Water Man Spouts

Monday, July 07, 2008


"Adlai Stevenson and his learned speechwriter had coined a useful word, Nixonland. They just did not grasp its full resonance. …. Thus a more inclusive definition of Nixonland: it is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans. The first group, enemies of Richard Nixon, are the spiritual heirs of Stevenson and Galbraith. They take it as an axiom that if Richard Nixon and the values associated with him triumph, America itself might end. The second group are the people who wrote those telegrams begging Dwight D. Eisenhower to keep their hero on the 1952 Republican ticket. They believe, as Nixon did, that if the enemies of Richard Nixon triumph – the Alger Hisses and Helen Gahagan Douglases, the Herblocks and hippies, the George McGoverns and all the rest – America might end. The DNC was right: an amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. ‘Nixonland’ is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together. By the end of the 1960s, Nixonland came to encompass the entire political culture of the United States. It would define it, in fact, for the next fifty years."
--Rick Perlstein; Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; Scribner; 2008; pages 46-47.

Why would anyone write another book on Nixon? And why the heck would anyone read another book, especially one that is more than 800 pages long, about Richard Nixon? Is it not better to forget the man who was forced to resign from the presidency in utter disgrace?

Two weeks ago, I watched Rick Perlstein debating Patrick Buchanan on the MSNBC morning show. Buchanan’s attacks on Perlstein’s book, and the authors humorous responses – which indicated he was fully aware of Buchanan’s activities in the Nixon White House – caught my attention. Surely, Buchanan would not have reacted as he did, if he was not sensitive to this new book. More, Perlstein came across as a gifted communicator. I decided to purchase the book on my next trip to a book store.

There have been numerous important and highly readable books on Richard Nixon. Among these are a few very important ones which tend to fall into one of two groups: the first focuses on the criminal nature of Nixon the politician; the second, smaller group, provide a psychological profile of this strangest of America’s Presidents.

I bought a dozen books on my weekend trip to Barnes & Noble, and admittedly have not finished Perlstein’s book. I am, however, concentrating on it more so than the others. Thus far, it has not introduced any new information on Richard Nixon. What the author does is to present the previously known information in a unique way: rather than a psychological study of the president, "Nixonland" is a sociological study of how a politician who had so many repulsive traits was able to get elected in 1968, and re-elected in ’72.

He also includes information that documents something that is far too often overlooked: that Nixon was the first vice president to really change the nature of that office. It is often remembered that during the 1960 election, when a reporter asked Ike to list some of VP Nixon’s accomplishments, that he said he might need a week to make such a list. The press took this as the President’s disrespecting his vice president, and in truth, he likely did. But he also knew that most of VP Nixon’s main responsibilities had been in the areas of secret, international programs which were classified.

Like all tyrants, Richard Nixon appreciated that if a ruler/ politician could get a large group of people to hate a common enemy, those people would willing forget their own low level of being. From 1963 to 1968, Nixon was able to manipulate and exploit the darkest passions in "main stream" American society.

Perlstein notes that Nixon was "a serial collector of resentments." In a five-year period that included the civil rights movement and riots in ghettos, the anti-war movement and a divisive war in Vietnam, and plans for a "Great Society" and economic hardships, Richard Nixon was able to make full use of his collection of resentments. He understood the power of the fear and anxiety that many Americans – including Democrats as well as Republicans – were experiencing.

For many of us, looking back in 2008, there is a memory of believing that the USA could never have a worse criminal than Nixon for President. Then came Reagan, Bush the Elder, and now Bush2. This has resulted in many people recalling Nixon as something of a moderate in comparison. And, in fact, his administration did a few good things. But it is important to recognize that Nixonland made Reagan and the Bushes possible. In fact, the book covers the curious relationship between Nixon and Reagan, which is too often overlooked by history books.

The tactics that Richard Nixon and others, including Patrick Buchanan, used in those years are the same tactics that the republican party is using today. There was a time, after his loses in the early 1960s, when the public and the "experts" wrote Nixon off. They did not think there was any serious chance of his ever being elected to an important office (especially the presidency) in the future.

Today, many people assume that there is no way that McCain can beat Obama, or that the republicans can keep from losing seats in the US House of Representatives or the Senate. But democrats must be aware of the fact that the republicans will certainly try. We must also be able to recognize their tactics when we see them – and we are seeing them these days, in the media and on the internet.

I strongly recommend reading Perlstein’s book, "Nixonland."


Post a Comment

<< Home