Fresh Air Blows Into Perlsteinland
Some TNN readers —the interested, the curious, the homebound, the masochists, and the ones with just too much time on their hands— might be interested in checking out the audio of today’s edition of Fresh Air . The interviewee is Rick Perlstein, author of the new Nixonland (which is being serially —to use one of Mr. Perlstein’s favorite words— deconstructed here and here by our colleague Robert Nedelkoff); the interview is conducted by Philadelphia Daily News writer Dave Davies.
I haven’t read the book yet, so I will just react to what I heard.
Whether or not Mr. Perlstein has much or any prior experience, he delivers a fluent and accomplished radio interview. He is quick and quirky and would be right at home on any edition of This American Life.
And on the subject of prior experience…..Mr. Perlstein is described as “author and historian”. Author — ok, obviously no problem with that. Historian — ok, he has published one other book and that was a well-received study of Barry Goldwater and the 1964 election. But there is another dimension to Mr. Perlstein’s prior experience that might be considered worthy of at least equal billing: he is a liberal activist, writer, blogger and sometime polemicist. Here is his biography from his website:
Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner). His first book, Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history. It appeared on the best books lists that year of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune, and also achieved the status, in the wake of the Clinton Wars and the 2000 Florida recount, as one of the very rare books to receive glowing reviews in both left-wing and right-wing publications. From the summer of 2003 until 2005 he covered the presidential campaigns as chief national political correspondent for the Village Voice. He has also published The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo: How the Democrats Can Once Again Become America’s Dominant Political Party, an essay with responses from commentators including Robert Reich, Elaine Kamarck, and Ruy Teixeira. In 2006 and 2007 he wrote a biweekly column for The New Republic Online. Perlstein is now senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, for whom he writes the blog The Big Con.
He received a B.A. in history from the University of Chicago in 1992, where his cultural criticism was published in the Baffler, and spent two years in the PhD program in American culture at the University of Michigan. Moving to New York, he worked for two years as an editor at Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life; while at Lingua Franca. Perlstein’s freelance book reviews and essays have appeared in publications including _Slate, the Village Voice, Newsday and The Nation. His work later appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Republic, the London Review of Books, Newsday, Columbia Journalism Review and The New Yorker.
But, Frank, you may ask, isn’t this a distinction without much of a difference because most historians are liberals and many of them are also activists, writers, and sometime polemicists? Call me a purist or a romantic or a pettifogger, but I still think there’s a difference between “author and historian” David McCullough and “author and historian” Rick Perlstein. But maybe that’s just me.
Given that the Fresh Air gig involves about thirty minutes of radio time, it would be unrealistic to expect Mr. Perlstein to be very detailed or rigorous. (Some Perlsteinian obiter dicta may make vivid radio but I’m not sure how suitable they are coming from an historian. He refers, for example, to RN campaigning in 1966 for “tons and tons and tons of congressional candidates”.) But a lot of his basic facts and interpretations are just plain wrong (and while interpretations can be matters of opinion, facts are facts), and all the generalizations and conclusions he draws from them are fruits of poisonous trees.
Mr. Perlstein makes up a childhood persona for RN that places him somewhere between Bleak House and Tobacco Road. In Pearlsteinland, even the child Nixon —especially the child Nixon— was a “serial collector of resentments”. That explains why he created the Orthogonian society at Whittier College — their very own fraternity for himself and all the other nerds and uncool kids with their noses pressed up against the highly polished plate glass display case of the Franklins.
That’s not the way it was; not by a long shot. That’s a perverse and twisted take on what actually happened. And it reveals a basic flaw in Mr. Perlstein’s whole approach. By ignoring the facts right up front, he reduces RN to a one-dimensional puppet and then proceeds to pull those strings for the rest of the half hour. Before you know it the uncool kids become the silent majority and the rest is Mr. Perlstein’s history.
His argument, matched by his narration, is colorful and accomplished but too clever by half and too cool for school. His description and dismissal of Tom Kuchel is half wrong and half misleading. In 1968, campaign dirty tricks are all on Nixon’s side (he actually claims this) and one forged letter is enough to sink a candidate. He sees RN being brought to “the brink of Watergate” whatever and wherever that is, by the bad results of the 1970 congressional elections: “Democracy hadn’t worked for him” so he decides “to try other means”.
Vietnam isn’t discussed at all. I’m not sure the word is even mentioned. How’s that for history?
At least on the basis of this radio interview, the author and historian and author turns out to be an effective and engaging author and polemicist. Fresh Air itself —inadvertently to be sure— provides an editorial comment by pairing Mr. Perlstein and Nixonland with another author and his book: Mark Evanier’s King of Comics — a book about the comic book artist who created such Marvel superheroes as the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, and X-men.
So it turns out that Fresh Air had a theme today: comic book renderings of superheroes and supervillans.