I have now read two-thirds of Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (that is, up to the point where the book describes the Kent State shootings and aftermath) and can confirm that this historian’s narrative skills continue to be stronger than his primary research, which where this book is concerned, is comparatively skimpy.
Perlstein can (courtesy of the Museum of Television and Radio) watch NBC’s coverage of the Democratic convention in Chicago on August 28, 1968, and, transcribing the voiceovers and commentary, and depicting the visuals on the screen, put together a highly readable and vivid chapter. When it comes to researching and analyzing the events that led up the violent confrontation between the police and the demonstrators, however, he contents himself with quoting and paraphrasing from a handful of newspaper articles and a few books, leaning heavily on John Schultz’s No One Was Killed. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him to consult internal documents or memos from the period (and there must be thousands in various archives in Chicago and elsewhere) or to interview those still living, whether they were among the Yippies and the “Mobe” in those days, or in the ranks of the Chicago Police Department or other relevant sectors of Chicago and Cook County’s administrations, or working in the McCarthy, Humphrey or McGovern campaigns.
And, when it comes to discussing the first couple of years of the Nixon Administration, Perlstein seemingly has spoken to just two people who actually worked in it: Leon Panetta, who left HEW in February 1970, and John Dean, who, in that period, was mainly involved with routine tasks in the Justice Department and then as Counsel to the President. Though it is true that with the exception of Dr. Henry Kissinger, Charles W. Colson, and two or three others, the most prominent figures in shaping White House policies in the 1969-1970 period are now gone, still there are dozens of people who worked directly under the aforementioned and also under H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Daniel P. Moynihan, John Connally, and others of similar importance, who could have provided Perlstein with valuable insights, in the way that so enlivened his book about the Goldwater campaign Before The Storm. In addition, Perlstein could have consulted the millions of pages of documents at the Nixon Project of the National Archives, as he did with the papers of Barry Goldwater and a dozen others in his previous book.
But he chose not to do this. Instead, he relies heavily on Richard Reeves’ President Nixon – which, in turn, was strongly based on Haldeman’s notes and diaries. That isn’t to say that Reeves’ book isn’t a solid work of scholarship, whatever one might think of some of the conclusions he drew from his primary sources. But for a book of this kind of scope and scale, Perlstein should have gone directly to Haldeman’s notes and his full diary – and to the memos and notes of at least two dozen other figures from the Nixon era, whether at the National Archives or in university or historical-society collections. But he chose to rely on secondary sources, many of which reflect the liberal bias of the era (such as Jonathan Schell’s The Time Of Illusion). Hopefully, sometime, he’ll explain at his blog at ourfuture.org why he decided on this approach.
There’s also the question of the occasional small but irksome errors that pop up in Nixonland. For example, when discussing the choice of then-Gov. Spiro Agnew for the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination in 1968, Perlstein identifies him as the “son of Greek immigrants.” That would be Greek immigrant, singular, on his father’s side. Agnew’s mother was a Virginian, Margaret Akers. The point is not that trivial. Though Nixon’s Vice President was raised in the Greek Orthodox church of his father, he married a Methodist minister’s granddaughter (of German ancestry) and, after becoming an attorney, joined the Episcopal Church. While it is true that Agnew took pride in his father’s heritage, was a great favorite in the Greek-American community during his years on the national scene, and was nearly as popular with the various ethnic constituencies the Nixon White House wooed, he saw himself as an unhyphenated American, a real example of the “melting pot.”
There’s a lot more to say once I finish the book, so stay tuned. In the meantime here’s a webcast in which Ross Douthat (who reviewed Nixonland for the Atlantic Monthly) interviews the historian. It turns out that Perlstein is already at work on the proposal to his followup volume, which is planned to bring the saga of Before The Storm and Nixonland right up to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The first two volumes of this trilogy-to-be show a pattern. Both involve a politician who is a tragic hero vindicated by history; another who is the central figure of the narrative; and yet another who is waiting in the wings, a harbinger of the future. In Before The Storm Goldwater served the first two functions and Richard Nixon was the man in the wings. In Nixonland McGovern is the tragic hero, Nixon the central figure, and Ronald Reagan the man in the wings. Given what Perlstein says in the webcast I’m guessing that Jimmy Carter will be his next book’s tragic hero, Reagan the main player, and George H.W. Bush the harbinger. But it’s nearly a sure bet that if the historian follows the modus operandi of his current book, his account of Watergate will derive primarily from J. Anthony Lukas’ Nightmare, Stanley Kutler’s The Wars Of Watergate and the recollections of John Dean (who, incidentally, has spent the last few days rhapsodizing about Nixonland to Amazon.com’s customers), and not from the actual archival materials of the era.