Rick Perlstein: A Visit To Nixonland (Interview)





Rick Perlstein, an unabashed man of the left, first attracted wide notice seven years ago with the release of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, his engagingly written and fair-minded study of the rise of the American conservative movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Last month brought the much-awaited publication of the second volume of Perlstein’s projected trilogy on American conservatism. Nixonland (Scribner), as should be obvious from the title, focuses on American politics from the mid-1960’s to the early 1970’s, a time and an era dominated by Richard Nixon.

The Monitor asked Perlstein about the book and his perception of Nixon.

Monitor: Were you more sympathetic to Nixon or less so after writing the book?

Perlstein: Here I have to exercise the intellectual’s classic cop-out and say: both. We all know about Nixon’s reputation for iniquity. I kept finding myself yet more astonished at how bottomless this quality in him truly was. The example I keep coming back to is the revelation by Leonard Garment, in his 1997 memoir Crazy Rhythm, that as early as 1966 Nixon didn’t believe the Vietnam War could be won militarily – even as, for the next seven years, he ruthlessly savaged any political opponent who dared say the same thing, even as 50,000 more American soldiers went to their deaths for this war he thought couldn’t be won.

But on the other hand, there was rarely a week that went by when I didn’t discover some hidden store of nobility in the man – in his courage, coolness under pressure, and especially, his refusal to back down under adversity.

My favorite example is his famous visit [as vice president] to Peru in 1958. He was set upon by a mob chanting calls for his death. What did he do? He waded into the mob, and managed to talk them down! Later on the same trip, the mob wielded stones, and attacked his limousine. Secret Service agents were ready to fire, but Nixon ordered them to holster their weapons, realizing that shots would only make the chaos worse.

As I point out in the book, that’s “the kind of presence of mind for which battlefield commanders win medals.” Not a bad quality for a commander-in-chief – until, that is, that same quality was turned to iniquity, as it so often was....


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