Told with urgency and sharp political insight, Nixonland recaptures America's turbulent 1960s and early 1970s and reveals how Richard Nixon rose from the political grave to seize and hold the presidency.
Perlstein's epic account begins in the blood and fire of the 1965 Watts riots, nine months after Lyndon
Johnson's historic landslide victory over Barry Goldwater appeared to herald a permanent liberal consensus
in the United States. Yet the next year, scores of liberals were tossed out of Congress, America was more divided than ever, and a disgraced politician was on his way to a shocking comeback: Richard Nixon.
Between 1965 and 1972, America experienced no less than a second civil war. Out of its ashes, the political world we know now was born. It was the era not only of Nixon, Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern, Richard J. Daley, and George Wallace but Abbie Hoffman, Ronald Reagan, Angela Davis, Ted Kennedy, Charles Manson, John Lindsay, and Jane Fonda. There are tantalizing glimpses of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, and even of two ambitious young men named Karl Rove and William Clinton -- and a not so ambitious young man named George W. Bush.
Cataclysms tell the story of Nixonland:
- Angry blacks burning down their neighborhoods in cities across the land as white suburbanites defend home and hearth with shotguns
- The student insurgency over the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
- The fissuring of the Democratic Party into warring factions manipulated by the "dirty tricks" of Nixon and his Committee to Re-Elect the President
- Richard Nixon pledging a new dawn of national unity, governing more divisively than any president before him, then directing a criminal conspiracy, the Watergate cover-up, from the Oval Office
Then, in November 1972, Nixon, harvesting the bitterness and resentment born of America's turmoil, was reelected in a landslide even bigger than Johnson's 1964 victory, not only setting the stage for his dramatic 1974 resignation but defining the terms of the ideological divide that characterizes America today.
Filled with prodigious research and driven by a powerful narrative, Rick Perlstein's magisterial account of how America divided confirms his place as one of our country's most celebrated historians.
Perlstein, winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, provides a compelling account of Richard Nixon as a masterful harvester of negative energy, turning the turmoil of the 1960s into a ladder to political notoriety. Perlstein's key narrative begins at about the time of the Watts riots, in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming 1964 victory at the polls against Goldwater, which left America's conservative movement broken. Through shrewdly selected anecdotes, Perlstein demonstrates the many ways Nixon used riots, anti-Vietnam War protests, the drug culture and other displays of unrest as an easy relief against which to frame his pitch for his narrow win of 1968 and landslide victory of 1972. Nixon spoke of solid, old-fashioned American values, law and order and respect for the traditional hierarchy. In this way, says Perlstein, Nixon created a new dividing line in the rhetoric of American political life that remains with us today. At the same time, Perlstein illuminates the many demons that haunted Nixon, especially how he came to view his political adversaries as "enemies" of both himself and the nation and brought about his own downfall. 16 pages of b&w photos. (May) Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
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May 11, 2008
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Excerpt from Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
In 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won practically the biggest landslide in American history, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes. In 1972, the Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon won a strikingly similar landslide -- 60.67 percent and 520 electoral college votes. In the eight years in between, the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire. This is a book about how that happened, and why.
At the start of 1965, when those eight years began, blood and fire weren't supposed to be a part of American culture and politics. According to the pundits, America was more united and at peace with itself than ever. Five years later, a pretty young Quaker girl from Philadelphia, a winner of a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, was cross-examined in the trial of seven Americans charged with conspiring to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
"You practice shooting an M1 yourself, don't you?" the prosecutor asked her.
"Yes, I do," she responded.
"You also practice karate, don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
"That is for the revolution, isn't it?"
"After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible. I desperately wish it was possible."
And, several months after that, an ordinary Chicago ad salesman would be telling Time magazine, "I'm getting to feel like I'd actually enjoy going out and shooting some of these people. I'm just so goddamned mad. They're trying to destroy everything I've worked for -- for myself, my wife, and my children."
This American story is told in four sections, corresponding to four elections: in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972. Politicians, always reading the cultural winds, make their life's work convincing 50 percent plus one of their constituency that they understand their fears and hopes, can honor and redeem them, can make them safe and lead them toward their dreams. Studying the process by which a notably successful politician achieves that task, again and again, across changing cultural conditions, is a deep way into an understanding of those fears and dreams -- and especially, how those fears and dreams change.
The crucial figure in common to all these elections was Richard Nixon -- the brilliant and tormented man struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s. His story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon's character -- his own overwhelming angers, anxieties, and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos -- sparks the combustion. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about how he did it -- nothing inevitable in the idea that a president could come to power by using the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s. Indeed, he was slow to the realization. He reached it, through the 1966 election, studying others: notably, Ronald Reagan, who won the governorship of California by providing a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn't seemed like voting issues at all. If it hadn't been for the shocking defeats of a passel of LBJ liberals blindsided in 1966 by a conservative politics of "law and order," things might have turned out differently: Nixon might have run on a platform not too different from that of the LBJ liberals instead of one that cast them as American villains.