Rick Perlstein: First review is in of Nixonland ... Wins praise in Atlantic

Historians in the News

[HNN Editor: Rick Perlstein's Nixonland is the HNN Book of the Month for April 2008.]

Seven years ago, Rick Perlstein, a young and decidedly left-wing historian, accomplished a daring feat: he imagined his way into the hearts and minds of the right-wing idealists who made Goldwaterite conservatism one of the most successful mass movements of the 1960s. The result was Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, a richly detailed narrative of the 1964 election, and a dense and dizzying account of a moment when America was teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown but didn’t know it yet.

Now Perlstein has produced a sequel. If Before the Storm was a near-masterpiece, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, which covers the turbulent years from Goldwater’s defeat to Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory, is merely a great success. It labors under handicaps his first book didn’t have: whereas Before the Storm dealt with a circumscribed and neglected moment (who remembers Dr. Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, or the presidential boomlet for William Warren Scranton?), Nixonland tackles the most obsessed-over era in recent American history. Any book that rolls Woodstock and Watergate, the death of RFK and the Tet Offensive, Jane Fonda and George Wallace, and a cast of thousands more into a mere 800 pages or so is bound to sprawl and sag a bit, to rush too quickly through some topics and linger too long with others.

Even so, Nixonland reads marvelously. Perlstein has the rare gift of being able to weave social, political, and cultural history into a single seamless narrative, linking backroom political negotiations to suburban protests over sex education in schools to the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde. And he has the eye of a great documentarian, fastening not only on the obvious historical set pieces (Kent State, Watts, Attica), but on the not-so-obvious ones as well. A National Association of Governors cruise, late in 1967, featuring George Romney “dressed like Xavier Cugat” on the dance floor, Ronald and Nancy Reagan sipping crème de menthes nearby, and Nelson Rockefeller chewing on seasickness pills and denying, yet again, that he has any designs on the presidency. A White House concert in ’72 in which one of the backup singers suddenly plucked a STOP THE KILLING banner from her décolletage and told Richard Nixon, “If Jesus Christ were in this room tonight, you would not dare to drop another bomb.” A McGovern fund-raiser at which Simon and Garfunkel goaded the crowd to boo the patrons in the most-expensive seats, and Peter, Paul, and Mary invited everyone present to “take your place on the great mandala.”...

Read entire article at Ross Douthat in the Atlantic Monthly

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