Nixonland: An Interview with Rick Perlstein

tags: Rick Perlstein

Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

Rick Perlstein's books have helped redefine the history of American conservatism in the modern era. His first book in a projected trilogy was Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The next book was Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (paperback, April 2009). This interview was conducted by email.

It's been a year since Nixonland was published in hardcover. Now it's come out in a paperback edition. Did you make any changes?

No changes, save for some typos and factual mistakes, some of them quite stupid. For example, in the original, the job title of a construction worker who beat up a hippie who was depicted beating up a hippie in the 1970 Hard Hat Riot in Lower Manhattan was "pie fitter" (sounds like a job Abbie Hoffman would invent). Now, more prosaically, he's a pipe fitter.

On The New Nixon blog your book came in for sustained criticism. Did you read it or ignore it?

I don't ignore anything about my work. I read everything anyone anywhere writes about it, in real time. (Thank you, Mr. Google!) Like most writers I'm voracious for any visible response to my presence on Earth, which is to say, neurotic. And I actually quite appreciated most of what was said at the New Nixon blog. New Nixon blogger Jack Pitney made several useful corrections in particular I was able to incorporate into six subsequent printings.

In the most serious mistake, I pointed out that Nixon claimed during one 1966 speech that "polls still place the war in Vietnam and the rising cost of living as the major political issues." The context for the point is that it served his political purposes to distance Republican gains in 1966 from the racially charged issue of law and order. "He was lying," I wrote. "As far as domestic issues went, Gallup showed race far outstripped inflation as a concern." Pitney looked up the Gallup poll I cited to back up my claim, and found that indeed at the time he made the speech, Gallup showed inflation outstripping race as a concern. That soon would change—the reality on the ground had changed, what with riots breaking out in city after city every day, and the Gallup polls would soon change to reflect that. I do think Nixon was misleading, if not lying, so I changed it to, "This was misleading." I also proposed another change that my publisher did not accept: "As far as domestic issues went, Gallup would soon show race far outstripping inflation as a concern." In this instance I betrayed an unfortunate overeagerness to, well, impeach Richard M. Nixon and I regret that.

At other points the issues were more complicated—such as Rev. John Taylor's argument that my citation of J. Anthony Lukas's Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years was inadequate to support the claim that Nixon knew about the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in advance. He's right on the narrow point, but I think more broadly the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Nixon probably knew what was going on. I would have loved to have hashed this out with Dr. Taylor when I spoke at the Nixon Library at the invitation of the National Archives last September, but none of the "New Nixon" people—associates of the Richard M. Nixon Foundation, which used to run the library—showed up. That was disappointing; even more so that one of them, Sandy Quinn, said in my presence earlier in the day, "I haven't read the book, and do not intend to read the book"! Same guy never returned my calls, first for my Nixonland research, then, last year, when I was working on the anthology Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents.

Have any critiques of the book caused you to rethink your analysis?

I still feel pretty confident with my analysis. The most frequent criticism was that I overplayed the extent to which the culture-war topography I map in Nixonland extends into our own time, red in tooth and claw. As Elizabeth Drew wrote in the Washington Post, the author "carried away and pushes his theme too far." She singled out this line on Nixonland's last page in particular: "Do Americans [hate] each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not." She answers, "I, for one, don't find it so hard." Needless to say, with the death toll of ideologically motivated assassinations in America since that review adding up to ten by my last count, I find no pleasure in the vindication: America remains a deeply divided nation, largely along lines forged in the crucible of the 1960s.

Do conservatives still like you? They loved your book on Goldwater (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus). But now?

Well, I spoke to a Washington luncheon of conservatives hosted by Jim Pinkerton of Fox News, and the reception was quite convivial. So I still seem to be on good paper with at least some of them. I guess a fuller test may come as I continue my research, if I choose to double back and re-interview some of the Goldwater veterans—Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, et al—who went on to found what was called the "New Right" in the 1970s. I don't think I'll have any doors slammed in my face, though. A couple of reasons why: first, people who have made a career of ideological combat don't tend to flinch from ideological combat; they relish it (it's the mushy centrists who are more likely to be uncomfortable with having their political feelings hurt). Second, these same conservatives feel their stories to have been slighted by the previous "liberal" histories of the era, so they seem glad to get them out there on the record. Partly, I hypothesize it has to do with the sort of psychological motivations I make it my business to try to understand: conservatives crave validation from the same "liberal elites" they claim to despise.

The harshest review I came across of your book was in the American Spectator, which lambasted you as a Nixon basher. It was written by Tom Charles Huston, the author of the infamous Huston Plan, which recommended a crackdown on civil liberties. What was your reaction to his review?

Awfully curious: the second most fulsome review the book received was in the conservative (and now defunct) New York Sun, "engrossing," "masterful," "obviously has a deep knowledge of the period," that sort of thing. Then three weeks later they ran a second review, by Conrad Black, who was a funder of the New York Sun and a diehard defender of the Watergate-era Richard Nixon and a man convicted, among other things, of obstruction of justice for hiding evidence against the orders of a judge (Black wrote the review, which up-is-down-ingly claimed Nixon "stopped ... anti-war riots," from prison).

The first most fulsome review, however, was assigned by the American Spectator and ran on their website. In it David Weigel argued "This is by no means a conservative book. It is bigger and better than ideology." Then, a few months later in the magazine, they ran the Huston review, in which the guy who convinced Richard Nixon it was worth breaking the law to spy on political enemies, and one of the figures featured in the book, said "Nixonland has been inexplicably well received by people who should know better."

Partisan Republican organs tossing opinions they don't prefer down the memory hole: Almost, you might say, like a scene out of Nixonland.

I have to admit that I found this second time around so far beyond the editorial pale that I only found my way through a few paragraphs of the thing—at first. But let me tell you a story. Later, when I began research for my next book, I found an extraordinary text by Huston in the October, 1973 issue of Harper's. Printed at the height of the Watergate story, it was a morally nuanced, introspective, and courageous examination of how a passionately idealistic right-winger like himself could have let his absolutely honorable and reasonable fears in 1970 that civilization was on the verge of surrendering to barbarism run away with him, and end up committing objectively immoral acts. He pointed, as I tried to do, to the context of the times: an epidemic of left-wing arson, bombings and bomb threats (as I report in concluding Chapter Twenty-One 15,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan buildings in one day in March alone), radical snipers firing from rooftops (one of them, I reported in Chapter Seventeen, was picking off white people in East St. Louis at random, and praised by the Black Power columnist Julian Lester for moving "from self-defense to aggressive action")—a country, I argue, that reasonable people could find at the very edge of armed insurrection. This, Huston explains, is why he wrote the "Huston Plan" recommending illegal breaking and entering against administration enemies; but why, he soberly owns up all the same, it does not excuse the Huston plan: "an example of the dangers of letting down your guard against increased executive power—no matter what the circumstances. Not that the danger was not real, but in this case the risk of the remedy was as great as the disease. There was a willingness to accept without challenge the Executive's claim to increased power. That's why we acted as we did, and it was a mistake."

I read that, and thought: wow. This Tom Charles Huston is a beautiful cat. How I wish a former single member of the Bush administration could show in 2009 the wisdom he did in 1973! I wondered whether and to what extent Huston would recognize my attempt (though perhaps an inadequate attempt) to advance that very same argument. So I revisited Huston's America Spectator piece, read it straight through—and found it, in my personal opinion, to be a whiny Orthogonian rant.

Again: I was disappointed. I'd love to meet Tom, though, and hope he's cooled down about my work, whose positive reviews he calls "libels against history."

Your book about Nixon came out coincidentally at the same time as Sean Wilentz's book about Reagan. This was serendipitous for it allowed readers to consider whether we are living in The Age of Reagan or Nixonland. (We asked Wilentz this same question.) So: Why do you think Nixon is a more compelling symbol of the last 40 years than Reagan?

I don't think so. I find them equally compelling figures. See answer to your final question, below!

Readers love your writing. Whose writing do you love?

I've actually come up with an interesting answer to that one recently, reading Garry Wills's 1970s journalism in preparation for, well—see answer to your final question! What I realized in my most recent immersion in Wills's masterful, agenda-setting essays is that it's my passion for the great literary "new" journalism of the 1960s and 1970s—Wills, Didion, Tom Wolfe, Renata Adler, Steven V. Roberts, Paul Cowan, Mailer, Talese, Jack Newfield, Tony Lukas, etc.; their collections are all lined up on a shelf close to hand—is really what drives my writing. In two ways. The first is stylistic: their method of getting at the particulars how social, political, and cultural change feels to actual human beings, and rendering it in an aggresively literary way that makes actual human beings feel that feeling, is my method as well. Second, nostalgically: I want to hang out with these people, argue with these people, be these people. So I write about what they write about. Which is: the 1960s and 1970s. Of course you can't go home again, and I was never really home in the first place (I was born in 1969), so I'm writing against ghosts. Which makes me, ultimately, a historian. But I got there because the journalism in the 1960s and 1970s was so great. Nothing out there these days can beat it.

Do you have a favorite history book?

No, actually. Although my wife would say it's Nixonland.

Do you consider yourself a journalist who writes history or a historian who does journalism?

I label myself, ultimately, a writer.

Do you support yourself fully from writing?

I do. I just signed a new book contract--see answer to your final question, below! Of course, it's always touch and go, some years flush and some years fallow. Some of the gigs that have subsidized me have included covering the 2004 presidential elections for the Village Voice, blogging about conservatism at ourfuture.org for Campaign for America's Future and now, writing semi-regularly for Newsweek. I also married my wife for her money: she has received stipends from her public policy Ph.D. program (first person to get the Nixon reference wins a steak dinner on me).

Your book jacket is striking. What's the story behind it?

I've had enormous good fortune locating pictures for my book jackets. The one I stumbled across for Before the Storm was a picture of Barry Goldwater that appeared upon his death in 1998 in People magazine. The one for Nixonland was used in a poster for a lecture I gave at Washington College in Massachusetts when the book was still a work in progress. In both cases, I sent them to my publisher as suggestions, and the suggestion was taken.

First came the Goldwater book, then the Nixon book. And next?

I've signed a contract with Twelve Books to deliver the manuscript for The Invisible Bridge: America in the 1970s and the Rise of Ronald Reagan in 2014. And now: back to work!

Thank you.


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More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 7/12/2009

I’ve come to wonder at the longterm effect of Vice President Agnew’s comments about the media and the “elites.” If I could go back in time with my adult perspective, rather than the one I had as an undergraduate Nixon supporter, I still would vote for RN in 1972. But I would tell Agnew — “Dude, if the public increasingly sees the situation with the Vietnam War as an epic fail, it isn’t because of Walter Cronkite or CBS or Harvard professors. We have a robust democracy here, the media is in the mix, just deal.”

In the years since the end of the Nixon administration, we'lve heard a lot about the culture wars. But it’s not just the left that affected public discourse and changing values and perceptions during the Nixon years. The right did, as well. Vice President Agnew tapped into many of the concerns of the Silent Majority, of which I then was a member.

Did the repeated, underlying message of blame in Agnew’s speeches — a comfortable blanket of reassuring explanations in which some of Nixon’s supporters could wrap themselves — play a part in later creating a greater “no responsibility” culture than existed on the past? Would we have ended up with a political culture that encouraged and rewarded greater resilience, accountability, and responsibility more than we see at present, without the Vietnam War? Probably not, the very nature of politics makes it vulnerable to finger pointing and demonizing people.

Still, if you look at public discourse over the last few decades, especially on cable and on talk radio, a lot of it reflects efforts to assign blame and dodge responsibility. I do not know whether a different, more mature response to handling dissent during RN’s term, and earlier during LBJ’s term, would have affected public discourse in the long run. While there were extreme and frightening elements in the anti-war movement, the Nixon administration missed an opportunity deal better than it did with the diverse elements involved in the turmoil on the nation's campuses and in the streets. It put too much effort into largely fruitless efforts to identify communist front groups. It’s much easier to try to apply a familiar and comfortable template than to figure out what motivates dissenters. And what role the administration, of your predecessor and your own, played in that.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/30/2009

I didn't know Huston was still alive, but it was a joy to see him in action. And it was also a public service on your part to include the link to his Spectator review in this article.

Nixon, of course, was never a conservative, and I think you err above in that regard. Conservative senators were people like Homer Capehart, Bert Hickenlooper, Eugene Milliken, Bill Jenner, Bill Knowland, Robert A. Taft and Everitt Dirksen during Nixon's time...

Nixon WAS an anti-communist, which people today must understand was his unforgivable crime in the eyes of the liberal media and establishment Democrats. The latter were guilty of abetting communism both at home and abroad, often on purpose, and were frightened the American public would realize this. Today they still are, when a Democratic president is trying to give U.S. support to Hugo Chavez, Danny Ortega, and Fidel.

Also, there is a second correlation between the Omama phenomenon and the Nixon story. The Watergate break-in took place during the election campaign of 1972, when Nixon was enjoying an enormous lead over Sen. George McGovern. The cover-up which eventually destroyed Nixon was not primarily designed to save Nixon, but to save the United States from the extremist George McGovern. We have seen many times how a big front-runner can be toppled by a determined liberal media, given a bit of evidence to hang it on, (e.g., Sen. Ted Stevens), and so to assume Nixon could not have been defeated by Watergate in 1972, given a media juggernaut, is absurd. Most voters assume that all major party nominees are harmless. Accordingly, a careful look back would give credit to many who perjured themselves in Watergate for acting not to save Mr. Nixon, but to save America from revolution. Too often today we see long-winded diatribes about Watergate without any reference to the compelling background of the 1972 election.

Huston seems to have accidently failed to include Abraham Lincoln on his list of presidents elected with less support than Nixon, though that was a four-way race instead of a three-way contest... Anyway, he adroitly smashes "Nixonland" to pieces, and deserves a hearty Bravo!

John H. Taylor - 6/29/2009

Other than RN's persistent use of the expression "touch and go," I'm stumped. As for that steak, did you know that it takes 1,000 gallons of water to get a pound of beef to your plate?

Rick Perlstein - 6/29/2009

Nope. Next entrant?

stephen f knott - 6/29/2009

I'm hoping to get a free steak. Is the reference Mr. Perlstein refers to from Nixon's Checker's Speech? Nixon defended his own financial arragnments and claimed that he could have put his wife Pat on the Senate payroll, but chose not to . . . In classic Nixon style he then turns around and notes that Sen. John Sparkman, Stevenson's VP candidate, had done just that... Anyway, free steak or not, I enjoyed "Nixonland" and I'm currently in the midst of "Before the Storm." Perlstein has a great sense of humor, which makes the most tawdry story enjoyable.

Steve Knott

Maarja Krusten - 6/29/2009

Hi, Rick (both Ricks, actually), and John!

I enjoyed the interview, very interesting. Glad you did it, speaks well of you, Rick. I'm actually only now reading Nixonland. I received it as a birthday gift back in February but didn't start it until recently. So I'm not in a position to provide an overall assessment of it yet. (I'm half way through at this point.) It's definitely fun to read.

My specialty when I was employed by the National Archives was the "abuse of governmental power" tapes. I strongly concur with John Taylor's assessment of the way historians should handle the Fielding break-in. It's something John and I have chatted about it in the past over at The New Nixon. (BTW, I give John a lot of credit for the outstanding way he handles dialog in the world of web 2.0. I think a lot of people could learn a great deal from him!)

In the world of auditing, there's a question that is used to examine all assertions: "what is the support for that statement?" One doesn't include in audit findings something as fact for which there is no support. As John points out, correctly, there is no evidence that proves Nixon knew of the break-in in advance. One can speculate all one likes, but I prefer to see that labelled as speculation rather than known fact.

That's all I have time for (I've been known to be, well, very chatty). On my lunch break so I'm keeping this short.

Thanks again, Rick, Rick, and John -- best regards to you all!

Maarja (posted on personal time)

John H. Taylor - 6/29/2009

Dear Rick:

Greetings from Yorba Linda. Jack Pitney Facebooked (new verb, I guess) your HNN interview. Having been disappointed that you didn't fix the Lukas reference in the paperback, I'm glad to read that you at least considered it.

I appreciate that you think the preponderance of evidence suggests RN know about the Fielding job in advance, but there's actually no evidence that he did. My lack of historical training and a Ph.D notwithstanding (although your describing me as Dr. Taylor was a mighty buzz), I don't think your gut call on Nixon's complicity is a justification for making a secondary source sound like he's saying what he actually didn't say.

The neat thing is that you're so open to these kinds of challenges and dialogues. Thank you. I would've been happy to ask you about it when you visited the Library, but I hadn't read the book by then.

Best wishes as you continue your work.