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Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image

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How an image-obsessed president transformed the way we think about politics and politicians.
To his conservative supporters in 1940s southern California, Richard Nixon was a populist everyman; to liberal intellectuals of the 1950s, he was "Tricky Dick," a devious manipulator; to 1960s radicals, a shadowy conspirator; to the Washington press corps, a pioneering spin doctor; to his loyal Middle Americans, a victim of liberal hatred; to recent historians, an unlikely liberal. ...
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How an image-obsessed president transformed the way we think about politics and politicians.
To his conservative supporters in 1940s southern California, Richard Nixon was a populist everyman; to liberal intellectuals of the 1950s, he was "Tricky Dick," a devious manipulator; to 1960s radicals, a shadowy conspirator; to the Washington press corps, a pioneering spin doctor; to his loyal Middle Americans, a victim of liberal hatred; to recent historians, an unlikely liberal. Nixon's Shadow rediscovers these competing images of the protean Nixon, showing how each was created and disseminated in American culture and how Nixon's tinkering with his own image often backfired. During Nixon's long tenure on the national stage—and through the succession of "new Nixons" so brilliantly described here—Americans came to realize how thoroughly politics relies on manipulation. Since Nixon, it has become impossible to discuss politics without asking: What is the politician's "real" character? How authentic or inauthentic is he? What image is he trying to project? More than what Nixon did, this fascinating book reveals what Nixon meant.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
David Greenberg's volume arrives at an opportune moment. Greenberg seeks to place Richard Nixon in his full habitat, exploring not just the contours of his life, but the different ways he was perceived -- accurately and inaccurately. Like Merrill Peterson, who studied the images of Jefferson and Lincoln, and Walter Isaacson, who added a thoughtful meditation on Franklin's shifting personae to his new profile, Greenberg is after something more complicated than mere biography. His approach in Nixon's Shadow verges on anthropology, using a single specimen to draw conclusions about the larger tribe and its cannibalistic rituals. — Ted Widmer
Jay Parini
...[an] enthralling, compulsively readable book.... Digging into a plethora of sources, including print archives, biographies, newsreels, movies, plays, songs and cartoons, he turns the image of Nixon around like a many-sided jewel, seeing how the light shines differently through each facet.
The Guardian (London)
Publishers Weekly
In this aptly named study, Greenberg, a Bancroft Prize winner who also collaborated with Bob Woodward on The Agenda, sedulously avoids value judgments about the effectiveness of Richard Nixon's policies, offering instead a kaleidoscopic view of the man's many images: as Tricky Dick, as conspirator, as victim, as statesman, among others. Borrowing Woodward's device of calibrating his subjects through the eyes of others, Greenberg presents the opinions of Nixon loyalists, Nixon haters, pundits from the left and right, mainstream historians, revisionist historians, psychobiographers, the Washington press corps and members of the foreign policy establishment. According to Greenberg, this retrospective shows Nixon to have been the first postmodern president, the first whose image was purposefully manipulated for political reasons and without regard to accomplishments. The author also argues that the key to understanding Nixon is not in "discarding the many images of him... but [in] gathering and assembling them into a strange, irregular, mosaic." But with an impressive number of viewpoints sampled, hundreds of sources quoted and even TV shows Laugh-In and Saturday Night Live plumbed for Nixon references, readers may find the citations overwhelming. Still, for sheer drama, Nixon's career remains worthy of review, from his red-baiting 1950 Senate campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas, his involvement in the Alger Hiss perjury case and the infamous "Checkers" speech to the Khrushchev kitchen debate, his China policy and the political drama of the century, Watergate. Greenberg's thoroughly researched book, despite its faults, brightly illuminates the passionate public responses that swirled around one of the most controversial politicians of our times. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Theodore White, the late, respected political pundit, called Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon "the most enduring American politicians of the 20th century." In this vibrant account of Richard Nixon as a cultural icon-the first book on this columnist Greenberg shows why White's summation aptly applies to Nixon. This investigation demonstrates how Nixon's sympathizers-conservatives, loyalists, and members of the foreign policy establishment-and his detractors-psychobiographers, the New Left, and liberals-responded to his political shape shifting. Ultimately, Nixon was less than successful at crafting a statesman image to hide his "tricky Dick" reputation, which was burnished by the Watergate scandal, asserts Greenberg. Included here are many anecdotes of how Nixon is portrayed in novels, films, television, popular music, poetry, and even opera. Revisionist historians during the 1990s recast Nixon as a kind of liberal, which shows that Nixon's shadows continue to change a decade after his death. This social history reveals Nixon's complex public and political personas as no chronological biography has done to date. Highly recommended for most public library and all academic collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/03.]-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"No postwar politician did more to educate Americans to the primacy of image in politics" than Richard Nixon. So argues historian Greenberg in a rich work full of lessons and implications for spin doctors. Richard Milhous Nixon lent himself to caricature throughout his long political career: famed for his five o'clock shadow at all hours of the day, for his sweaty brow, for his ski nose, he paid the mortgages for countless editorial cartoonists. This was not the legacy he sought, though Nixon was long aware of the need for a modern president to convey a memorable image at all times; in fact, Nixon reflected in one of his many memoirs, "In the modern presidency, concern for image must rank with concern for substance." But Nixon, Greenberg argues, indeed authored that legacy and more: he gave us our current common-man image of the president, whether believable or not in his case, which did much for the rise of conservative populism; and in countless other ways he "nourished a culture in which the traffic in imagery was a constant and overriding concern." Greenberg gets down to quite specific cases: he demonstrates, for instance, that Nixon carefully arranged for the famed May 1972 summit on strategic-arms limitations to be held in Moscow not to achieve greater public support for detente, but instead, as Charles Colson put it, "to strengthen the president's image as one of the great world leaders of the century"; he constantly shifted political stances and alliances to keep what he imagined to be the most voter-friendly image before the public view, such that today no one can quite agree whether he was a conservative or a liberal; and in the final days, he even conspired to lock reporters inthe White House press room so that he could have a moment away from the cameras he had always courted, "unmolested and unobserved." Thought-provoking from start to finish. Agents: Andrew Wylie, Sarah Chalfant/Wylie Agency
Bob Woodward
“A brilliant book full of fresh insight and analysis by one of the most original young minds among professional historians. The first serious and comprehensive look at Nixon by a writer of the new generation, Nixon's Shadow is thoroughly fair-minded and yet critical. Under the scholarly microscope Nixon again fails to conceal his self-inflicted wounds.”
Jeff Greenfield - Washington Monthly
“I am hard pressed to think of a book on politics as bracing and original as this one.”
Robert Dallek
“Groundbreaking....A landmark in Nixon scholarship.”
Wall Street Journal
“[Greenberg] goes boldly where few men (and fewer liberal historians) have gone before.”
Washington Post Book World
“A richly informed, attractively written history.”
The Guardian
“Enthralling, compulsively readable.”
Christian Science Monitor
“A penetrating analysis of how the president's legacy has altered American politics irrevocably.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393048964
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/22/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 460
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.64 (h) x 1.55 (d)

Meet the Author

David Greenberg teaches history at Yale University. Formerly an editor of The New Republic, he writes for Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other national publications. He lives in Manhattan and in New Haven.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2004

    Not much substance

    Try to grasp a shadow and you¿ll learn what you already knew. They¿re pretty insubstantial. Fittingly so is David Greenberg¿s book on Nixon¿s. To anyone who lived through the Nixon years, or who has read through the Nixon literature, Greenberg offers little that¿s new. Ambrose¿s biography, Garry Wills¿ exegesis, or even Theodore H. White¿s apologia is solider matter. Of course Greenberg contends he¿s writing about the evolution of Nixon¿s ¿image¿¿roughly speaking, the interaction between what Nixon wanted people to think about him, what people came to think about him, and how what people thought about him came, in turn, to change the way Nixon tried to get people to think about him. Still the fundamental problem about Nixon is that none of the image-making apparatus (public relations ploys, media manipulation, etc.) changed the fact that most people wanted to know about the ¿truth,¿ not the image. Finally, in the end, perhaps Nixon was brought down because a majority of folks made that, not the magic of image-making, their lodestar. Greenberg suggests that, after Nixon, politics and presidential aspirations, were forever changed, that TV and the electronic image of the candidates became of central importance to political campaigns. Politicians were expected to have personalities, appearances, prose, and media apparatus as polished as any pop diva¿s. The old business of party political platforms and a political philosophy was right out the window. Too true. But I wonder, if only the form, and not the substance of this aspect of politics has changed. I can¿t think of a president who did not engage in polishing their image to fit their aspirations: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, the list goes on. What¿s changed is the media, not the fundamental problem. What¿s dangerous is Greenberg¿s suggestion that the Nixon problem basically boiled down to a sort of downward spiraling tango between Nixon and his ¿enemies.¿ The more Nixon was hated by his opponents, the more Nixon hated them. The more Nixon hated his enemies, the more he did to cause his enemies to hate him. This verges on excusing Nixon from any responsibility for his politics. Perhaps the lesson of this is that political careers too clouded with failures and disappointments should be short. Loosing elections too often lengthens the list of political enemies to dangerous levels. By 1968, Nixon had pursued his obsession too long and had built up a reservoir of resentments he was bound to unleash.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2003

    A Must-Read for Anyone Interested in U.S. Politics

    Greenberg's provocative, insightful, and artfully written book represents a quantum leap forward in understanding Richard Nixon, image-making in American politics, and indeed politics itself. The book is organized in a series of highly readable, engrossing chapters, each chronicling a different group of Nixon lovers, haters, critics, apologists, etc. It's a highly innovative approach perfectly suited to the subject matter.

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