Friday, July 11, 2008

The best non-fiction book I've read this year is Rick Perlstein's Nixonland. George Will's right: Perlstein loves the melodramatic apercu, and he doesn't have show much respect for conservatism besides acknowledging the masterly way in which it exploited a cultural moment; but reading Nixonland a few weeks after Sean Willentz's Age of Reagan -- another book by a liberal scion assessing the conservative ascendancy of the last 30 years -- I'm not sure how else conservatives could have, to use the jargon of the day, "positioned" themselves otherwise. As repugnant as most of the language and attitudes struck by organizers of the so-called New Politics and New Left were, as blinkered as they were to how badly Nixon's Silent Majority received their hopes for racial/social harmony, the demagogues of the right surpassed them in deviousness and stridency, creating a world in which the smiling face of Ronald Reagan could render Nixonism obsolete while consolidating its strategies (liberals AND conservatives forget how defiant then-Governor Reagan of California looked in the face of student revolt; he struck an almost Maoist pose of adamantine resistance: authority incarnate.

Regardless, Nixonland reads like the best novel Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal never wrote. It begins with an unexpected juxtaposition: Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act -- buttressed by the knowledge that he's just won one of the greatest popular landslides in American history -- five days before the first series of Watts riots begins. His ludicrous claim that these were "the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem" was the most politically obtuse statement made by this most brutally effective of post-New Deal politicians. Smelling blood, two-time loser and former vice president Richard Nixon began the latest, most personally demeaning, and, ultimately, greatest demonstration of what Garry Wills once called his talent for mobilizing resentment towards those in power. From Perlstein's own afterword:
I have written of the rise, between the years 1965 and 1972, of a nation that had had believed itself to be at consensus instead becoming one of incommensurate visions of apocalypse: two loosely defined congeries of Americans, each convinced that should the other triumph, everything decent and true and worth preserving would end.
A bit pretentious, this, especially if we remember that sneaky old Thomas Jefferson undermined his two presidential predecessors by paying surrogates in the press to run smears. But Jefferson never attended conventions as riotous as the '68 and '72 ones hosted by the Democrats. We're all a little more conservative now, so the incendiary language and Dada stunts pulled on the floor of the '72 convention strikes me as submission, as playing to the GOP's worst suspicions. Perlstein's point is that, as residents of Nixonland, we accept the cynicism of modern politics without blinking -- a dubious development to say the least. Let's just say that Tricky Dick might have approved of Obama's FISA bill reversal.

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