Historian and journalist Rick Perlstein’s widely-praised “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” was published in 2008. His first book “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus” explores American culture in the 1960s. Perlstein’s most recent book “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” picks up where “Nixonland” ends. Perlstein is currently working on a fourth book in this series on America’s political and social fabric.
Readers will quickly discover that “Nixonland” is more a cultural and social history of the United States than a biography of Nixon. Divided into four broad sections (corresponding to the national elections in 1966, 1968, 1970 and 1972) this book explores social trends and unrest deriving largely from Vietnam and racial tensions.
Perlstein’s overarching thesis, tying together two parallel narratives involving American society and Nixon himself, is that Richard Nixon masterfully recognized, exploited and magnified cultural divisions which then persisted long past his presidency. It is a contention not easily dismissed, but many readers will appreciate that there is nothing new about America’s polarized politics (or culture).
The book begins in earnest with colorful coverage of the 1965 Watts riots, and Perlstein soon peers back in time to back-fill important details of Nixon’s early life. But coverage of his early years is far too rapid to serve as a meaningful introduction to his life. And the gripping narrative frequently proves gratuitously melodramatic.
One need not fully support Perlstein’s thesis in order to find the book both intriguing and thought-provoking. Even readers who miss a detailed review of Nixon’s political career will appreciate the keen insight into his life afforded by the author’s perspective on the social unrest which rocked Nixon’s presidency.
But Perlstein’s coverage is far sharper on evolving American culture than on Nixon’s life or political career. While Nixon’s life may be the hub of the wheel, most of the narrative is spent exploring the spokes. And it will not take many readers long to recognize that Perlstein’s view of Nixon is decidedly negative.
Throughout the book there are numerous insults and slights which convict Nixon for being a clever, calculating and even conniving politician. But given Nixon’s obvious and often obtuse faults, it is surprising that Perlstein bothers to indict his subject for the same traits exhibited by many successful politicians before – and since. But even avid fans of Nixon (as well as readers interested in his complex life) will come away from this book having learned something new.
Overall, “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” provides a unique and frequently fascinating window into the social and political fabric of Nixon’s era. It is vibrant and engaging, with dramatic characters and powerful themes. But readers hoping to observe Nixon’s presidency, his political philosophy, his ascent or downfall in detail will need to look elsewhere.
Overall rating: “ Not Rated” as a biography