Review: Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

Just finished my most recent audiobook, Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. It's hard to review because I did not enjoy the actual listening experience--like, at all--but, having finished it, I'm satisfied and feel like I learned a lot. Part of my frustration comes, I think, from poor choices in the book's structure. It starts out narrowly focused on Nixon's personal biography and rushes through the first fifty-odd years of his life. I wanted a broader context and more detail, especially after he first entered politics. I kept hearing names that never stuck, references to events I understood only vaguely, and I felt like I was trying to climb up a waterfall, with so much information rushing out at me and nothing to hold onto.

Really, for the first two hundred pages or so, I hated Nixonland.

But once Perlstein has reached the 1968 presidential campaign, he takes a deep breath. He widens his focus to include popular movements, public figures, other branches of government, major events (most of them tragic--good lord, why did I ever think it would have been fun or romantic to be alive in 1968? What a terrible year), and goes into much more detail. The book opens up; all of a sudden it's about the whole country, not just one man. A much more satisfying experience.

In retrospect, it's clear that Nixonland is really about Nixon's first term in office. Everything before the '68 election is rushed, and the book is almost excruciatingly thorough until it ends at Nixon's re-election in 1972. The end was unpleasantly abrupt, even though it's an 800 page behemoth and I wasn't craving more time with it.

Partly because of the audiobook narrator, Stephen R. Thorne. His voice was perfectly suited to the text--harsh, disgruntled, hectoring. He read every line as though he were mumbling an insult about you from three feet away & made a chronicle of ugly events that much more repulsive.

But I was eager to read Nixonland because I've never understood even the biggest scandals from his presidency--not Vietnam, not Watergate. I had not realized (this is a sentence full of my total ignorance, which I offer up as penance) that JFK's brother Robert Kennedy had been assassinated while running against Nixon in '68, or that Nixon had been a two-term Vice President before he was elected President. I mean, it's staggering how much I did not know.

So Nixonland filled in a lot of gaps.

Perlstein describes Nixon as a pure politician. A brilliant and brutal strategist who cared more about winning than about any of the issues of the day. Whose ability to win, in fact, depended on his ability to set aside (or sell out) all moral qualms.

Perlstein paints him as driven by resentment, grudging and competitive. He ascribes to Nixon two kinds of political genius: an ability to harness the resentments of people who feel inferior or hard done by, and an ability to triumph by sowing division in the field around him. He traces these innovations back to Nixon's time in college, when his resentment against an elite literary club, the Franklin Society, led him to found a club of his own--the Orthogonians. As a conceit, I found this both illuminating and flattening, reducing most of his adult decisions to a schoolyard mentality. On the other hand, many of Nixon's political opponents--JFK, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney--were  exactly the 'Franklin' type: handsome, noble, likable...and filthy, stinking rich. (So, you know, everything Nixon was not).

There's a bit at the end, when Perlstein quotes Bob Dole's speech at Nixon's funeral, something about how eventually we'll recognize that Nixon defined American politics in the latter half of the twentieth century. And Perlstein says: Dole is right, but not in the way he thinks. His vision of 'Nixonland' is a country divided, wedged into enemy factions, with corruption filling the gap. The contemporary resonance  is strong. Depressingly strong. The politics of division has, as I'm writing this, ground the government to a halt.

Some history books gloss over a lot but still feel complete. They give the impression of having covered all the important stuff, and leave you free to move on. Nixonland isn't like that. Even where it's most thorough, about protest movements or campaigns, the profusion of detail reveals the presence of missing threads. I think it would be easy to use this book as a jumping off point--when I heard an Economist podcast today about a new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass, I thought: oh, man, I could keep going. On and on, until I've drowned in a whole library of material.

And still never really understand.

Liz over at My Extensive Reading recommended this one to me. I'm tempted to recommend this on to others but...I dunno. Maybe? If you feel like wallowing in sour milk for 40-50 hours.