nixon again in 1971 :

I rate myself as a deeply committed pacifist p546

New York Times talking about California in 1971 :

Prophets of doom are as common as girls in bikinis (there are even a few prophets of doom in bikinis). P541

Charles Reich in The Greening of America talking about bell-bottom jeans :

They have to be worn to be understood… They give the ankles a freedom as if to invite dancing right on the street… p542

One of the prominent spokesmen for Vietnam Veterans Against the War was a “handsome, charismatic 27 year old” called John Kerry – yes, THAT John Kerry. I had no idea!

After the verdict on Lieut William Calley (in charge of the My Lai massacre) –

Within 24 hours the White House got 100,000 telegrams, calls and letters, 100 to 1 for Calley’s release. P556

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin popped up again – one magazine had this headline:

McGovern Backer No Longer Thinks Sons, Daughters, Should Kill Parents p686

George Meany, 1972 :

The Democratic Party has been taken over by people named Jack who look like Jills and smell like johns. P695

FBI note, mid 1972 :

Lennon appears to be radically oriented however he does not give the impression he is a true revolutionist since he is constantly under the influence of narcotics. P714

God bless you sir! And madam! Have a lovely evening!
Profile Image for Max.
341 reviews301 followers
June 30, 2015
Nixonland is a divided America cynically manipulated and exploited by Richard Nixon. Rather than try to bring people together and heal the country in a time of turmoil, Nixon chose to exacerbate the tensions and polarize the country so he could pose as the savior for his so called silent majority. This is the second of Perlstein’s three books depicting the rise of modern American conservatism. It chronicles the violence and radical social change of the 1960’s, the domestic politics of the Viet Nam War and the Machiavellian politics of Nixon.

I remember this time well. After serving on a destroyer deployed to Viet Nam in 1968-69, I returned to work in Washington DC. Raised there, I was a political junkie. Reading Perlstein’s book, I found myself frequently reflecting on my feelings at the time. I knew we were in a quagmire in Viet Nam and should get out even though back then I only thought of the Viet Cong as the bad guys. I had never understood how anyone could trust Nixon. When McGovern ran for president and said “Every life lost in Viet Nam will be lost in vain” it resonated. I knew it was true. At the time I was just thinking of American lives. Only later did I fully appreciate the immense immorality of what we did to the Vietnamese.

Perlstein makes one thing perfectly clear, the depravity of Richard Nixon, a lifetime spent in the self-aggrandizing manipulation of others, with its low point, lower than Watergate in my mind, in his self-serving extension of a brutal pointless war. Nixon’s wholesale use of dirty tricks and extortion of businesses while president is mind-boggling. But far worse was his use of the war itself. Perlstein records Nixon saying in 1992 that George H. W. Bush could have won that election if he had not ended the First Gulf War. Nixon pointed out that just that strategy had worked well for him in 1972. Nixon kept the Viet Nam War going because it was politically expedient for him, without giving a second thought to the lives lost.

Perlstein gives us a detailed history of evil in the White House and of the social disorder that Nixon exploited so successfully. The book also speaks to the cluelessness of the electorate and how easily we were manipulated until the Watergate hearings and the tapes put it right in everyone’s face. This was not an easy book to read because I didn’t like what it said about us, Americans, being led like sheep and pitted against each other. But worse is our nation’s failure to learn from this experience. After Nixon left office and the subsequent fall of Saigon, I thought well now we have learned a lesson. We won’t do this again. Then, decades later, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney take us into another senseless war, the consequences of which will be with us for years to come. Most Americans now also see the Iraq war as a big mistake. We can only hope that this time the lesson sticks.
Profile Image for Clif.
437 reviews117 followers
October 30, 2020
This detailed recounting of American political history from 1964 to 1972 was fascinating to me as it brings back memories of my life between ages 14 and 22 when I must admit I was not as attentive to the national political situation as I should have been.

Anyone who reads American history, particularly of the period covered here, cannot help but realize how important the role of the whistleblower/leaker are to a democracy. As Noam Chomsky has so wisely said, things are not made secret because of national security, rather they are made secret to keep the citizenry ignorant of administration activities it would object to if those activities were known. Because we are at a critical point in 2020 with the attempt to extradite Julian Assange to the US, it has never been more important to understand the value of a free press to democracy.

In the Nixon presidential years a wide variety of illegal activities ranging from revenge upon the president's long list of enemies to the hiding of international war crimes conducted in southeast Asia occupied much of his time even before the Watergate break-in was conducted.

Comparison to the lies of President Trump cannot be avoided, but it was critical that in Nixon's time Americans were not the cynics we have now become due in large part to the exposure of the many lies that Nixon so skillfully covered with his addresses to the nation. Trump, by contrast, appears not to make a distinction between truth and fiction, passing the latter off for the former so frequently that the dishonestly can be documented daily. Trump does not cover up who he is or what he is after, Nixon was a master at both and had the ability to turn disadvantage to advantage time and again, illustrated so well by his invention of the term "silent majority" and his deployment of his vice-president, Spiro Agnew, as an attack dog to do the work that Trump does himself. Nixon was a master of deceit whereas Trump is a parody.

It is the author's contention that Nixon pioneered the use of wedge issues to divide people to his advantage by his leverage of their resentments, anxieties and, most important, their prejudices rather than making any attempt to calm and unite the country. Nixon never made an appeal to better angels in people, having none of his own. He became known for promoting law and order as a way to not only win the votes of a citizenry understandably terrified by the disruptions of campus and urban daily life caused by demonstrations against the Vietnam War but also by the violence in the ghettos of American cities by blacks fed up with the racism that held them down despite the Great Society legislation passed by LBJ.

The time period covered starts with the astounding landslide of LBJ over Barry Goldwater in 1964 climaxing the work of an activist president pushing legislation for the public good with the backing of Congress that is nothing short of astonishing to a reader in 2020. Yet within only a year the destructive rioting in Watts signaled the beginning of a rapid disintegration of national feeling that was advanced by the escalating Vietnam War.

In truth, Nixon believed the war was unwinnable, but was determined to escalate it even while withdrawing US troops in order, he hoped, to force North Vietnam to relent if only long enough for America to make an exit appear like a victory leaving unavoidable defeat to the South Vietnamese government.

Nixon was both a conspirator and obsessed that others were conspiring against him. His dark psyche and self pity hobbled his political career that peaked with his unsuccessful run against JFK and was followed by a humiliating loss running for governor in California in 1962. It was then, however, that his projected persona was altered. In public he remained awkward but he began to use self-deprecating humor that contributed to the impression that he was a regular guy out to upset the rule of the liberal elite. He took on young media advisors including Roger Ailes. The division of the citizenry was exploited and has only intensified with time, leaving us all living in "Nixonland."

Rick Perlstein tells us that while Nixon is critical to the book, it is not a biography but an effort to place the entire period under close examination to demonstrate how the seeds of change that have come into full bloom today were planted in the late 1960's and early 1970's. For this reason, the story ends with Nixon's election in 1972.

Having lived through the period, Perlstein's account brought name and event recognition to me on every page but connections are made about which I was completely ignorant before reading the book. The entire array of political personalities are presented within the movements of the time. Both the political left and right are broken down into the component groups that fought among themselves, most notably on the left. The sharp change from calm in 1964 to chaos and killing by 1968 is breathtaking. All the major and an array of minor events are analyzed from Woodstock to the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

It's all here, vividly explored in this excellent work.
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,214 followers
August 18, 2011
I enjoyed Nixonland very much, as Perlstein managed to intermingle many events and personages that were new to me with those of which I was considerably more aware, and to do so with an effortlessly breezy, witty, and readable style; however, this is a long book, and as the pages piled past it felt long—although it never dragged or stalled, it did eventually prove exhausting in the sheer accumulation of details on electioneering and strategizing, rioting and reacting, Vietnam maneuvering and Washington politicking, energetically performed by a cast of thousands whose names eventually began to blur together, all in the service of a thematic charge that wears and tears at the reader with its grim and turbid evocation. How it must have been to live through such a period of miasmatic, chaotic, nigh apocalyptic energy is something that Perlstein evokes with a wearying ingenuity. There is no way around this—to amass evidence for his overarching theme, Perlstein had to mine and bring to the surface the ugliness that was manifest in American society and politics during the transformational years between the stunning electoral victory of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, which saw his opponent, the establishment outsider Barry Goldwater, reduced to a right-wing punchline, and the mirror image campaign of 1972, in which Richard Nixon, capping one of the greatest political comebacks in United States history, eviscerated his Democratic challenger, the idealistic but inept George McGovern, in winning in an even more convincing manner than the Texan had managed. This brief eight year period saw a dramatic swing from a regnant and pervasive Great Society Liberalism that seemed unstoppable, to a conservative reaction that reduced the proponents of the Liberal Consensus to a bewildered and fragmented party feeling assailed on all sides and abandoned by a segment of its bedrock base. Perlstein's conjecture is that the stresses imparted upon American society by the rapid-paced changes brought about by Liberalism's overwhelming successes produced an upsurge of resentment, rage, and fear within the white majority comprising the lower-middle and middle classes—and that Richard M. Nixon, an early adept at manipulating such potent and raw emotions in the wintry chill of the Cold War's inauguration, masterfully channeled that reaction in the four elections carried out from 1964 to 1972 on the way to his capturing a first and second term as president of the United States.

Richard Milhous Nixon is the central figure of Nixonland, contributing his own surname to the politco-social state-of-mind that provides the tome's working title and which, in Perlstein's assessment, describes and explains the bifurcated structure of America even in this, the new millennium. Nixon was a complex man, brilliant in his own way, politically sharp and with a keen vision and acute instincts; but also a paranoid man, with an ingrained self-loathing and bottled rage that drove him with a ruthless and ethically flexible morality, a win-at-all costs mentality that tended to make the means unimportant compared to the ends they served—in this case, Richard Nixon's political victory. Perlstein traces how Nixon came to view the world as being divided into the Orthogonians and the Franklins, the names of two fraternities at Whittier College, the California school in which the president-in-waiting matriculated after being denied the opportunity of an Ivy League education. The Franklins represented the born-to-the-manor elite, raised in privilege and afforded an endless string of opportunities, an arrogant aristocracy that could go through life without ever being required to break a sweat. Set against them were the Orthogonians, those who had to work—and work hard—for everything they had, that majority early inured to calluses and joint-aches whose life consisted of one obstacle after another to be surmounted in order to get ahead, obstacles that, more often than not, were put in the way by those smirking Franklins who viewed their toiling kin with a thinly-veiled contempt.

The key wrinkle in the Orthogonian makeup was that desire—sublimated to varying degrees, but always present—to be accepted by the Franklins, to be granted admission to their ranks, even though, deep down inside, the elevated Orthogonian would never truly develop a sense of belonging; and so it was with Nixon, who was ever marshaling the uglier emotions of the Orthogonian masses against the Franklins, whilst never passing on a opportunity to ingratiate himself to the latter, even when working against them. The manner in which Great Society America unfolded was one of a burgeoning sense that a removed and decadent liberal elite was promoting the interests of minority groups—in particular, blacks—at the expense of the American middle-class who paid for the negroes' advancement; a situation even more infuriating in that the Franklins endlessly lectured and admonished the Orthogonian majority whilst removing themselves to secluded and affluent suburbia, leaving the working classes to compete with their newly liberated, and demanding, black would-be-neighbors for the small largesses available to those who worked hard for a living—largesses that a sizable proportion of the whites believed was administered to their darker countrymen in the form of welfare. Astride with this development was the greatly divisive Vietnam War and the radicalization of youth into the in-your-face individualism and rule-breaking of the New Left, a perceived direct assault upon the wholesome and necessary values of what came to be called, by Nixon himself, the Silent Majority. These were the dark and potent currents at work in the river of progress as the sixties headed into their second half and Lyndon Johnson seemed poised to lead the United States into a glorious new era of peace, prosperity, and equality.

So, it is Nixon who forms the pivot around which the various anecdotal and thematic branches of this eight-year odyssey are tethered; it starts with the Watts riots of 1964, the opening salvo of a series of long, hot summers which saw an explosion of racially-based violence and represented perhaps the first overt indication that things were not quite as rosy, as portentously glorious as the media and government were proclaiming. In truth, the raging darknesses of racism and alienation were roiling below the surface, bursting forth wherever a rent in the fabric allowed such pressures an outlet. Perlstein contends that Nixon, after suffering seemingly career-ending humiliations in his presidential defeat by Kennedy in 1960, and the subsequent gubernatorial vanquishing in 1962, having long ago appreciated the political opportunities in such portending divisiveness, and having firmly established himself as the candidate of the beleaguered Orthogonians—never more effectively so than in his Checkers speech justifying, humiliatingly, his household expenses—sensed the opportunity to exploit the masses nationally, and recruit from the Democratic ranks in the segregated South, by playing to their fears—presenting himself as a seasoned and sagacious voice of reason, a quiet force against the shouting coming from the raging crazies of both sides, whilst simultaneously playing to cultural populism in order the solidify the ranks of quietly seething Silent Majority members to his Republican-based person.

Always more interested in diplomacy and foreign policy than in the house-building in Peoria that he viewed as domestic politics, Nixon carefully and irresponsibly gave a form to the black anger and fear awaiting to be tapped in a rapidly-changing America, channeling it into two presidential victories, the second stunning in its electoral vote sweep. At the same time, he cultivated corruption, clandestinely advanced business interests, cynically prolonged the Vietnam War for political advantage, lied without shame to the American public, castigated his Democratic opponents as anti-American radical-lovers, and spied upon them whilst simultaneously disrupting their campaigns via ratfucking shenanigans. In the end, swayed by his cultural populism, ofttimes as against their economic interests, this bloc of middle-class voters, infuriated by hippies, draft-dodgers, anti-war traitors, demanding and militant minorities, welfare cheats, communist sympathizers, smug liberal hectoring, and the alarming explosion of drugs, crime, and open sexuality, rewarded the Orthogonian who catered to their prejudices and emotional disturbances with the highest office in the land; though, as was typical with the complex Nixon, it seemed a reward that brought him little personal satisfaction. The author advances his belief that Nixon helped precipitate and define the cultural-political bifurcation of the country into two groups, each of which views the other as not only anti-American, but possessed of an ideology that would destroy the nation were it ever to achieve complete victory. Though the violence has subsided considerably over the intervening years, Perlstein contends that this postmodern Civil War has never been ended, but continues on, simmering with resentments, humiliations, and angers that were first given form and outlet during the eight years of Nixon's political resurrection.

The violence is shocking. To a Canadian like myself, though aware of the sanguinary nature of that pivotal period in American history, it is nevertheless stunning to be presented with such a sustained record of beatings, bombings, murders, lynchings, riots, and destructiveness. Perlstein writes of many of these episodes—the riots in Watts, Newark, Chicago—with a sharp eye for detail; and some of his set pieces—in particular, his magnificent reconstructions of the chaotic and fractious Democratic conventions of 1968 and 1972—are just outstanding works of historical narrative. The book reaches its climax in the final chapters, pitting the hapless and earnest McGovern campaign against the cold and calculated professionalism of Nixon's team, with the first shadows of Watergate lengthening across those autumn days. The reader can understand why McGovern should have won, why it would have been preferable for him to win, and yet why he had no chance of doing so. There is sympathy in Perlstein's portrayal of the McGovern follies, as well as some sharp humor in the unveiling of the reliably flat effect of his efforts at picking a running mate, producing effective campaign commercials, and dealing with the cunning and cool machinations of the Nixon camp. There is also an exasperation with the obstuseness of the earnest Democrat, along with a keen understanding of the inherent flaws within this particular liberal mindset, one that flourished in those days and still plagues modern progressive attitudes—a deeply held belief that, if the common people could just be made to understand the reasonableness, the rightness of these liberals positions on, well, everything, they would perforce see the light and accept their inevitable-and-desirable implementation. It possessed itself of an inherent naivety, and arrogance, that tended to blind its possessors of that very fact and the effect it produced upon those of the silent majority, those who craved law and order, cherished stability and were apprehensive of constant change. Perlstein grasps this limiting trait quite fully, and places its effects with an impressive skill.

Yet this book, for all its entertaining, informative, and witty qualities, tends to read like one extremely lengthy magazine article. This is not a flaw, per se, but it does carry its own limitations, and is something to take into consideration before making the time commitment this brick of a book requires. Perlstein's sources are many and variegated, and he possesses himself of an impressive understanding of this period in time. However, he also tips his hand early—he states that a letter written by an eleven-year old Nixon to the Los Angeles times, offering to do anything in order to obtain employment there, was an early instance of his willingness to grovel before the powers that be, a judgement that struck me as rather harsh. What constitutes groveling in a child's declaration of being willing to do whatever is demanded of him in order to land a nice job in some tough times? This sets the stage for Perlstein's handling of Nixon, which, while striking me as quite reasonable, fair, and perceptive for the most part, also possesses blind spots that make themselves more apparent as the story progresses. It is never made explicitly clear why so many Americans trusted and believed in this man; resentment and reaction, a shared beset-upon Orthogonian identity, cannot explain it all. The biographical details are included as is needed to explain and expand Perlstein's theme, but little more—and so I never felt I knew what made Nixon tick quite as much as I should have after such a voluminous effort. Still, while the author has his biases and allows them reign at times, for the most part this is a judiciously advanced thematic narrative of how the history of America played out during and after the sixties, and one which I am quite happy to have put behind me—literally and figuratively. It was fascinating and funny and grandly entertaining; it was also disturbing and depressing and left me feeling coated with a grime that would not easily wash away. In his final paragraph, Perlstein states that he believes Americans would yet be willing to kill each other—perhaps eagerly so—to settle this divide that cannot be healed or closed; I think that he is wrong about this, I hope that he is wrong about this, I believe that he is wrong about this...but I fear that he just may be right.
Profile Image for Christopher Saunders.
865 reviews836 followers
February 26, 2023
Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland provides a feverish, high-energy collage of modern America’s most heated era - the 1960s. Perlstein’s story begins with Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, which seemingly confirms the pundits’ notion of a “liberal consensus” devoted to gradually reforming society through legislation, while rendering the conservatism championed by Barry Goldwater a dead letter. Until rioting break out in Watts the following year, demonstrating (on live television!) that all the Great Society’s nostrums failed to heal the country’s racial, political and economic divides. That, and increasingly militant left wing organizations - from students and left wing activists protesting the Vietnam War to the Black Power movement, which rejects the conciliatory approach of older Civil Rights leaders - demand changes more drastic than even LBJ can hope to deliver. The resulting backlash fractures the Democrats while reviving the moribund Republican Party, which begins winning elections by tacking hard right on “law and order” and on cultural issues from school busing to sex education and drug use - issues which, Perlstein comments, “hadn’t seemed like voting issues at all.” Under these titanic strains the old liberal order collapses, the parties realign, Johnson is banished from the White House and the country falls into the tender hands of Richard Nixon - who’s all to happy to exacerbate its divisions for political gain, even (perhaps especially) after gaining the Presidency.

Many great books have approached the ‘60s from one angle or another, but rarely with such breadth and verve as Perlstein. He shows a novelistic flair for reconstructing tumultuous events: race riots in Watts, Detroit and Newark, protests at the Pentagon and Berkeley, the chaos of Chicago’s Democratic National Convention, campus takeovers at Columbia and Cornell, the Kent State shootings and New York’s hardhat riots. Along with these, he dramatizes political conventions, tempestuous court battles (from the Chicago Seven to clashes over sex education) and contentious Oval Office meetings, along with the dirty tricks propagated by Nixon’s “Plumbers,” culminating in Watergate. He’s equally adept at analyzing key films, books and music that reflect changing morals and deep-running social disquiets, while excoriating the neuroses of politicians, activists and ordinary Americans that aren’t so easily defined by a single event. In a time where youth, protest and free expression were often celebrated for its own sake, where Civil Rights militancy and disquiet over Vietnam led many to question American morality, there would always be backlash from the older, working class and overtly patriotic whites (not to mention the government, which never hesitated to crush anyone hinting at subversion). And politicians from Nixon to Ronald Reagan and George Wallace, along with a million lesser lights, capitalized to build a political alliance which endures to this day.

One reviewer of Perlstein’s books backhandedly praises his “gift for energetic caricature,” and I suppose there’s justice in that complaint. He does often characterize a politico with a pithy phrase (Nelson Rockefeller, for instance, is “the richest and most arrogant man in the world”) rather than a deep dive into their psyches. But that’s not fair to Perlstein, who acquaints the reader with so many figures it’s hard to fault him for not devoting chapters to each. Beside the obvious subjects (LBJ, Bobby Kennedy, Reagan, Wallace) he introduces us to figures largely forgotten. There’s John Lindsay, the glamorously incompetent Mayor of New York who turns the Big Apple into a synecdoche for liberal failure; Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s brutal police chief who wins election as Mayor promising to “make Atilla the Hun look like a faggot”; Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), the Black Panthers and antiwar leaders Benjamin Spock and the Berrigans; violent radicals like Bill Ayers and Bernadette Dohrn of the Weathermen; Boston antibusing organizer Louise Day Hicks, California textbook crusader Max Rafferty and Young Americans for Freedom president-turned Nixon henchman Tom Charles Huston. Perlstein never lets us forget that, contrary to its hazy caricature as an era of sex, drugs and rock and roll, the ‘60s in fact carried an edge of political violence that constantly erupted in beatings, shootings, bombings and riots - and that neither left nor right had a monopoly on terror.

For all its richness and readability, Nixonland occasionally sags. Perlstein’s analysis of the Vietnam War feels superficial, rightly excoriating the government’s handling of the war but reducing the conflict to a familiar caricature of confused grunts battling an inscrutable enemy. And the book’s central figure, Tricky Dick himself, feels less like a monstrously flawed man than a Machiavellian, soulless beast feasting on the misery of others. Perlstein’s view of Nixon relies heavily on Fawn Brodie’s psychobiography Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, whose work Nixon’s biographers deem suspect, if not unusable. Where Perlstein's earlier volume, Before the Storm, offers conservatives remarkable empathy, Nixonland villainizes them. Though in fairness, he’s not kind to many people: fans of Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedys, not to mention apologists for the Black Panthers and SDS, will surely gnash their teeth as much as Republican readers.

But Perlstein’s central thesis remains apt. Nixon’s brand of “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” politics, dividing the nation for his benefit, stoking fears rather than soothing them, appealing to a “silent majority” of angry whites against protesters, Blacks, women and the Liberal Establishment that coddles them left a baleful mark on American politics and culture. That Nixon’s brilliant use of the press, from his Checkers speech to his cutting edge campaign ads and Spiro Agnew’s rants about the “effete corps of impudent snobs” peopling the “liberal media” accelerated the conservative war on truth. And that the outlines of our current “culture wars” were distinctly visible 50 years ago, when not frighteningly the same. When I first read Nixonland in 2009, soon after Barack Obama’s election, Perlstein’s warnings felt hyperbolic; now, they read like a grim prophecy. It’s probably my second favorite book (after Seven Pillars of Wisdom) and a cornerstone in my work as an historian.
Profile Image for Stephanie *Eff your feelings*.
239 reviews1,184 followers
June 16, 2011
This was a hard book for me to get through. I had to take breaks and read two other books while getting through this one. It was a bit slow going, and also depressing.

Nixon was the first Republican president who was obsessed with power. Power was much much more important to him then doing the job of the president, which is to care for the welfare of the citizens of the United states. Up until Nixon, the presidents of the time new their job was to serve. To make this nation a great place to live. But since Nixon the Republicans have just been spiraling down hill, into an ever growing cesspool of power hungry, selfish, down right criminal pile of morons.

It's really shocking what it has happened to the Republican party. I'm not talking about the average conservative on the street with well thought out policy's, (I bet you're even more dumb founded at the choices you have now then I am), I'm talking about the batshit crazy people who have taken over the party. Thanks to the tea baggers, no one moderate is allowed a chance (shoot, today I bet Goldwater would be considered a left wing loon). I am not a fan of Mitt Romney, but since he did some good things to help people in his state of Massachusetts (health care, much like the presidents current plan) he hasn't got a chance.......really? WTF? .....W....T.....F! Oh, and he believes the science behind climate change, Bad Mittens, bad!

Now your stuck with choices like Palin and Bachman, who haven't the foggiest clue about American History (Good thing they're pretty), and the rest of the lot who (say they) think that cavemen hung out with dinosaurs.....probably think the world is flat. Anyone sane would not be extremely conservative enough.

Uuhhhhhhhggggg! Thanks Mr. Nixon, thanks a bunch.
Profile Image for Monica.
584 reviews612 followers
December 12, 2018
Almost 900 pages of meticulously researched and documented items that basically boil down to two sayings: "The more things change, the more they stay the same." and "Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it." Enlightening. Almost like the entire 4 seasons of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. You go through hours of riveting plot and information only to be told in the end that "This has all happened before and it will happen again." It really is uncanny. So much of what we are addressing today is exactly the same as it was in the 60s. Exactly. War weary public, political parties out of power declaring lack of leadership the culprit of these quagmires, abortion rights, civil rights, police brutality, equal rights for women, any deviation from the desired narrative is labeled "liberal media bias", immigration issues, gun control, struggle for control of the Supreme Court, LGBT issues, even fear of Muslims. The list goes on. It's literally insane. Of course the players are completely different and the environment in which they operate are different and some laws in place are different; but the events, responses, public (lack of) awareness, voter suppression and apathy, it's all here. Heck even Rehnquist and Scalia show that they haven't changed a bit in 50 years (and that we really should have known about Scalia prior to his appointment on the Supreme Court). This book in my view is too long, but the point is most definitely made. Eye opening if for no other reason than the knowledge that there really is nothing new going on (meaning the tactics, manipulation, power struggles, elements). In an election year when Donald Trump is leading in the polls, this book is surprisingly apt and applicable. Be very scared. Ted Cruz is the candidate most like Richard Nixon. He's smart, calculating, and motivated by the pure pursuit of power (jury is still out on Cruz regarding paranoid insecurities). It's doubtful that he can duplicate Nixon's successes but never say never. Cruz is definitely an attentive student of political history...

Edited 12/12/18: Cruz is a footnote in Presidential politics and Trump won and is possessed of very paranoid insecurities. But as the saying goes, just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you...

4 meticulously researched, voluminous and exhausted stars
Profile Image for Steve.
794 reviews220 followers
August 5, 2016
Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland struck me as the book Hunter Thompson should or could have written, if he hadn't been so totally caught up in a haze of paranoia, drugs, and booze. But, in fairness to Thompson, he was on the ground in real time during these crazy years. What Perlstein captures, however, is Thompson’s full steam ahead energy, while at the same time cataloguing a decade’s worth of political and cultural mayhem (and I mean EVERTHING). To Perlstein’s credit, there are no sacred cows. I went into this LONG (750 pages worth) project thinking it was left leaning history of the 1960s. Not so. Perlstein captures the insanity of both the Left and Right. But beyond Left and Right, there is Nixon. In Perlstein’s hands Nixon becomes larger than life, a literary figure on the scale of Ahab, Shakespeare’s Richard III, or Milton’s Satan (“Fuck the ABA!”).

Some history lovers may frown upon that, but I’m OK with such a characterization. Nixon WAS larger than life. When one looks at the barest details of his life: his humble beginnings as a grocer’s son in Whittier, California, congressman at age 33, vice president at age 39, and, after an amazing comeback from the political graveyard, president at age 56, Nixon’s life should have been the classic American success story. But then there’s the dark stuff, like threads running through each phase of his life: his resentments of the Haves (Perlstein annoyingly calls them “Franklins” throughout the book), his paranoia, which grew with his power, his incredible ability to lie, often quite subtly, about anything (he was real good at this). And yet, in some strange way, Nixon DID connect with the Have-nots, the Silent Majority. His crushing of McGovern, even as Watergate related stories were multiplying, is a clear example of Nixon’s ongoing appeal. McGovern, a gentle man, offered a hopeful way out of Vietnam, but Nixon, Vietnam aside, could tell you your fears, because the man understood fear – and anxiety, like no other American politician (excepting possibly George Wallace (“Send them a message!”)) of our times. The difference between those two is that Wallace, himself a dark original, had only narrow appeal. Nixon simply co-opted the fear, and channeled it into something broader, more pervasive and enduring.
Profile Image for Nathan Shuherk.
247 reviews1,568 followers
December 22, 2022
If other presidential biographers were as good as Perlstein, I might read more of them. Even more excited for the rest of the series.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,077 reviews52 followers
October 9, 2017
Nixonland is a solid book on the Nixon Era. The first half in the early 1960s only tangentially covers Nixon himself. The second half covers mainly Nixon's presidency. Overall the book covers a little too much ground so many of the historical events and persons and anecdotes are thin. There are several vignettes of Reagan's governorship and protests and riots in California that seem like they could have made a good standalone book. But after the first half of Nixonland there is little mention of Reagan.

Perlman's writing is good and flows well but sometimes the paragraphs are stuffed with too many facts. Perhaps because Perlman has a very solid grasp on the history of the 1960s through 1972, there isn't much to dispute here other than the sparse coverage of topics.

There are many outstanding books that cover the Vietnam era, so I suspect that this one gets lost in the mix but it does an excellent job of capturing the mood of the country during this volatile time.

If you are looking for a straight biography of Nixon you might be disappointed. I've read many other books about Nixon that weren't really bios either. I don't know if it is his chameleon nature or the stain of Watergate that makes it hard to find the defining book on him. After all he was front and center to so many of the pivotal events in the 20th century.
Profile Image for Steve.
329 reviews1,073 followers
March 21, 2018

Historian and journalist Rick Perlstein’s widely-praised “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” was published in 2008. His first book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus” explores American culture in the 1960s. Perlstein’s most recent book “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” picks up where “Nixonland” ends. Perlstein is currently working on a fourth book in this series on America’s political and social fabric.

Readers will quickly discover that “Nixonland” is more a cultural and social history of the United States than a biography of Nixon. Divided into four broad sections (corresponding to the national elections in 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1972) this book explores social trends and unrest deriving largely from Vietnam and racial tensions.

Perlstein’s overarching thesis, tying together two parallel narratives involving American society and Nixon himself, is that Richard Nixon masterfully recognized, exploited and magnified cultural divisions which then persisted long past his presidency. It is a contention not easily dismissed, but many readers will appreciate that there is nothing new about America’s polarized politics (or culture).

The book begins in earnest with colorful coverage of the 1965 Watts riots, and Perlstein soon peers back in time to back-fill important details of Nixon’s early life. But coverage of his early years is far too rapid to serve as a meaningful introduction to his life. And the gripping narrative frequently proves gratuitously melodramatic.

One need not fully support Perlstein’s thesis in order to find the book both intriguing and thought-provoking. Even readers who miss a detailed review of Nixon’s political career will appreciate the keen insight into his life afforded by the author’s perspective on the social unrest which rocked Nixon’s presidency.

But Perlstein’s coverage is far sharper on evolving American culture than on Nixon’s life or political career. While Nixon’s life may be the hub of the wheel, most of the narrative is spent exploring the spokes. And it will not take many readers long to recognize that Perlstein’s view of Nixon is decidedly negative.

Throughout the book there are numerous insults and slights which convict Nixon for being a clever, calculating and even conniving politician. But given Nixon’s obvious and often obtuse faults, it is surprising that Perlstein bothers to indict his subject for the same traits exhibited by many successful politicians before – and since. But even avid fans of Nixon (as well as readers interested in his complex life) will come away from this book having learned something new.

Overall, “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” provides a unique and frequently fascinating window into the social and political fabric of Nixon’s era. It is vibrant and engaging, with dramatic characters and powerful themes. But readers hoping to observe Nixon’s presidency, his political philosophy, his ascent or downfall in detail will need to look elsewhere.

Overall rating: “ Not Rated” as a biography
Profile Image for Marvin.
1,414 reviews5,321 followers
June 7, 2013
I have long maintained that the most influential president of the 20th century was not FDR or Reagan but Richard Nixon. While Roosevelt may have created more programs and Reagan changed the economic tone of the nation, Nixon changed how we voted and how our politicians campaigned. And that may have the most longstanding effect on 21st century America.

Rick Perlstein traces that change through the tumultuous career of Richard Nixon. He illustrates how Nixon set on the formula of turning the "silent majority" against the "elitists" early on in his career and honed it to an art form in order to become president. While attacking your opponent was certainly nothing new, Nixon was able to create a more dominant and lasting "Us or Them" type of ideology. The idea that only one viewpoint can be truly American still reigns as we divide the states in red and blue and politicians like Michelle Bachman suggest that the congress should be investigated for members that are "unamerican".

Of course, Nixon was not alone. The anti-war left of the 60s played the same game with their black-and-white thought processes. Yet Nixon was the master of the ploy. Rick Perlstein does a outstanding job in detailing how this rift between liberals and conservatives played out. He zooms over Nixon's early days before 1965 but then goes into amazing detail on the events that shaped the politics of the 60s and early 70s. While the focus is on the Nixon presidency, Perlstein also pays close attention to the Democrats and their own civil divide culminating in the 1968 presidential campaign. He also shows now the Nixon campaign through dirty tricks and clever PR forced the Democrats to sabotage their own candidate in 1972.

While Perlstein does tend to display a liberal bent toward the topic, it is important to note that the author is quick to point out flaws on both sides. It is not the political viewpoints but the loss of understanding between the political sides that he regrets. I read this book while the debate over raising the debt ceiling was taking place and the lack of compromise, the lack of respect, and the rigidness of both sides only emphasized the points Perlstein makes and the sad reality about what the Nixon years has wrought. If the United States falls in the abyss as some doomsayers predict, take heed that it will not be liberal politics or conservative politics to blame, but the inability of our leaders, and the people who voted for them, to work together regardless of ideology.
Profile Image for Adam.
558 reviews347 followers
May 7, 2013
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.
Profile Image for Brian Eshleman.
819 reviews101 followers
June 23, 2017
Interesting mesh of man and era, when the author focuses on it. Sometimes Nixon psychobiography and historical narrative only occasionally intersect and lack a causal link. Was disappointed that with such a glaring divide between the challengers and defenders of the culture that the author didn't find people doing both. The Jesus Movement, for instance, challenged many cultural assumptions without undermining Biblical family and sexual teachings.
Profile Image for Christy.
113 reviews273 followers
December 6, 2016
To understand how Trump was able to use race and class divisions to win the US Presidency this gives a good background to what happened a half-century ago with the rise of President Nixon and his blatantly racist "southern strategy". (Remember the US south ideologically speaking narrows but really goes all the way north through the US Biblebelt/Rustbelt to the Canadian border.)
Profile Image for Ola G.
404 reviews26 followers
June 27, 2022
8/10 stars

My full review on my blog.


Nixonland deals with the fraught period in American history between the Watts riots (1965) and Watergate (1972). It tells the story of Richard Milhous Nixon’s rise to power, but perhaps even more, it tells the story of American society’s total, infinite craziness in that period. Oh, it was bonkers. It was even more bonkers than I thought, and I have read plenty of source material about that time. But Perlstein’s book has one unquestionable strength, and that’s his storytelling skill which compresses the events while maintaining their unique character. Perlstein does a great job in infusing some semblance of logic into the avalanche of chaotic happenings of the time. He depicts the events in a chronological order, but he also tries to compile them by theme. By focusing on Nixon as the catalyst and the product of those violent changes in American society, Perlstein manages to create a cohesive picture of this time.

Is Perlstein’s vision true? Is it fully reliable? That’s for the readers to judge. I admit I was a bit dismayed that the author has not even tried to remain objective. Oh, I know objectivity is an impossible goal, particularly in social sciences and humanities, but it is one I feel we should all strive for. From history books I expect at least that – some effort, some endeavor for objective assessment, at least an attempt at balanced depiction of events and people. In this regard, Perlstein unfortunately fails, big time – and it looks as if he wasn’t ever considering trying not to fail. He approaches his subject with an emotionally charged opinion, and he portrays different aspects of the times with that opinion foremost in his mind. And because he hates Nixon’s guts, his book is quite amusing. It’s more a case of a laughter through tears, to be fair, but nevertheless makes for an entertaining (like horror can be entertaining) read.

And I freely admit, my opinion about Nixon is not that different from Perlstein, because Nixon was one crazy, ruthless, absurdly ambitious and controlling … (your choice of expletive here). He tried to sabotage the Vietnam War peace talks in his bid for presidency, he led an amazingly complicated and illegal effort to compromise Democratic candidates in the next elections, he made so many unethical, destructive decisions just to get to power and stay in power. He exploited fault lines and divisions existing within the society of the United States, enhancing them in the process. You could say that Tricky Dick was at once the godfather and the midwife of American culture wars. But he did not create them; he just dug out the embers and poured gasoline on them, gleefully watching the fires explode everywhere. At the same time, however, he made the Cold War even colder, deftly exploited growing differences between China and USSR in the Communist bloc, reopened China-US relations, signed the SALT treaty, and generally did a lot to improve the state of global security. It looks like many of his decisions in foreign affairs actually laid the foundation for the collapse of the bilateral post-WWII order. A deeply conflicted heritage left by a tragically destructive and horrifyingly ambitious person. If there’s one word that would perfectly describe Nixon for me, it’s hubris.


All in all, while Perlstein’s book is far from faultless, it makes for a fascinating read. If you can separate the author’s dislike for Nixon from the facts he so assiduously gathered and described with vivid detail and impressive storytelling skill, you’re in for a wild ride. Put your discerning glasses on and buckle up. Worth it.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book704 followers
January 13, 2018
a pretty extraordinary history. definitely the answer for all you people who were fretting "how could this have happened? this is a new thing, unseen before" when trump got elected. it's nothing new at all, really.

i had a much longer, more meaningful review plotted out in my head, but it would lead to political discussion on my Goodreads feed, something i've steadfastly refused for about a decade now (as a first-generation-collegiate Samoan Libertarian from the southeastern united states, i'm something of a political rara avis, and have no interest in upsetting my third-wave broadly-liberal well-educated toitytariat good friends when i could be reviewing computer science textbooks instead). suffice to say, go read this book; i'm pretty sure you'll consider it time well spent.
Profile Image for Adam.
279 reviews6 followers
September 4, 2010
Warning: this review is a gusher. Here it is, one of my favorite books. I swallowed it whole--all 800 pages of it. Perlstein is simply amazing. He maintains a fast-paced story line that charges like an action movie. He leaks in his own commentary and ironic observations throughout. He culls together all manner of sources and ephemera, from transcribed clips of TV news broadcasts of the era, first-hand accounts of historical events like the ’68 Democratic Convention, memoirs from Nixon’s sides, Billboard’s Top 40 charts, police reports, protest flyers, and of course, the Watergate tapes.

This isn’t a presidential biography or political essay--it’s a painting--a mural--of the political culture of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s indispensable for a person like me that didn’t live through it. The storytelling and analysis cuts through all of the cliches, the iconography, the superficial and reductionist history books. And damn, is it entertaining! Perlstein never abandons the reader--he never strays too far, never becomes redundant, never bores with unessential details. The thing is, he makes all details feel essential!

We learn that Nixon was a highly nasty person with a sad and pathetic inferiority complex. You might call his politics a “politics of resentment.” A resentment against the successful, smart, good-looking people he hated in school. This translated politically into him campaigning as an outsider, against the establishment. It also translated into him playing dirty, justified to himself by his victimhood. His obsession with victimhood and paranoia of enemies, both real and imagined, led to his brilliant, deceptive, and for him, lucky concept of the “Silent Majority.”

As we all know, the sixties was in part the story of the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, the anti-war movement, the counterculture, and the hippies. These public and disruptive protests antagonized the social conservatives of society. Nixon capitalized on this resentment by convincing people that this resentment, though not visible, not heard, was in fact, the real majority, the real America. The angry masses of demonstrators didn’t really represent you, the average, law-abiding, patriotic, hardworking middle-class American. With great success, Nixon positioned himself in such a way to draw the line, intensify, and capitalize on the culture wars:

“As he prepared for his next big Vietnam speech, set for November, he made ready to turn the divide between ‘normal’ Americans and the immoral Establishment that pretended to speak for them into his next political advance. The liberal inhabitants of the best circles: they weren’t like you and me” (411).

“The Republican business class, small-town America, backyard-pool suburbanites, Dixiecrats, calloused union members: now it was as if the White House had discovered the magic incantation to join them as one. Nixonites imagined no limit to the power of this New Majority: ‘Patriotic themes to counter economic depression will get response from unemployed,’ Haldeman wrote in a note to himself. Then no one would be a Democrat anymore” (499).

So what was Nixonland? It was the beginning of the Culture Wars. It was left-wing rebellion and right-wing working class resentment, with each side “heightening the contradictions:” “The cops got the confrontation they wanted. The revolutionaries got the confrontation they wanted. Lo, a new crop of revolutionaries; lo, a new crop of vigilantes: Nixonland.”

Throughout the book, one is struck by the critical importance of image for Nixon’s political failures and successes. Of course, there’s the infamous Nixon-Kennedy debate, the first televised presidential debate in United States history. Unlike Kennedy, Nixon, in a show of machismo, refused to have make-up put on him. The result, as we know, was disastrous--Kennedy, the good-looking, intelligent, likable candidate--just the kind of person Nixon hated--versus Nixon, who looked like Hell--sweaty, 5:00-shadowed, etc. Beyond this historic event, Perlstein documents Nixon’s fanatical struggle for control over information within his administration--rashly firing aides who produced documents that strayed from messaging, for example. Even more so, Nixon, like then-mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley, lashed out against the press, claiming victimhood and alleging that they--the establishment--were out to get him. Rage against paranoia of the vast liberal establishment conspiracy--the pointy-headed, elitist, un-American liberals--in addition to the need for control, lead Nixon to Watergate.

So what’s the difference between the Nixonland era and today? What’s fascinating is that the right wing has reversed itself in one regard and continued itself in another. That is, the right wing today, against Obama, is all populism (Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Tea Party, Minutemen), just as Mattson sets up in his book, Rebels All! (see my review). Today, it is the reversal of the Silent Majority. Right-wing politicians pander to these loud, (seemingly) rabble-rousing groups. It puts the Democrats in a sort of defense of the “respectable” American. But what continues from the Nixonland era right is the rhetorical anti-establishment, anti-intellectualism and anti-liberalism.

Everyone who was born after the Nixon era should read this. Bumping into the author at Midway Airport, I proudly told him that I had just finished the book and planned to lend it to a friend. He replied, “No, please don’t.” I gave him a confused look before he continued, saying, “Make them buy it. I need the money!” So there you have it. I’d lend it to you, but want to help out our man Perlstein (though, I have to admit, I purchased it online for 75 cents).

If you’re not up for the lengthy read or don’t have a few bucks, read the brief but interesting article from the Chicago Reader:
Profile Image for Jeff.
28 reviews6 followers
January 13, 2009
This is a lengthy, but very detailed, discussion of how the modern political landscape came to be. Writing too much about it would rehash the book, but the author comes from his background as an analyst of Barry Goldwater's effect on the FDR-Truman consensus to discuss how Nixon leveraged, and extended, social divisions and the rifts in American public consciousness to create his political career.

If you think you fully understand the modern culture wars, and everything that went on in the 1960s, you don't... until you've read Nixonland.

Surprisingly, the book does actually acknowledge Nixon as a pitiable, if not exactly sympathetic, character. He did seem to believe in himself as a man with a higher calling--setting the correct international policy and stance towards the world--but it's hard to take this too seriously when you consider everything else he did, from the dirty tricks and crimes to his widely migrating domestic positions and even manipulation of foreign affairs (e.g. the prosecution of the Vietnam war), in order to ensure he could grasp the reins of power. At some point you have to question your status as divinely ordained charioteer if you feel it's necessary to crash into rocks to keep your hold...

As for the book itself, Perlstein's writing style is personable, interesting, and engaging. He treats his narrative voice self-consciously, frequently presenting events speaking from Nixon's perspective (or that of his prejudices), giving us a certain insight into the man's psychology (while disavowing that this book is meant as a psychobiography, which it definitely is not). However, his narrative voice may be a bit too glib and winking for some readers. One habit I found particularly annoying was his insistence on referring to major political figures by diminutive versions of their first names, even when those are not the names by which they are famous, and in one or two cases where this introduces some ambiguity. Also, he's quite ready to throw in references to some famous figures as asides, with no explanation. This poses less difficulty for the reader who is already a political junkie with a good knowledge of the last forty years' history, but I can imagine, in fifty years' time, that it might make the book unreadable in parts. And I swear I'll scream if I see another politician described as "glad-handing," whatever that even means.

In all, this book is highly recommended. One word of warning: if you care about politics in America, it will likely be quite depressing, or at least make you want to tear your hair out. Sadly, no matter how much dramatic tension the narrative pulls together, we all know that in the end the bad guys won this one. Steel yourself for it.
3 reviews2 followers
August 1, 2008
I am of the age where, until his death in 1994, I considered Nixon to be the omnipresent evildoer. He was around when I was born, and he was still around 47 years later. You couldn't get rid of him. I felt the boomers would be more correctly called the "Nixon Generation." I was too young to remember him vilifying Helen Gahagan Douglas, but I do remember him as Vice-president getting (literally) stoned in Caracas. I remember him running againt Pat Brown for Governor. His, "you won't have Nixon to kick around anymore" speech. His secret plan to end the Vietnam war. Every word that came out of his mouth was a lie. And when it got exposed in 1973-1974 it was so much fun to watch the hearings on television and see his weasels and gofers up before the Senate Watergate Committee turning on each other as Nixon solemnly stated: "I am not a crook." That was when congresspersons and senators had some guts and would bring up a sitting president on charges.

Perlstein was born in 1969, the first year of the Nixon presidency. He writes, however, like he was in the middle of it. His narrative is lively, ironic, and ultimately, depressing. The country, in the years since, has not progressed but regressed. Nixon, in retrospect, looks like a wise man. Despite his "enemies list" he seems a civil libertarian compared to what we have now. Surely he is responsible for the beginnings of what American politics have descended into, but other, more skilled practitioners have dug the hole far deeper than Milhouse could ever have dreamed.

Perlstein takes us through the years 1964-1972 as if they had happened yesterday. That was when America fractured into what Perlstein terms the Franklins and the Orthogonians, representing very roughly the in crowd and the out group and Nixon's Whittier College. We are now red and blue staters.

Perlstein, with a few exceptions, gets it right. (The SDS chant was "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win" and not "Ho Chi Minh is gonna win."

A must read for anyone who wants to understand late 20th century history. My only quibble is that Perlstein stopped with the election of 1972, and did not bring it forward to the more fun and amazing Watergate scandal times of 1973 and 1974, when we all watched the hearings and marveled at Sam Ervin ("I'm just an old country lawyer") digging up things we could not believe.

Now everyone takes that same dishonesty, immorality and dirty tricks in the white house as base-line normality.

Profile Image for Matt Brady.
199 reviews111 followers
May 17, 2016
Richard Nixon. Old "Tricky Dick. Ol' Tricky Dick Nixon. Good old Milhouse. Old Tricchard Dixon. Slick Ricky. Nasty Nixo. Ol' Rubber Nose. The Sweaty Boy. What an utter prick.
Profile Image for Aaron Million.
491 reviews488 followers
November 17, 2018
Even though Richard Nixon is on the cover, and his name makes up part of the title of this book, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland is not a biography of the 37th President. Instead it is about severe hemorrhaging of American society from the mid-1960s to the early 70s. America was fractured by multiple assassinations, the Vietnam War, a nonstop slew of presidential lies (that one certainly sounds familiar), massive student unrest, and white backlash against the Civil Rights movement. Chaotic scenes occurred across the country as citizens began to take sides – not just politically, but socially as well. Perlstein argues that Nixon helped foment some of that backlash by tapping into Southern grievances, giving rise to his famously-mentioned “silent majority” of citizens who wanted “law and order”, even if the means to try to attain that law and order were anything but lawful or orderly.

Reading this book, which was published in 2008, often caused me to try to compare it with the present day. There have been comparisons made between Nixon and Donald Trump, and 2016 was in some ways compared to 1968. Some of the comparisons do not match up; for example, thankfully there is nothing like a Vietnam War currently going on. Nor is there the constant threat of violent clashes between college students, police, national guardsmen, and “hippies”. In fact, reading about that time period makes me realize just how much less violence there is now compared to back then. Fire bombings were occurring on a regular basis. The disgusting scenes from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where Mayor Richard J. Daley sent his police force out to brutalize demonstrators, the press, and anyone that got in their way, is hopefully something that will not be repeated. (Note: the police were not totally to blame. Many of the demonstrators attacked the officers as well and exhibited gross behavior. Nobody came out of that debacle looking good.) The Vietnam War was deeply unpopular by that point in time. Lyndon Johnson ended up being driven from office, but Nixon proved no more able to stop the bloodshed over there, and was more devious in the Oval Office than even Johnson had been.

But there are echoes of that time period today. Racial divides have re-emerged as a major societal issue. This includes increased allegations of police brutality, mainly against blacks. Trust in government is very low; trust in the president is restricted to his hard-core supporters. Nixon, like Trump now, had his loyal base who believed everything he said and wanted him to clamp down on people not like them. Except back then it wasn't immigrants, it was anti-war protesters and liberals. Well, some things don't seem to change – liberals find themselves in the crosshairs yet again. Nixon was preoccupied with his image, and was given to violent outbursts. As Perlstein, who does an adept job at digging into Nixon's many grievances and slights that he carried around with him throughout his life, writes on page 423 about Nixon's orders to John Erlichman and Bob Haldeman about a columnist who dared to comment that Nixon was losing popularity: “'E&K – Tell him that RN is less affected by press criticism and opinion than any Pres in recent memory.' Because he was the president most affected by press criticism and opinion of any president in recent memory.... Through the looking glass with Richard Nixon: this stuff was better than LSD.” And on page 482, Nixon visits the Pentagon, then goes off about bombing sanctuaries in Cambodia: “'I want to take out all those sanctuaries. Knock them all out!' Someone launched into a technical discussion about why that was literally impossible. The president cut him off: 'You have to electrify people with bold decisions.... Let's go blow the hell out of them!'” It eerily reminded me of Trump wanting to completely pull out of NATO and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis having to explain to him just why, exactly, it is important for the U.S. to stay in.

Perlstein seems to be on an anti-Nixon crusade for much of the book. In his defense, Nixon had a very dark personality, and was full of flaws (not that other presidents have not been). As time has continued to pass since his tenure in office, his actions look more and more petty, even treasonous when factoring in his intentional delaying of a possible peace settlement in 1968. Perlstein does tend to overdo it in that he repeatedly refers back to the Orthogonians – a club that Nixon founded while in college as a rival to the well-off Franklins. Even back then, Nixon was consumed with an us-vs-them mentality, and was scornful of those more fortunate than he. But Perlstein roasts Johnson, Daley, Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, and just about anyone else who contributed to the caustic rhetoric and chaos. On page 155, he writes about American soldiers in Vietnam: “Back at base, they lived side by side with Vietnamese who lived off scavenged waste in dwellings constructed from flattened beer cans and C-ration tins... Then it was back to the inferno... to see a buddy waster by a sniper who emerged from an underground hole, then disappeared.... This was the reality Richard Nixon was playing political games with. This was the reality that Lyndon Johnson was descending upon for an election-season photo-op.”

Perlstein continually sprinkles in the thoughts and opinions of everyday Americans as found in interviews, letters to the editor, and letters sent to Nixon or other political figures. Sadly, many of these are racist in nature, and do not reflect well on certain segments of society back then. I do not think that is limited to just that time period, however. Perlstein also mentions movies and books that were influential back then. But there is very little about the groundbreaking music that was being made back then. For instance, Jimi Hendrix is barely mentioned. And I thought for sure that there would be a reference to CCR's “Fortunate Son”, but no. Perhaps Perlstein did not think the music was as important as other cultural factors, or maybe he didn't care for it.

The final section of the book focuses on the 1972 reelection of Nixon, the beginnings of Watergate, and the disastrous presidential campaign of Democratic South Dakota Senator George McGovern. Throughout the book, Perlstein argues that Nixon and the forces he unleashed divided the country socially and politically. While I do think there is merit in this, in fact a great of merit, I think Americans were divided prior to this period. Just not as divided. This country has always struggled – and sadly continues to struggle – with race. This took place way before Nixon burst on the scene. Kennedy, and especially Johnson, created the American disaster in Vietnam. Nixon poured fuel on an already raging fire, and that is after his treasonous actions to scuttle a potential peace plan in 1968. Nixon should be, and has been, vilified for that. His abuse of power once he became president is mind-bogglingly atrocious. Nixon deserves a lot of blame for many things. I do not think, however, he deserves all of the blame. This is a good book, though long. Anyone interested in this period of American history, the Vietnam War, or Nixon, will find it simultaneously absorbing and appalling.

Grade: B+
Profile Image for John.
226 reviews102 followers
July 22, 2011
I put Perlstein’s Nixonland on my "to read" shelf, after I read a very effective and thorough review of the book in the September 1/8, 2010, edition of The Nation. Perstein's book is a must-read for any one interested in the Republican Party's calculated obliteration of whatever tatters and remnants of New World democracy still informed the American polity during the years that Perlstein examines.

I found that this book, although a great read, as one would expect from a much honored journalist, contains a major flaw - at least from a historian’s perspective. Although Perlstein apparently felt he needed the devices of "national consensus" and its antagonist to enhance the drama in his narrative, he didn't establish at the outset that such a consensus existed for Nixon to assail and extinguish. And I doubt that such a consensus obtained at all. Goldwater and consensus in the same sentence?

Besides, I don't think Perlstein needed these tricks. It's quite sufficient, and dramatic, to demonstrate, which he did by the way, how Nixon and the Republican Party entered upon/exploited the politics of rage and bigotry, following the lead of George Wallace and fellow white supremacists, to entice into their fold angry, white Americans, mostly racist, cultural and moral degenerates in the best of circumstances. He set the stage for decades of distractions that allowed Republicans to cut taxes for their own, i.e. corporate and financial elites, the wealthiest Americans, in order to transfer the cost of government, including the costs of empire and the national debt, to middle and working class Americans, the "little people" who pay taxes at all (to quote the late and long-lamented Leona Helmsley), and allowed, even encouraged, American elites to plunder the Treasury and the world. I like especially Perlstein's discussion of Nixon's exploitation of organized religion and multitudes of Bible-beating cultists to consolidate the power of American elites. None of this entirely captivating account requires a red-herring.

In the end, a fine, although willfully and unnecessarily flawed, book. It only reinforces my fundamental view that the US, the country that has presented the world most of its wars from Korea and Vietnam to the presidential tantrums of Iraq and Afghanistan, has always had the leadership it deserves.
Profile Image for Joe.
283 reviews8 followers
June 27, 2013
Though one might mistake Nixonland for being an exhaustively researched and detailed biography of Richard Nixon, Rick Perlstein's tome is something very different. Nixonland's central character is not the man himself, but the America in which he rose to power. Nixon's role in these times, the manner in which he manipulated and exploited events, seems of secondary importance (at least to this reader.) Nixonland's real triumph is Perlstein's startlingly vivid resurrection of America in the years 1960-1972. This is really a study of culture through history. These times, frightening and almost exotic in their unfamiliar strangeness, hit me right between the eyes.

The astonishing optimism of Johnson's first year ("These are the most hopeful times on Earth since Jesus was born in Nazareth...") with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Great Society legislation unwinds rapidly with America's ramping descent into violence in its streets (race riots, police brutality, etc.) and in Vietnam. Perlstein brings these tumultuous times to life by examining each event and cultural artifact in lush and lurid detail. For example, pages are written on the significance of such things as 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, the Smother's Brothers Comedy Hour, and Jane Fonda. It was also amazing how many people Perlstein mentions in the book that played some kind of role in politics until recently or even now (Roger Ailes, Rumsfeld, Jerry Brown, John Kerry, even Bush I and Bush II.)

Perlstein's stated goal is one of connecting the dots between Nixon's actions during these years and our current divided political landscape. Although this was not my main take-away, I think he succeeds at this as well. There really is a straight line connecting Richard Nixon and Sarah Palin. The divisions and hatreds we see dividing people and politicians today are far less about policy than they are about a kind of tribalism, a culture of us vs. them, ("Franklins vs. Orthogonians" is the paradigm Perlstein works with throughout the book.) This is really a dark part of our human nature which has always been a thread in politics; Perlstein makes a strong case that Richard Nixon (and Ronald Reagan) brought it to a new level.

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507 reviews35 followers
June 24, 2017
I was looking for an epic book to read this summer and in today's political climate in America this seemed to be a good choice. Unfortunately I can't stand the author's style and that's too much of an obstacle to overcome in such a big book so I'm quitting after reading just five chapters.

The author is too prominent in the narrative to ignore. I can almost feel him elbowing me every time he makes what seems to him to be a clever or witty comment about Nixon's iron ass (i.e. his ability to patiently wait for the right moment to make his move) or the Franklins (popular, good looking, charming, charismatic people) and Orthogonians (the overlooked masses - a group Nixon created as a student at Whittier College) of the world. Subtlety is not one of Rick Perlstein's strengths, and the unfortunate thing here is that subtlety works very well when talking about such an outrageous character as Richard Nixon.

I'm not in a strong position to critique this book after giving up so quickly but there is one more aspect about it that really bothered me. The author had a habit of bringing each storyline to neat and tidy conclusions, giving the book a slickness that was off-putting.

Setting the stylistic criticisms aside this is probably a good book to learn about the era covered. It appears to be well researched.

I've only read three books about Nixon but all were very good and I'd recommend each highly:

All the President's Men (Woodward & Bernstein) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9...

The Final Days (Woodward & Bernstein) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2...

The Blood Telegram (Gary J. Bass) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...
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