Rick Perlstein: His Nixonland is the "IT" book of the season





Rick Perlstein’s new book, “Nixonland,” is the “It” history book of this publishing season. The Chicago historian’s 800-plus-page account of how Richard Nixon stoked and exploited the political divisions of the ’60s has struck a nerve, as analysts argue over whether “Nixonland” — a country at war with itself — still resides in the heart of the U.S. of A.

In the New York Times “Nixonland” review, conservative commentator George H. Will protested that “The nation portrayed in Perlstein’s compulsively readable chronicle, the America of Spiro Agnew inciting ‘positive polarization’ and the New Left laboring to ‘heighten the contradictions,’ is long gone.”

Maybe. But if you’re a boomer who lived through the 1960s, “Nixonland” (Scribner, $37.50) will induce scary flashbacks to that profoundly disorienting time, when university students protesting the Vietnam War were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard; when academic researchers working late were blown apart by bombs spliced together by anti-war radicals; when the Newark police force mowed down dozens of black residents with a hail of bullets; when Alabama Gov. George Wallace, referencing a protester who had lain down in front of President Lyndon Johnson’s limousine, promised that if he were elected president, “the first time they lie down in front of my limousine, it’ll be the last one they’ll ever lay down in front of because their day is over!”

Through this chaotic tapestry, Perlstein threads the story of Richard Nixon himself. Perlstein’s thesis: Nixon brilliantly exploited the country’s hates and fears in the service of consolidating his own political base.

Perlstein, in Seattle last week to read from “Nixonland,” described his obsession with a decade that was almost over before he was born (in 1969).

As a kid, he bugged his parents for stories of the 1960s. “I couldn’t believe the drama, the conspiracies,” he said. “I was fascinated, not by the minivan commercial version of the 1960s, the version where everyone grew their hair long, rioted, then moved to the suburbs,” but by the terrifying, violent reality, when the left and the right regarded one another with a kind of “murderous rage.”

“It wasn’t fun,” he says. “It was traumatic,” and its legacy shaped American politics the way the Civil War shaped U.S. history for decades to come.


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