Tomorrow marks the publication of Rick Perlstein’s nearly 800-page history Nixonland: The Rise Of A President And The Fracturing Of America. Over the weekend the book was reviewed by Newsweek’s Evan Thomas, by George Will in the New York Times Book Review, by biographer/historian Douglas Brinkley in the Austin American-Statesman, and by Bruce J. Schulman of Boston University in the Boston Globe.
I’ve read the first third of the book, from its turbulent opening – the Watts riots in August 1965 – to the point where Richard Nixon contests the Wisconsin primary in late March 1968. In the space of 250 pages Perlstein describes a whirlwind of events – the civil rights movement’s journey from the triumph of the Voting Rights Act to the militancy and violence of Stokely Carmichael and the Black Panthers; the escalation of the Vietnam War; Martin Luther King’s struggle to advance open housing in the face of hostility in Chicago; increasing unrest on college campuses and the rise of the hippies; and the almost complete inability of the liberal intellectual and media establishment of the time to get a handle on what was happening.

In his previous book, Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater And The Unmaking Of The American Consensus, Perlstein, despite being as thoroughly liberal-minded as any of his peers among younger historians, produced a carefully documented and quite even-handed account of the insurgency which made Goldwater the 1964 Republican nominee. That book relied on a mountain of archival material almost completely untapped by previous historians of the period, and on interviews with several of the most important surviving figures among the circle of National Review intellectuals and mostly young idealists who, over four years, confounded the Republican establishment and launched a conservative revolution which, though seemingly crushed by Lyndon Johnson’s landslide, came back two years later, and, over the course of a decade and a half, transformed the American political landscape.

Nixonland’s opening describes the early post-Goldwater stage of this process, but the conservative movement in this book take a back seat to the story of Richard Nixon’s resurrection from defeat in 1962 to triumph in 1968. This book differs from Before The Storm in the use of sources. When Perlstein wrote the earlier book he was limited in his choice of published materials. Not more than 15 or 20 books had really examined the Goldwater campaign (or, for that matter, the conservative movement of the early ’60s from which it emerged) in any significant depth, and the newspaper and magazine articles of the time were, as often as not, written by reporters who regarded the Goldwater campaign as hopeless before he actually secured the nomination, and as a mortal threat to the future of civilization the moment they heard his acceptance speech at the Cow Palace. Perlstein therefore had to do tap into previously underutilized material, and this gave Before The Storm an arresting, fresh quality.

For Nixonland, however, Perlstein had a vast pool of material to work with; hundreds of books, tens of thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and op-eds, and uncounted hours of television footage and radio broadcasts document the period he discusses. He therefore has used less unpublished archival material and interviews, and has relied more on books and articles.

In the first 250 pages of Nixonland, a few memos from the Nixon Library and a dozen or so letters sent to Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas from constituents are referred to or quoted; the footnotes mention interviews with a Don Rose (apparently consulted regarding the Chicago open-housing disturbances of 1966), Lee Edwards (about Nixon’s efforts to reach out to the Young Americans For Freedom and other elements of the conservative movement) and Nick Salvatore and Ryan Hayes (about New York mayor John Lindsay’s conflicts with the NYPD).

For everything else, Perlstein relies on books, old articles and columns, and, sometimes, radio and TV coverage from the period. His main sources among newspapers (at least in the first 250 pages) are the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times – in those days, a fairly balanced group representing liberal, conservative, and middle-of-the-road opinion. Where newsmagazines are concerned he most frequently refers to US News And World Report, and justifiably so. (As hard as it may be for younger readers to believe, that magazine was once famous not for its annual college issue but for being much more fact-oriented than Time or Newsweek.) Perlstein hardly cites Newsweek at all and treats Time as being primarily a mouthpiece for Pentagon propaganda about Vietnam or as the purveyor of overblown, somewhat preposterous feature stories like the ones in 1966 and 1967 celebrating the arrival of youth as a major force in American culture.

When it comes to books, Perlstein keeps at hand three or four titles regarding a particular person or aspect of the period under discussion, and cites them frequently. In his two chapters concerning Nixon’s pre-1965 career, for example, he makes heavy use of the late Fawn Brodie’s well-known and controversial psychobiography from 1981, and the much less-known 1972 book The Running Of Richard Nixon by Leonard Lurie. Perlstein also picks up (and runs with) an argument he acknowledges borrowing from Chris Matthews’ Kennedy And Nixon – that the 37th President’s career, in many ways, reprised his Whittier College days when he organized a society of hard-working, determined outsiders, the Orthogonians, in opposition to the Big Men On Campus-led Franklins. Where Vietnam is concerned, the historian makes heavy use of A.J. Langguth’s Our War and, to a lesser degree, Christian Appy’s Working-Class War; Tom Wells’ The War Within is much referred to for his account of domestic opposition to the conflict.

The America Perlstein describes in the first part of Nixonland is a nation steadily moving to the brink of apocalypse. Though the constant in these pages is Richard Nixon, carefully assessing the direction in which the political and social winds are blowing, Perlstein spends most of these pages recounting a series of dramatic and violent events. Racial, social, political division and discord are the dominant themes. Paragraphs present snapshots of passions and violence, sometimes in almost random sequence. Thus, on p. 110, the reader finds:

At the Sherman House Hotel in Chicago, Cook County Democratic headquarters, Martin Luther King warned in a press conference, “We are in for darker nights of social disruption,” and that “the power elite seems to prefer sporadic outbreaks of violence to the rightful recognition of an organized nonviolence movement,” and to whites who saw King as the [Chicago open-housing protest] riot’s ringleader it sounded like a threat. He then announced he had brokered a truce among Chicago’s street gangs. (The next day a gang member shot three rivals.) In an ornate reception room in New York’s City Hall, fifty-nine East New York youths screamed about “our turf” and “their turf” and nearly broke into a fistfight. (Mayor Lindsay sent out his youth board director and a rabbi to convince the local godfather, Don Alberto Gallo, to broker a peace.) A nightclub in the Bohemian district of the North Side of Chicago was raided for obscenity (“Included in the skits,” the papers reported, “were love-making scenes…and the tearing of clothing”). In Cleveland white vigilantes shot dead a twenty-nine-year-old black man; a black sniper shot out the rearview mirror of an Ohio National Guard jeep.

From a mafioso brokering a deal among gangs, to a nightclub bust for improper performance art, to interracial violence? These are some pretty abrupt transitions. But when Perlstein puts together the pieces to form a verbal mosaic of a specific event or sequence, such as the 1967 Newark riots or the disintegration of George W. Romney’s presidential candidacy, he is much more effective, and displays considerable narrative skill of a kind rarely seen among historians since the days of Allan Nevins, Samuel Eliot Morison and the young Arthur Schlesinger.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss Perlstein’s treatment of the 1968 campaign and the early years of the Nixon Administration. In the meantime, this discussion at Matt Yglesias’ Atlantic Monthly blog is worth examining. It involves several dozen commenters (and Perlstein himself) taking on his sweeping reference in Nixonland to the South Vietnamese army as a “joke.”