A little over a year ago, when Rick Perlstein published his mammoth study of “the American berserk” – the original subtitle of Nixonland – in the years between 1965 and 1972, he concluded his 748-page saga of heated hardhats and howling hippies (or was it the other way around?) by arguing that the culture and political wars of the late Sixties and early Seventies had not only not died, but had never really gone away.
Perlstein maintained that the 37th President’s legacy to the nation was “a notion that there are two kinds of Americans: one kind viewing themselves as “people of faith,” patriots, “nonshouters,” and viewing the other kind – “liberals,” “cosmopolitans,” “intellectuals” – as “un-Americans, anti-Christians, amoralists, aliens [Perlstein’s emphasis].”
The book’s final paragraphs read:
Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not.
How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.
When Nixonland appeared, several reviewers criticized that penultimate statement, and said that Perlstein clearly was mistaken to think that the passions of that time still ran as strong.
But that was last year, and now that many of this month’s “town halls” about the proposed health-care legislation across the country have featured very heated rhetoric, not only at the meetings themselves, but among the crowds assembled outside the venues, Perlstein has written an op-ed for the Washington Post that makes it clear that he considers himself vindicated in his argument.
Now, anyone following the town hall meetings closely knows that many speakers at them have been as fervent about single-payer care and the proposed legislation’s failure to incorporate it, though not as visible in TV sound bites as the ones who have been waving pocket copies of the Constitution and arguing against the bill’s big-government tendencies.
But the leftist voices at the meetings count for nothing where Perlstein is concerned. What he sees is nothing less than the return of the right-wing fervor that swept through parts of America during the Kennedy years. And the op-ed’s title, though probably the work of a dependably liberal Post staffer, sums up its attitude toward the liberatarian and conservative voices at these gatherings: “In America, Crazy Is A Pre-Existing Condition.”
Yes, all the objections raised to the mammoth scope of the bill, and to the possibility that it marks the start of a path which will see Americans turn over as large a percentage of their income to the state as was the case in Sweden at the height of its cradle-to-grave system – or perhaps more – yes, all the worries raised by hard-working citizens, in Perlstein’s opinion, are on a par with the fears of almost 50 years ago that fluoride in drinking water would brainwash children into being Communists, or whatever members of the John Birch Society were supposed to have believed in those days.
(I have to admit that sometimes fluoride does worry me a bit. The other night I was gargling with that new Listerine “Whitening Formula,” or whatever it’s called, in which the active ingredient is sodium fluoride. On the back of the bottle I noticed an instruction not to drink or eat anything for 30 minutes after using it. If the idea is to keep fluoride out of my system, then why would it be in my drinking water? But then again, my dentist tells me there’s been an upsurge in cavities because kids don’t drink as much tap water as they once did. End of digression.)
In the op-ed, Perlstein states:
Liberal power of all sorts induces an organic and crazy-making panic in a considerable number of Americans, while people with no particular susceptibility to existential terror — powerful elites — find reason to stoke and exploit that fear. And even the most ideologically fair-minded national media will always be agents of cosmopolitanism: something provincials fear as an outside elite intent on forcing different values down their throats.
Why, of course, “crazy-making panic” is endemic only to conservative Americans, otherwise defined, in the world of the Post, as those people who still insist on regarding Sarah Palin as a political force even after her daughter’s former fiance has started dating Kathy Griffin. Those thousands upon thousands (or maybe millions upon millions) of words, many of them still online, which fretted about Guantanamo in the Bush years presaging internment camps for the young and disaffected in the United States? That was legitimate political discourse, nothing irrational about it.
(As is, presumably, the post at a left-leaning site I read the other day that compared the present political situation in America to that of Germany in about 1930. Anyone for Obama as the new Heinrich Bruening?)
Although, as I write, it will be several more hours before Perlstein’s piece appears in the antiquated ink-on-paper format, it has already stirred up several dozen responses from across the political spectrum. Matt Yglesias has one of the most thoughtful posts about it on the Left. He focuses on these remarks of Perlstein’s:
You never heard the late Walter Cronkite taking time on the evening news to “debunk” claims that a proposed mental health clinic in Alaska is actually a dumping ground for right-wing critics of the president’s program, or giving the people who made those claims time to explain themselves on the air. The media didn’t adjudicate the ever-present underbrush of American paranoia as a set of “conservative claims” to weigh, horse-race-style, against liberal claims. Back then, a more confident media unequivocally labeled the civic outrage represented by such discourse as “extremist” — out of bounds.
As opposed to the “in-bounds” rhetoric of the SDS and Black Panthers, which got substantial on-air attention. But let’s look at today’s situation. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, when President Obama held his town hall meeting about health care this week, William Kostric, a self-described “free stater,” was spotted in the crowd by an MSNBC crew with a sign reading “Time To Water The Tree” (it referred to a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson, which concludes “with the blood of patriots and tyrants”) – and a gun strapped to his leg, which he had a permit to carry.
It turned out that Kostric had not simply brought the weapon to provide a headache to Secret Service personnel who had to worry about any individuals who might not be carrying weapons simply to “make a statement.” He meant for the gun to attract media attention and stir curiosity about what he wanted – which turned out to be, presumably like all the “crazies” Perlstein describes, to get on TV.
And which program finally extended an invitation to appear? Was it Glenn Beck’s show, or Sean Hannity’s, or The O’Reilly Factor, or any of the other shows which, as every schoolperson in Santa Monica or Marin County knows, are diabolically constructed by “elites” to inflame the heartland? No, it was Hardball with Chris Matthews, a show which is not usually viewed as a hotbed for “crazies.”. I assume that Kostric chose Hardball because MSNBC was the channel that gave him visibility. (He also appeared on Alex Jones’s radio talk show, a venue more along the lines of his personal views, but certainly not the creation of any media “elite.” Indeed, Michael Savage, singled out as a rabble-rouser by Perlstein, has not had Kostric appear on his program.)
Perlstein doesn’t seem to realize that most of those who are concerned about the drawbacks of the health-care bill are voicing heartfelt and rational objections. They know that every citizen of the country already is shouldering a share of the national debt equivalent to nearly a fifth of a million dollars and they hope that there’s some way to keep it from going to a quarter of a million. They were not happy with the idea of a President doing his best Lyndon Johnson imitation and insisting that Congress pass over a thousand pages of slapped-together taxes and regulations before the end of last month, before it became clear that would not happen. (And compared to the versions of the health-care bill now in the works, even the most hastily drafted bills of LBJ’s Great Society look like they were penned by James Madison or George Mason.)
But that doesn’t matter to Perlstein; for him, “the tree of crazy is an ever-present aspect of America’s flora.” However, he’s not going unchallenged about this. One of the more impressive retorts so far has come from Stephen Bainbridge, a professor at UCLA’s law school. The professor sums up the op-ed as follows: “we lefties are rational, nice, kind people who are puzzled by conservative crazies. We’ve got no crazies on our side, of course. Just nice rational people like me.” Then Bainbridge lists some “rational” responses to perceived threats from the Right by left-wing organizations, starting with the Weathermen.
Bainbridge’s post got this prompt response from Perlstein, who says: “I hate the Weathermen. Read my book. So does everyone I know on the left.”
Well, it may be that everyone Rick knows on the Left deplores what the Weathermen, as a whole, became, or some of its actions. But individual former members of the Weathermen, whether or not they still think they were justified in what they did, certainly are not hated by many of his colleagues – indeed, quite the opposite, as Bill Ayers’s recent well-attended book tour demonstrates.
And, before I forget: does Perlstein mention Richard Nixon in his article? Yes, he does, classing RN as one of the “vultures” who exploited the fears sprouting from the “tree of crazy” – and, somehow, managed, by doing so, to secure a 49-state victory in 1972.
With a little help from 47,168,710 “crazies.” Count ’em.