This week I finished Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland. My conclusions are not very much changed from what I previously posted, and as I mentioned previously Oxford historian Dominic Sandbrook’s review in the London Telegraph expresses an opinion of the book close to mine. But there are some aspects about the book’s account of the 1972 campaign worth mentioning.
Perlstein, as a progressive intellectual, is preoccupied with the problem of how the Democratic Party – once perceived as the champion of the common man, the defender of working-class and middle-class Americans of non-WASP origin and of unionized workers – came to be alienated from these groups in the 1960s and early 1970s, and how that party came to be seen as captive to an intellectual elite that looked down on ordinary citizens. This is, after all, still a concern with Democratic activists as they face November and start to wonder what might happen if Sen. John McCain starts to avoid accidents like the one that happened with the applesauce this week, and continues to build on his seemingly unlikely base of blue-collar support in Rust Belt states, as shown in recent Quinnipiac Poll results.
So the concluding chapters of his book explore how it was that Sen. George McGovern, who in the 1972 primaries more than held his own among blue-collar voters when challenged by Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson, was unable to gain any traction in that area after his party’s convention in Miami Beach. On page 698 of Nixonland, he has a particularly telling quote in this context. In the Oral History Collection of the New York Public Library, Perlstein found a study put together by the American Jewish Committee, “The Politics Of American Jews: The Election of 1972.” (This, incidentally, represents the kind of resource that would have improved Nixonland enormously, and Perlstein would have been well advised to look for more in this area, rather than mine old newspapers via Proquest and Lexis/Nexis as he was often content to do.)
The study quotes Gus Tyler, who was in 1972 a top leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Tyler (still alive and writing occasionally for the Jewish newspaper, the Forward, at age 96) was, in the 1930s, chairman of the youth organization of Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party, and at age 60 was a prime example of the liberal union leader, a proud Democrat, but well aware of the rank and file’s disillusionment. As he watched Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman whoop it up for the cameras, and saw the radicals of 1968, now raised to the status of delegates, get into shouting matches with the representatives of the old-school Democratic machines from the cities, and listened to hour upon hour of heated rhetoric from militant leftists now convinced they had captured the Democratic Party once and for all –
“…he wondered [Perlstein says] what this all must look like to the farmer in Iowa, a housewife in Bensonhurst, ‘somebody out there,’ he later reflected to an interviewer, ‘in Peoria.’ All of these people had given the Democrats a landslide in 1964. They had trusted the Democratic Party. In the interim they had seen America plunged into chaos. And then they looked at this convention and thought, ‘Here are the people who are responsible for this chaos.'”
This illustrates, in a nutshell, why the organization of Sen. Barack Obama is so diligent about presenting a cheerful, upbeat, orderly face to the world. The memory of the McGovern campaign’s manifestations of chaos still rankles among its older figures.
But it should be emphasized that not all of Perlstein’s account of 1972 focuses on the self-destruction of the Democrats. He manages to work in dozens of references to Republican skulduggery and discusses the policies of the Nixon Administration in what is usually an extremely jaundiced fashion – claiming, for example, that President Nixon and Dr. Henry Kissinger’s efforts to secure peace in 1972 were no more than plans “to stab America’s soldiers and South Vietnamese allies in the back.” To demonstrate that thesis, he does no more than refer to the President’s August 3, 1972 conversation with Dr. Kissinger. Did Perlstein actually listen to the recording, available to anyone who chose to listen for years? If his footnotes are any indication, no – he cites an Associated Press account from 2004, and refers to a conference presentation made by Jeffrey Kimball at the JFK Library in 2006. He comments that one account has it that Dr. Kissinger wondered, speaking of a peace agreement, if it was possible to “sell it in such a way” as to gain South Vietnamese President Thieu’s acceptance, then notes that others have transcribed the words as “sell out in such a way.” Why couldn’t Perlstein have just gone ahead, put on headphones, and decided for himself? And, while he was at it, listened to at least some of the dozens of other conversations available from this period that put that segment into context?
I’ll have a few more things to say about Nixonland in coming days but for now, I’ll repeat that though the book is one extremely well-written and vivid narrative, it is not, in any way, a really full, objective, or exhaustively researched account of Richard Nixon, the events in the years immediately before his presdency, and that presidency’s history until the end of 1972, and that any reader should keep that in mind.