Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

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Overview

Told with urgency and sharp political insight, Nixonland recaptures America's turbulent 1960s and early 1970s and reveals how Richard Nixon rose from the political grave to seize and hold the presidency.

Perlstein's epic account begins in the blood and fire of the 1965 Watts riots, nine months after Lyndon Johnson's historic landslide victory over Barry Goldwater appeared to herald a permanent liberal consensus in the United States. Yet the next year, scores of liberals were tossed out of Congress, America was more divided than ever, and a disgraced politician was on his way to a shocking comeback: Richard Nixon.

Between 1965 and 1972, America experienced no less than a second civil war. Out of its ashes, the political world we know now was born. It was the era not only of Nixon, Johnson, Spiro Agnew, Hubert H. Humphrey, George McGovern, Richard J. Daley, and George Wallace but Abbie Hoffman, Ronald Reagan, Angela Davis, Ted Kennedy, Charles Manson, John Lindsay, and Jane Fonda. There are tantalizing glimpses of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Jesse Jackson, John Kerry, and even of two ambitious young men named Karl Rove and William Clinton — and a not so ambitious young man named George W. Bush.

Cataclysms tell the story of Nixonland:

  • Angry blacks burning down their neighborhoods in cities across the land as white suburbanites defend home and hearth with shotguns
  • The student insurgency over the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
  • The fissuring of the Democratic Party into warring factions manipulated by the "dirty tricks" of Nixon and his Committee to Re-Elect the President
  • Richard Nixon pledging a new dawn of national unity, governing more divisively than any president before him, then directing a criminal conspiracy, the Watergate cover-up, from the Oval Office

Then, in November 1972, Nixon, harvesting the bitterness and resentment born of America's turmoil, was reelected in a landslide even bigger than Johnson's 1964 victory, not only setting the stage for his dramatic 1974 resignation but defining the terms of the ideological divide that characterizes America today.

Filled with prodigious research and driven by a powerful narrative, Rick Perlstein's magisterial account of how America divided confirms his place as one of our country's most celebrated historians.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Richard Milhous Nixon has been called the Darth Vader of American politics, a disgraced figure who still casts an enormous shadow on our public life. Of course, much of the story of the Nixon presidency is familiar, but Rick Perlstein does much more than rehash stories of the Watergate break-in and enemy lists. Instead, Nixonland describes how the two-term Republican president used urban riots, antiwar protests, and counterculture rebellion to accent his own platform of old-fashioned American values, law and order, and demonstrative patriotism. Perlstein doesn't regard this as distant history: He notes that George H. W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld all burst onto the scene during the Nixon administration.
From the Publisher
"A richly detailed descent into the inferno — that is, the years when Richard Milhous Nixon, 'a serial collector of resentments,' ruled the land." — Kirkus Reviews

"Nixonland is a grand historical epic. Rick Perlstein has turned a story we think we know — American politics between the opposing presidential landslides of 1964 and 1972 — into an often surprising and always fascinating new narrative. This riveting book, full of colorful detail and great characters, brings back to life an astonishing era — and shines a new light on our own." — Jeffrey Toobin author of The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court

"This is a terrific read. What a delight it is to discover the new generation of historians like Rick Perlstein not only getting history correct but giving us all fresh insights and understanding of it." — John W. Dean Nixon's White House counsel

"Rick Perlstein has written a fascinating account of the rise of Richard Nixon and a persuasive argument that this angry, toxic man will always be part of the American landscape." — Richard Reeves author of President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination

"Rick Perlstein's Nixonland digs deep into a decisive period of our history and brings back a past that is all the scarier for its intense humanity. With a firm grasp on the larger meaning of countless events and personalities, many of them long forgotten, Perlstein superbly shows how paranoia and innuendo flowed into the mainstream of American politics after 1968, creating divisive passions that have survived for decades." — Sean Wilentz Princeton University, author of The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008

"The mest book written about the 1960s." — Newsweek

Elizabeth Drew
There is so much literature about various aspects of Richard Nixon…that it would seem difficult to find an original approach to the man. But, in Nixonland, Rick Perlstein has come up with the novel and important idea of exploring the relationship between Nixon and the 1960s counterculture, a rebellion of mostly young people against society's conventions and authority in general. Perlstein is quite right in identifying this rebellion—and the reaction against it—as critical to Nixon's rise and his strange hold on the American people. One might even consider Perlstein's book to be primarily about the counterculture and only secondarily about Nixon, since he devotes nearly half of it to a brilliant evocation of the '60s…[Perlstein] has done a prodigious amount of research to give us a fat volume on a key figure who shifted our political ground. Perlstein is a fine writer with a well-developed capacity for seeing irony and absurdity; his storytelling skills make this an absorbing book, full of surprising details.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Perlstein, winner of a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, provides a compelling account of Richard Nixon as a masterful harvester of negative energy, turning the turmoil of the 1960s into a ladder to political notoriety. Perlstein's key narrative begins at about the time of the Watts riots, in the shadow of Lyndon Johnson's overwhelming 1964 victory at the polls against Goldwater, which left America's conservative movement broken. Through shrewdly selected anecdotes, Perlstein demonstrates the many ways Nixon used riots, anti-Vietnam War protests, the drug culture and other displays of unrest as an easy relief against which to frame his pitch for his narrow win of 1968 and landslide victory of 1972. Nixon spoke of solid, old-fashioned American values, law and order and respect for the traditional hierarchy. In this way, says Perlstein, Nixon created a new dividing line in the rhetoric of American political life that remains with us today. At the same time, Perlstein illuminates the many demons that haunted Nixon, especially how he came to view his political adversaries as "enemies" of both himself and the nation and brought about his own downfall. 16 pages of b&w photos. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A richly detailed descent into the inferno-that is, the years when Richard Milhouse Nixon, "a serial collector of resentments," ruled the land. Nixon, notes Perlstein (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, 2001), entered office in 1969 as a minority president, having narrowly won a three-way race. He determined to improve his lot by banking much political capital on a Republican sweep of Congress in 1970, the odds for such a sweep having improved over the decade with the spectacular rise of the conservative Sun Belt. Yet the Republicans were soundly defeated, which, by Perlstein's account, cast an already paranoiac, enemies-list-keeping Nixon into a blue funk and the dead certainty that his enemies had it in for not just him but all that was right and good about America. Thus the rise of Nixonland, a nation born of cultural civil war. Perlstein works the Nixonland notion to near-schtickery, but the point is well-taken, for the culture war that Pat Buchanan talks of today was born of the battle between so-called counterculture and the sector whom Nixon brilliantly conceived as the "silent majority." "If you were a normal American and angry at the [Vietnam] war," his campaign rhetoric assured, "President Nixon was the peacenik for you." Not, alas, as long as Henry Kissinger had any say in the matter. The culture war was much more than rhetorical, Perlstein adds: Those construction workers in New York beat up women protestors as well as men, hippies were regularly murdered out in the hinterlands and Nixon's advance men made sure to "allow enough dissenters into the staging areas" where his speeches would be made to make sufficient fuss that thepresident, with nary a spontaneous bone in his body, could make stentorian noises in reply to the effect of "I told you so." Strangely, it all worked: Nixon won the 1972 election hands-down, the services of the plumbers having been entirely unneeded. He even carried Chicago. A solid work of political history, if necessarily long and grim in the telling.
Kirkus Reviews

In its hardcover format, Nixonland succeeded in telling the complicated story of the 1960s partly through a deft use of narration based on the medium most Americans relied on in that turbulent decade: network TV news reports. This enhanced e-book version replaces the photos illustrating the book with more than 30 contemporary video clips scattered throughout, all made available by CBS News.

The videos, few longer than two minutes and most considerably shorter, cover race riots, anti-war demonstrations, assassinations, the war in Vietnam, the chaos of the 1968 Democratic convention, presidential speeches to the nation and so on. Some of these replace and augment the coverage in Perlstein's book based on NBC or ABC reports. Others, which Perlstein described in the text, are illuminating: for example, a segment on Stokely Carmichael's introduction of the establishment-quaking phrase "black power" to the national discussion during an angry demonstration in Mississippi, and Walter Cronkite's meticulous detailing of what was then known of the Watergate scandal, before Watergate had even become a household word. Despite Perlstein's claim to CBS News' Bob Schieffer, in a video introduction to these media enhancements, that these clips "complete" the book, a hard-copy reader of Nixonland probably would not lose much, if anything, from skipping this enhanced version.

Still, anyone who has not already read this essential history of the Nixonization of America, and especially anyone who did not live through the era, would do well to dig into this meaty book in this multimedia format.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743243032
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 4/14/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 896
  • Sales rank: 262,061
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a New York Times bestseller picked as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by over a dozen publications; Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history and appeared on the best books of the year lists of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. His essays and book reviews have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, The Village Voice, and Slate, among others. He has received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for independent scholars. He lives in Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

Preface

In 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won practically the biggest landslide in American history, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes. In 1972, the Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon won a strikingly similar landslide — 60.67 percent and 520 electoral college votes. In the eight years in between, the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire. This is a book about how that happened, and why.

At the start of 1965, when those eight years began, blood and fire weren't supposed to be a part of American culture and politics. According to the pundits, America was more united and at peace with itself than ever. Five years later, a pretty young Quaker girl from Philadelphia, a winner of a Decency Award from the Kiwanis Club, was cross-examined in the trial of seven Americans charged with conspiring to start a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

"You practice shooting an M1 yourself, don't you?" the prosecutor asked her.

"Yes, I do," she responded.

"You also practice karate, don't you?"

"Yes, I do."

"That is for the revolution, isn't it?"

"After Chicago I changed from being a pacifist to the realization that we had to defend ourselves. A nonviolent revolution was impossible. I desperately wish it was possible."

And, several months after that, an ordinary Chicago ad salesman would be telling Time magazine, "I'm getting to feel like I'd actually enjoy going out and shooting some of these people. I'm just so goddamned mad. They're trying to destroy everything I've worked for — for myself, my wife, and my children."

This American story is told in four sections, corresponding to four elections: in 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972. Politicians, always reading the cultural winds, make their life's work convincing 50 percent plus one of their constituency that they understand their fears and hopes, can honor and redeem them, can make them safe and lead them toward their dreams. Studying the process by which a notably successful politician achieves that task, again and again, across changing cultural conditions, is a deep way into an understanding of those fears and dreams — and especially, how those fears and dreams change.

The crucial figure in common to all these elections was Richard Nixon — the brilliant and tormented man struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s. His story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon's character — his own overwhelming angers, anxieties, and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos — sparks the combustion. But there was nothing natural or inevitable about how he did it — nothing inevitable in the idea that a president could come to power by using the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s. Indeed, he was slow to the realization. He reached it, through the 1966 election, studying others: notably, Ronald Reagan, who won the governorship of California by providing a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn't seemed like voting issues at all. If it hadn't been for the shocking defeats of a passel of LBJ liberals blindsided in 1966 by a conservative politics of "law and order," things might have turned out differently: Nixon might have run on a platform not too different from that of the LBJ liberals instead of one that cast them as American villains.

Nixon's win in 1968 was agonizingly close: he began his first term as a minority president. But the way he achieved that narrow victory seemed to point the way toward an entire new political alignment from the one that had been stable since FDR and the Depression. Next, Nixon bet his presidency, in the 1970 congressional elections, on the idea that an "emerging Republican majority" — rooted in the conservative South and Southwest, seething with rage over the destabilizing movements challenging the Vietnam War, white political power, and virtually every traditional cultural norm — could give him a governing majority in Congress. But when Republican candidates suffered humiliating defeats in 1970, Nixon blamed the chicanery of his enemies: America's enemies, he had learned to think of them. He grew yet more determined to destroy them, because of what he was convinced was their determination to destroy him.

Millions of Americans recognized the balance of forces in the exact same way — that America was engulfed in a pitched battle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light. The only thing was: Americans disagreed radically over which side was which. By 1972, defining that order of battle as one between "people who identified with what Richard Nixon stood for" and "people who despised what Richard Nixon stood for" was as good a description as any other.

Richard Nixon, now, is long dead. But these sides have hardly changed. We now call them "red" or "blue" America, and whether one or the other wins the temporary allegiances of 50 percent plus one of the electorate — or 40 percent of the electorate, or 60 percent of the electorate — has been the narrative of every election since. It promises to be thus for another generation. But the size of the constituencies that sort into one or the other of the coalitions will always be temporary.

The main character in Nixonland is not Richard Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name — but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.

Copyright © 2008 by Rick Perlstein

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Table of Contents

CONTENTS

Preface

BOOK I

1 Hell in the City of Angels

2 The Orthogonian

3 The Stench

4 Ronald Reagan

5 Long, Hot Summer

6 School Was in Session...

7 Batting Average

BOOK II

8 The Bombing

9 Summer of Love

10 In Which a Cruise Ship Full of Governors Inspires Considerations on the Nature of Old and New Politics

11 Fed-up-niks

12 The Sky's the Limit

13 Violence

14 From Miami to the Siege of Chicago

15 Wednesday, August 28, 1968

16 Winning

BOOK III

17 The First One Hundred Days

18 Trust

19 If Gold Rust

20 The Presidential Offensive

21 The Polarization

22 Tourniquet

23 Mayday

24 Purity

25 Agnew's Election

BOOK IV

26 How to Survive the Debacle

27 Cruelest Month

28 Ping-Pong

29 The Coven

30 The Party of Jefferson, Jackson, and George Wallace

31 The Spring Offensive

32 Celebrities

33 In Which Playboy Bunnies, and Barbarella, and Tanya, Inspire Theoretical Considerations upon the Nature of Democracy

34 Not Half Enough

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Acknowledgments

Index

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  • Anonymous

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    Nixon Rocks

    Richard Nixon rocks. He has great stradegies to to help him get elected and to help end the Vietnam War. Nixon may not be popular as a president but he did sign a lot of liberal legislation such as Rehab Act of 1973, Environmental Laws, and Affirmative Action. Nixon brought us level with China and the World Trade Center was built. Nixon could have been great as Eisenhower, FDR, Truman, Kennedy, or Lincoln. Honestly he wasn't. He made mistakes that costed him his job, his family, and his country. Honestly, If I gave Nixon a rating 1 to 10 he would get a 5.5. Nixon still rocks because he never gives up.

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