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 the president, 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.