Who’s Mr. Conservative: Reagan or Nixon?
That is the query Barron YoungSmith, an intern at The New Republic, poses at the magazine’s website this week. (YoungSmith is a 2006 Brown University graduate, incidentally. And some people were amazed that 39-year-old Rick Perlstein was fascinated enough by the Nixon era to devote six years to a book about the period.)
The “it,” in this case, is nothing less than the post-1960 conservative revolution. After noting the differing theses of Perlstein’s Nixonland and Sean Wilentz’s The Age Of Reagan, YoungSmith proposes a synthesis: “Nixon’s government was like pagan Rome, while Reagan’s was like the Christian Empire after Constantine.” He explains that while Richard Nixon set up the “physical infrastructure” of the conservative resurgence (ie, the “electoral coalition, tactics, cultural tropes”), it was Ronald Reagan who infused it with “conservative ideology” and “turned Nixon’s machine to new ends.”
And elsewhere at the magazine’s site, Wilentz and Perlstein themselves debate the question, in the exchange-of-letters format familiar to Slate readers. Anyway, Wilentz has started to do so. His initial contribution argues that one element of the infrastructure YoungSmith discusses, the switch of the “solid South” from Democratic to Republican, was not a done deal by the end of the Nixon era, pointing out that Carter won the whole area (except Virginia, where he lost by less than two points) in 1976. Interestingly, Wilentz is sure that had it not been for Watergate, Nixon would have been unchallengeably the dominant American political figure of recent times, or, as he puts it, had the scandal never happened his book could have been titled The Age Of Nixon rather than The Age Of Reagan (which, Wilentz assures us, will end this year no matter who’s elected). So far Perlstein hasn’t replied but stay tuned.
Speaking of Nixonland, John Coyne Jr., a leading figure of National Review’s 1960s heyday and former speechwriter and assistant to Vice President Agnew and Presidents Nixon and Ford, wrote a perceptive review of that book in last Sunday’s Washington Times. (Thanks to Jonathan Movroydis for the heads-up about this.)