American history, biographies, book reviews, presidential biographies, Richard Nixon, Rick Perlstein
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
Christopher Saunders said:
This is a fair assessment. Perlstein’s books were a major inspiration for me to study conservative politics in college and I blame him, at least in part, for my ongoing Nixon obsession. This book is a wonderful sociocultural history of the Sixties but, oddly enough, I consider its treatment of Nixon (ostensibly the central figure) to be one of its weakest facets. Whereas Perlstein can muster some sympathy for Barry Goldwater in his previous book, he loathes Nixon and treats him almost as a cartoon supervillain. (That he draws heavily on Fawn Brodie’s sensationalist psychobiography says a lot.) That said, Perlstein has such a vivid eye for events, a skill for portraits of other political figures and a wry sense of humor that I can’t help loving this book.
I haven’t read Perlstein’s other books and although they don’t fit neatly into a category I’m reading or plan to soon read I’m definitely intrigued. I may have to just find the time to fit his other books into a long beach vacation – his books on the Goldwater and Nixon-to-Reagan eras both sound promising and his writing style is, as you say, vivid.
Larry Dickerson said:
For some reason this one of the early books I downloaded on Kindle. Only got halfway through because it was clearly a political screed. And there is nothing wrong with that, but somehow it seems to start off as if it is a social history of the 60s centered around RMN. However there is just too much out right making fun of Nixon and his team to make it anywhere near a dispassionate recounting of the times. I would rather read a serious take on what is obviously a flawed man and a flawed administration.
Christopher Saunders said:
Perlstein definitely becomes less and less objective as the series goes along. Invisible Bridge irked me for that reason, as his portrait of Reagan is a one-note caricature (and I speak as a liberal Democrat who harbors little affection for Reagan), not to mention the rambling and pointless cultural digressions that eventually consume the book. Hopefully his fourth book will be more balanced, though since Reagan will be even more central to his narrative I doubt it.
J. Jensen said:
Your concerns have been realized. Perlstein’s 4th book is by far his least objective of the bunch. His deep rooted hatred of Reagan is very evident. He makes absurd statements trying to emphasize Reagan was racist, such as when Reagan visited cities with racists, saying “Reagan visited the hotbed of racism…” when the visit had nothing to do with race. He also grossly misrepresents Reagan’s involvement in 1978 with helping defeat the anti-gay referendum Prop 6 in California. He flat out lies about things involving that, and I know first hand as I had relatives directly involved in that effort who knew Reagan very well, worked with him daily, and have clear documentation to back them up. But Perlstein shows little interest in being objective, as his research of the 1980 campaign relies ONLY on liberal or far left historians and offers no interviews with or quotes from surviving members who worked directly with the campaign. Indeed, he makes no reference to or mention of MANY highly distinguished Reagan historians whose scholarship on this period of Reagan’s life is prolific and qualifies them as the preeminent experts. Perhaps it’s because in “The Invisible Bridge” he lifted over 50 phrases from one of their works, Craig Shirley’s “Reagan’s Revolution,” and failed to cite Shirley anywhere (of course, he didn’t cite anyone in that book as it has no footnotes or sources).
Admittedly, I have some bias as I have Reagan in my top 5 greatest presidents. But having studied him for nearly 20 years and even spoken as a guest of the Reagan Presidential Library due to my research, I feel like I know the man quite well. My own relatives were close friends of his for 40 years. I own and acknowledge my bias (I feel it’s simply part of my efforts to be academically honest, we all have bias, I try to own mine), but as a trained historian, I don’t let my bias blind me. I see people only as far as the facts and evidence illuminates them before me, and I don’t shy away from their weaknesses and failures. I judge others as I hope they judge me, capable of goodness despite my many weaknesses. I like the whole package, and Perlstein does not. Perlstein’s research is very one-sided and focused on proving the correctness of his predetermined opinions. Among them being that Jimmy Carter was a better president than Reagan and that Carter was right on a lot of issues that voters weren’t smart enough to understand. Whenever Perlstein acknowledges something positive from Reagan, it is begrudging and often accompanied by a “Yeah, BUT” statement designed to undercut the victory in any way possible. Perlstein tries to paint Reagan as a racist in the 1980 campaign, but conveniently overlooks the fact that Carter launched his own 1980 campaign in an Alabama hotbed of the KKK where “Segregation Forever” George Wallace was brought up on stage where Carter’s daughter Amy embraced him with a kiss on the cheek. Does it mean Carter’s a racist? Absolutely not. But in a book trying to illustrate potential racist undertones of a presidential campaign, it’s a very pertinent point that should be considered.
Christopher Saunders said:
Fair enough on Perlstein’s take on Reagan, but Reaganland is hardly complementary of Carter, whom he portrays as a self-righteous, marginally competent neoliberal confidence man with a few redeeming features.
Reblogged this on Practically Historical.