It has now been about a half-year since Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland was published, and some time back I noticed that no review had appeared in The American Spectator, a magazine avidly read by the 37th President and usually not a place where major books about him go unnoticed.
Well, Perlstein’s book is finally discussed in TAS’s November issue, which you’ll have to buy or browse at a store, for it’s not online. The author of the review is none other than Tom Charles Huston – one of the most important figures in Young Americans For Freedom in the mid-1960s, associate counsel at the Nixon White House during the administration’s first two years, and, of course, author of the 1970 “Huston Plan” which presented a comprehensive proposal for coordination of the FBI, CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, and local law enforcement to combat the threat to the United States posed by violent antiwar and anti-government radicals, such as the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground.
This plan was never implemented primarily because of objections from the aging J. Edgar Hoover, who viewed it as a threat to the FBI’s autonomy, and Huston left government service in 1971 to become an attorney in his native Indianapolis, where he has practiced ever since. During the last 37 years he has been prominent in efforts to preserve the Hoosier State’s historical sites, but has not been heard from concerning the years in which he was an up-and-coming figure on the political stage. Possibly as a result of this silence, he has tended to be among the figures most demonized in the vast anti-Nixon literature, especially after 1973 when his “plan” came to public notice during the Senate Watergate hearings.
But it now appears that Huston is ready to come out of the cold, so to speak. Earlier this year I was surprised to find his name among the list of interviewees in James Rosen’s fine biography of John Mitchell, The Strong Man, and even more surprised when Rosen told me that Huston had spoken at considerable length about his White House years, though little from this talk appeared in the finished volume, which focused on the period after Huston left Washington. And, to judge from the TAS review of Nixonland, Huston has much more to say.
The review vigorously pans Perlstein’s book, to such a degree that it makes Conrad Black’s scathing New York Sun notice almost look like a Harriet Klausner five-star puff from Amazon. After listing such descriptions in the book as Strom Thurmond being called a “dirty-neck” and Robert Kennedy referred to as “Senator Love Beads,” Huston remarks: “This sort of language may be pitch-perfect for a duet with Keith Olbermann on Countdown but is hardly appropriate for an allegedly serious work of history.”
“There is a point at which the frequency of factual errors raises the legitimate question of whether the author is a scholar or transcriber,” the reviewer continues, and then cites a half-dozen examples, including several that even escaped Jack Pitney’s watchful eye. Huston also takes issue with Perlstein’s beloved Orthogonians-vs-Franklins dichotomy, noting that the historian uses the terms as “trap doors through which the author conveniently disposes of men and ideas he is unwilling to confront on their own terms.”
Toward the end of the review Huston takes strong exception to Perlstein’s argument that the Nixon years represented a battle between two equally sized, equally bloody-minded factions for the soul of the Republic:
The decade of the 1960s was the most turbulent in America since that which began with John Brown’s Kansas raids and ended at Appomattox Courthouse. There was a lot of anger, a lot of goofiness, and an indecent amount of violence. It commenced on Lyndon Johnson’s watch, during the high tide of liberalism. Richard Nixon didn’t cause it; he inherited it. The deranged landscape of the 1960s was the product of a liberalism untethered from common sense and good judgment, which elicited a reaction that was often ill considered and ill advised but was hardly homicidal. There were, of course, extremists who resorted to violence and haters who, while less lethal, were nonetheless menacing, but these were outriders, not mainstreamers. The very notion that the mass of Americans were prepared to kill each other over their political and cultural differences is more than nonsense; it is a calumny.
One wonders if Huston, when he speaks of an “ill-considered and ill-advised” reaction to rampant New Leftism, is thinking in retrospect about his “plan” which provided, on the assumption that extraconstitutional measures were needed to combat violent radicals, for the opening of mail, wiretaps, and an increased use of campus informants. (It is a little-remembered fact that some of the Libertarian Party’s founders-to-be were among Huston’s closest associates in the YAF, which would suggest that his 1970 proposals were intended to be a response to a wartime crisis and applicable only for the duration such a threat existed.) It may be that, as his professional career winds down, we’ll be hearing more from him in the future. Which is all for the best, since he was among the genuine intellectuals in the Nixon White House and, as his review makes clear, has read extensively and carefully in American history and can take the long view regarding the era in which he played a brief but significant part.