CONELRAD READ ALERT: Selected Books and Miscellaneous Tracts
Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

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

As he did with his first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), popular historian Rick Perlstein has created a memorable portrait of a legendary political figure by exploring the culture of his subject’s times. The author has chosen to focus on the years 1965 through 1972, capturing Nixon’s phoenix-like rise from has-been to twice-elected President. It is a refreshing period for Perlstein to write about because the world was not exactly crying out for another book on Nixon’s second term demise.

Nixonland is a great book for the political junkie who thinks he or she knows everything there is to know about the 37th President of the United States and the times in which he campaigned and governed. The wild ride of a description of the 1972 GOP Convention in Miami Beach, Florida is representative of some of the disparate facts Perlstein corrals into his entertaining and highly readable narrative. Who knew or who remembers that Stanley Livingston (who played the incredibly bland teen “Chip” on the long-running TV series “My Three Sons”) pitched in for the Nixon cause? Or that police had sprayed so much Mace around the convention center that the air conditioning had to be turned off (which in turn caused Jimmy Stewart to sweat profusely when introducing a film on First Lady Pat Nixon)? Or that John Wayne introduced the campaign infomercial about the President?

The 1972 Convention chapter also contains an example of how Perlstein is able to reference earlier, pivotal events in his subject’s career and convey the repetitive (and often cynical) nature of politics. The passage involves Nixon’s rhetorical use of a war-orphaned 12-year-old Russian diarist named “Tanya” (she recounts in her diary her familial loss during WWII) in a Checkers-like speech that called fro a thaw in the Cold War.

Perlstein’s ambitious and lengthy book (nearly 900 pages) has hundreds of characters and anecdotes that may well whet the reader’s appetite to do more reading on some of the points that are only briefly touched upon. For example, it is intriguing to read about a young Karl Rove’s induction into big time campaign work (With a mentor like Donald Segretti, is it any surprise that Mr. Rove wound up going so far in Republican politics?). And Perlstein’s description of the curative powers of Up with People! (the peppy, patriotic and youthful singing battalion) as sourced from a 1967 Reader’s Digest article is strange enough to make one want to go to the public library and read the original article (in it a Watts rioter who saw an Up with People! show was so moved by their inspiring message that he tried to make amends for his looting crimes). And these are just a couple of examples. The point is that while much of Perlstein’s book may be derived from secondary sources, he has an undeniable knack for choosing details that truly enliven the history that he is writing about. His writing style is engaging and often so observationally humorous that it elicited chuckles from this reviewer. However, there are other times where a too-cute-by-half reference prompts groans (one Buffalo Springfield song title invocation is especially painful). But on the whole, Nixonland is a welcome and unique addition to the Nixon bibliography and one well worth reading for pleasure or for serious study.

By the way, the headline blurb for this review ("Happiness is Nixon") comes from one of the campaign buttons found at the 1972 Republican Convention that Perlstein describes in the book. Other souvenir buttons from '72 included "Nixon is Love" and "Nixon Cares." There was also a McGovern boxing figure accessorized with a white flag of surrender on sale at the convention hall. Was this Rove's idea?
NIXONLAND: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
Copyright 2008 by Scribner, New York
881 pages

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