Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rick Perlstein's Nixonland--Closing Thoughts

This is the second post about Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. The first part can be found here.

Perlstein had access to recent releases of White House tapes, providing a detailed look into behind-the-scenes deliberations and interactions among Nixon and various subordinates. The attitudes and motives revealed in these conversations were almost always sharply at odds with the public rationales given by Nixon and his supporters for his policies. Perlstein notes early in the book that as a child, Nixon learned from his mother’s indifference to the truth the lesson that no negative consequences need be associated with lying, something he obviously took to heart.

I remember the sixties as a chaotic time. Perlstein’s depiction of that period, buttressed by copious documentary evidence, reinforces and intensifies that impression. There was much more violence than I remembered, and I recalled a fair amount. Moreover, as Perlstein demonstrates clearly, Nixon thrived on and to the greatest degree possible, exploited chaos and social conflict. He comes across in this account as the avatar of resentment—a man fully consumed by self-pity and paranoia, who couldn’t let go of his bitterness even to savor his overwhelming election victory in 1972. Of course, knowledge that he achieved that victory by gaming the entire election may well have erased any pleasure associated with the outcome. Such are the wages of deceit.

Perlstein does a great job of dissecting Nixon’s techniques of rhetorical and psychological manipulation, describing not only what Nixon did to his opponents, but how. This was one amazingly devious character.

The aftermath of the age of Nixon was almost 40 years of GOP political dominance, during which that party continued to rely on the politics of resentment in its use of the southern strategy as a means to gain and secure political control of the south. The irony is that, like its author, the GOP now finds itself greatly reduced in stature and marginalized to the point where a number of commentators wonder whether that party has become an almost exclusively southern organization. Like Nixon, the GOP’s choice of methods brought temporary victory at the cost of its integrity. Perlstein ends his account with Nixon’s 1972 victory and downward spiral into Watergate and resignation. His account provides a great deal of foundation for further investigations into the trajectory of American politics as it has mutated since then. It is also a riveting read.