Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland hit British bookstores earlier this month, and at the London Telegraph Dominic Sandbrook, of Oxford’s history faculty and the author of well-received books on Eugene McCarthy and England in the Swinging Sixties, reviews it. His assessment more or less matches mine:
“One of the book’s biggest flaws, oddly, is its handling of Nixon himself. Moody, introverted, driven by resentment and envy, the man from California should be a gift to the narrative historian. But here we never get close to him, largely because he is no more than a caricature. Perlstein’s Nixon does not say anything; he ‘snarls’ or ‘slurs’ it. Behind the scenes, he ‘rants’ and ‘rages’; on camera, he is a manufactured liar. His positive achievements – diplomatic breakthroughs in Moscow and Beijing, his surprisingly liberal record on health, education, civil rights and the environment – are dismissed as window-dressing. We are never invited to feel sympathy for him, to understand what made him tick, to see his point of view. Even Bond villains usually get a better press.
“But the real problem with the book is found in the subtitle: ‘the fracturing of America’. Nixonland wallows in the exaggeration of extremism, the pornography of violence; Perlstein even dedicates it to the ‘dozens of Americans who lost their lives at the hands of other Americans’ for political reasons between 1965 and 1972. While his vast array of anecdotes make for a rich and compelling read, they add up to a very distorted view of the period.”
The rest of the review is very much worth reading as well. And, in related news, at the end of the month Princeton University Press will publish the anthology Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents, which Perlstein edited. The book’s introduction, which is somewhat like a condensed Nixonland minus the drama and anecdotes, and which also looks at some aspects of the President’s career given little attention in that book, can be read here.