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Book Review

Nixonland

By Nathan Yeo
Published: October 2008

Ever shot a moose? Live in a small town? Have big guns and strong religion? Friends with a guy named Joe Six-pack? What about Joe the Plumber?

If you answered NO to any of these questions, then you are an elitist. You sip on your lattes from Starbucks in your Ivory Tower of a private high school and look down on the Americans who live anywhere between Cambridge and California. You are not a real American. In fact, there’s a decent chance you may hate America.

You don’t actually but if you have been following the presidential campaign, you may think you do.

Republicans have tried to make the 2008 Presidential Election about the “people vs. the “elite and the “Washington insiders. Republican vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin announced in Greensboro, N.C. that she was proud to be in a “pro-American part of America.

Somehow one doubts Palin believes Newton is pro-American. As the election wraps, and an Obama victory grows more plausible, Republicans have gone flat out ‘€ alleging the Democrat is a radical terrorist sympathizer who, if elected, will destroy America with his socialist, spread-the-wealth agenda.

Wow, how did America become like this?

Historian Rick Perlstein’s recent book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, part biography of Richard Nixon, part history of the Sixties, attempts an answer. Perlstein argues that Richard Nixon and the events of the tumultuous Sixties created a cultural divide in America persisting to this day. In our “fractured America, Perlstein says, we don’t just disagree with the other side; we viscerally despise them and their entire way of life.

*    *    *

When you think of the Sixties, what first comes to mind? You probably think hippies, Civil Rights movement, and protests against the Vietnam War. Perlstein argues the real history of the Sixties is the birth of the modern conservative movement and the beginning of four decades of Republican dominance.

His first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, documents the largely untold story of the rise of conservatism with Goldwater’s seemingly failed presidential candidacy culminating in his landslide defeat in 1964. Yet Nixonland is the story of the years between the twin landsides of 1964, where Lyndon Johnson won 44 states and 1972, where Nixon won 49 states.

How could America possibly change so dramatically in only eight years? Perlstein argues that Nixon, a “serial collector of resentments, cleverly gathered up all the resentment towards the miniscule number of hippies, black rioters, and draft dodgers using his dark arts to transform “them into a “Silent Majority of electoral success.

Reaching back into Nixon’s days at Whittier College, Perlstein locates the origins of Nixon’s political division tactics. The campus was run by the Franklins, a fraternity of the cool kids, the elitists on campus. Nixon was rejected by the Franklins, so he decided to start his own fraternity, the Orthogonians, or uprights. The Orthogonians’ base was the uncool students and the athletes who resented the attention received by their team’s stars. Nixon is eventually elected student body president thanks to support amongst the uncool – foreshadowing his 1968 victory thanks to America’s Orthogonians, the Silent Majority.

Nixonland takes this Orthogonians vs Franklins metaphor to the national stage, using apt detail to illustrate how Nixon exploited white, middle-class resentment over the excesses of the counterculture, often were rich kids at prestigious universities. Perlstein not only tells the stories of the turbulent Sixties, he also narrates the backlash, counter-protests, the reactionary letters to the editor, contentious school board meetings, and Right-wing violence against the Left.

But what is Nixonland, really? While Perlstein asserts the Right has most exploited cultural issues, he sees Democrats guilty of living in Nixonland too. The term “Nixonland was actually coined by Harvard’s John Kenneth Galbraith, a distinguished economist and advisor to Adalai Stevenson in the 1956 election (and JFK in 1960) ‘€

Our nation stands on a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing and shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.

Stevenson and Galbraith, Perlstein astutely points out, were not removed from this terrible place; they are “citizens in good standing. The Democrats tried to claim that if Vice President Nixon ever became president, America would be destroyed in a nuclear war. This, Perlstein writes, is a central tenant of Nixonland: if your opponents gain power, “America might end.

Such pent-up anger leads to violence. Perhaps half the book is taken up by descriptions of riots, bombings and murders. The most shocking scene is when hard-hat wearing workers start beating hippies on the steps of Federal Hall in New York City, an impromptu riot over why New York City’s flags were not flying at half-mast.

Aside its thought-provoking thesis, Nixonland is a fascinating read and useful history. Characters like Martin Luther King, the Kennedy brothers, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Regan, Abbie Hoffman, and George McGovern come to life on the pages.

The details are Nixonland’s greatest asset. We learn how delegates to the 1968 Democratic Convention cried ‘€ because Chicago police tear gas aimed at street protest seeped into the hotel ventilation. Nixonland utilizes a wide variety of primary sources. Every chapter cites from dozens of newspaper articles, along with quotes from those involved.

Perhaps the best part of the book is a riveting description of what a viewer would have seen on television had they been watching the Democratic National Convention on August 28, 1960. Perlstein’s detailed storytelling, however, has significant drawbacks. It’s almost all show and no tell, a problem for a book of 800 pages, eight of the most important years in recent American history, and hundreds of characters and events. At some point, one feels the urge to pan the camera up for a broader picture of America to avoid drowning in details.

*    *    *

Nixonland’s most important point is the fact that¦we still live there!

Or, do we? On several levels, we have almost certainly left Nixonland. Though the Bush years were divisive, there’s nowhere near the level of raw violence of the Sixties, where demonstrations and riots were a common occurrence (in part because the poor, blacks, women, Native Americans and gays came finally struggled for their place in the American story). Think Watts, Newark, Detroit; Pentagon and Selma marches; women challenging Miss America and gays at Stonewall.

By 2008 reaction to Rodney King’s brutalization by LA cops was a vague memory. Protest and crime, especially political and racial versions, greatly lessened, or, went underground. In Bush’s America, people don’t confront police in the street, firebombs banks and public buildings, or’€except for abortion clinics’€try to shoot those they disagree with.

Perlstein’s final line of the book, “It would be hard to argue [American] do not [want to kill each other], simply does not hold. America may be divided, but aside for a scattering of crazies it is not the same, by a long shot.

America also is no longer Nixonland on the issue of race, easily proven by the fact that Barack Obama, a black man, has enormous electoral support for the presidency. An Obama candidacy of such depth and breadth was inconceivable 1968 ‘€ too much racial strife for whites to vote for a black man (also, Obama would have only been seven at the time).

Much of the deracialization of politics happened during the 1990s’€a central tenant of the DNC and President Bill Clinton’s “new Democratic Party moving to the center on issues with racial undertones, such as welfare and crime, creating a national climate in which racism was publicly unacceptable and, therefore, only marginally useful politically.

The Clinton Era in effective neutralized race as a wedge issue. Clinton, however, remained a Nixon-strategy target, circumscribed by his alleged draft dodging and neo-liberal ideology ‘€his presidency ended up stalled and acrimonious.

White America finally got used to the idea of African-Americans being full members of society. The Sixties were only a few years removed from the days of Jim Crow and lynchings, discrimination pervaded society. While race issues in America today are far short of perfect, as a nation we have made significant progress since the days when unrepentant segregationists ran the Senate and Alabama’s George Wallace captured millions of votes in a national election. For all the mud thrown at Obama, the McCain campaign skirted the sermons of Obama’s incendiary pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, fearing perhaps a backlash against such transparently race-baiting tactics.

But the broader point of Nixonland ‘€ America is a land where two distinct political factions fervently believe America will end if the other side wins’€has broadly held over the past 40 years.

Republican have consistently tried to paint Democrats as elitists and in opposition to the interests of hard-working Americans. No accident several future presidents and presidential candidates appear in Nixonland on one side of the culture war or the other. Ronald Reagan enforces law and order as governor of California; George H.W. Bush runs (unsuccessfully) for Senate as a Goldwater conservative; Al Gore, though against Vietnam, enlists to avoid becoming a liability for his antiwar Senator father; Bill Clinton leads antiwar protests at the U.S. Embassy in England, where he is a Rhodes Scholar; George W. Bush, according to a newspaper reports, gets his high from flying in the Texas Air National Guard rather than taking drugs, and John Kerry leads the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in a march on Washington.

Many of the battles of the 2004 election can easily be seen in Nixonland. Perlstein recounts how John O’Neil, future leader of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, is selected by Nixon’s aides to debate the anti-war leader. Swift Boaters charge that Kerry lied about his Vietnam record successfully painting Kerry as an attention-seeking elitist, more with the hippies than the troops.

But what about the 2008 election? Are we, even today, still in Nixonland?

Scanning the Republican Party’s tactics, one might think so.

McCain has reframed Nixon’s poisoned collection of resentments and flung them one by one at Obama. Obama is “the biggest celebrity in the world, more concerned the price of arugala than the pains of ordinary Americans and McCain cuts an ad claiming Obama supported sex education for toddlers. Sarah Palin reaches back a mere four decades, accuses Obama of “palling around with terrorists, dredging up Obama’s marginal ties to a 1960′s radical, William Ayers.

Republicans reflexively accuse Obama of being a “socialist (O, the horror!) because of Obama’s suggesting to (unlicensed, tax-owing) Joe the Plumber, the need to “spread the wealth around. With the socialist smear, Republicans echo Tricky Dick Nixon’s playbook, the man who acted out McCarthyism before even McCarthy had thought of it. And yet, despite these and other attacks, a black man with a decidedly foreign name will likely be our next president. How so?

Most important is the economy. Not only has Wall Street tanked, Main Street is two paychecks away from disaster. When you threaten someone with the loss of their home, job, and life savings, they will vote for the candidate they trust more to protect those precious items. The failing American economy is the main reason why Obama is flying high instead of drowning. Voters trust his calm intelligence to lead America out of this recession or depression.

Obama’s likely victory is also indebted to the disastrous presidency of George Bush/Dick Cheney’€who have delegitimized almost every aspect of Republican domestic and foreign policy, due to the costly, endless war in Iraq; suffering in New Orleans; soaring debt at home and corrosive resentment abroad.

*    *    *

Andrew Sullivan is not your typical conservative. Sullivan is an English Tory with a deep respect for Thatcherite economics and he opposes, in principal, many elements of Obama’s policies. He is also one of Obama’s strongest supporters.

This Obama comes in part because Sullivan, a gay man, wants to burn the Republican Party to the ground to purge it of the anti-gay Christian right. But Sullivan, one of the internet’s most popular bloggers, also feels a special enthusiasm for Obama that goes far beyond what he may have felt for Hilary Clinton had she been the Democratic nominee.

Sullivan wrote in a December 2007 essay for the Atlantic Monthly that Obama was the candidate of a new generation and a man who can speak on issues of race, religion, and national security in a logical and sincere way uninfluenced by the raging culture wars of the past 40 years, or, Nixonland.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war’€not so much the war in Iraq¦ ‘€ but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war’€and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama’€and Obama alone’€offers the possibility of a truce.

The true test of an Obama presidency will not be to solve the economic crisis or withdraw from Iraq. It will be to withdraw from Nixonland and end the culture war once and for all.

Obama’s heart certainly seems to be in the right place. During the brilliant orator’s most famous speech, his address to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama spoke of “not a liberal American and a conservative America, but a United States of America.

The question is, will America follow his lead? It will be difficult for Americans to change almost half a century’s worth of political habit: to always assume the worst in others.

But if anyone can do it, it is Obama. He is an inspiration to many young people, the generation that will soon control this country. If youth follows his lead, America many indeed change more fundamentally than even America’s fundamentalists can envision.

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