Yesterday morning, toward the end of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Mika Brzezinski suppressed a giggle as she introduced Nixonland author Rick Perlstein. Viewers might have been forgiven for assuming the giggle was no different from any of the others that the frothy Ms. Brzezinski emits from show to show. But indeed it was, for it was a portent of video fireworks that, while not quite as noisy as, say, any recent Keith Olbermann rant about Sen. Clinton, were still pretty impressive.
A minute into the interview, as Perlstein was finishing his standard opening for this kind of chat, Ms. Brzezinski introduced none other than Pat Buchanan, with journalist Mike Barnicle alongside him. Buchanan opened with a telling question: “Rick, did you enjoy my memos?” Buchanan’s reply: “You know, I loved your memoir” – presumably referring to Buchanan’s book Right From The Beginning, though it is not cited in Nixonland’s bibliography. Buchanan: “I mean the memos to Mr. Nixon and Mr. Haldeman and Mr. Mitchell.”
Now, when Perlstein visited the National Archives in College Park, he had every opportunity to read the Buchanan memos, whether or not he enjoyed them. I have previously pointed out that, in contrast to his first book Before The Storm for which he interviewed a number of important figures in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and examined masses of unpublished archival documents, Perlstein did little research of that kind for Nixonland, drawing instead on books and newspaper and magazine article of the era. But given this book’s strong emphasis on the 1968 and 1972 Nixon campaigns, one would have thought that, since Perlstein did not obtain an interview with Buchanan – and he would likely have had little trouble getting one – he would have compensated by examining the numerous pages of Buchanan memos, touching on campaign and other political matters, in the Archives’ Nixon Project files. But none of these memos figure in his book or are cited in the source notes.
In other words, the MSNBC clip shows a historian making contact for the first time with a person who should have been an important source for the work being discussed – and with less than ten minutes to spare, there is not really time for an in-depth talk. Instead, there’s considerable verbal jousting, during which Perlstein gets so flustered that, at 6:45 in the clip, he gets the Caracas mob attack on Nixon in 1958 mixed up with his rather more peaceful visit to Lima a few days earlier. And the historian seems to still have a bit of trouble believing that, in the distant days he chronicled, Bob Novak could have been considered a liberal. Unfortunately, early on Buchanan acknowledges that while he read Before The Storm he has not yet had the chance to thoroughly read Nixonland, and his questioning of Perlstein suffers somewhat because of that. If Conrad Black were available for such an appearance, Perlstein would really have been in trouble. But the clip is nonetheless well worth viewing, especially to see some of Barnicle’s reactions.
Editor’s note: Mr. Perlstein notes in the comments section that he tried but could not get an interview with Mr. Buchanan.