Saturday, October 5, 2019

Football Aesthetics

One of the appeals of college football is that teams are more willing to adapt to unorthodox strategies because in a sport where a handful of teams have their pick of the players who hilariously vanish around, bulldoze, or do some combination of both to their unfortunately normal high school opponents, they need every advantage they can get. In this situation, you can see weird Big 12 future football where somehow everyone, including several members of the band’s saxophone section, are wide receivers, or vestigial 1940s option football that still exists mainly at the military academies where teams are still calling plays named “Col. Samuel N. Victuall’s Original Male Fisticuffs Powder” or “Hand the ball off/For awhile/Watch your scrotum/In the pile/Burma Shave.”

This is not Northwestern football under Pat Fitzgerald. In the early 2000s, Randy Walker helped bring then-new spread offense into a Big Ten where most teams were running out of the Crowbar Formation. Those Northwestern games were obscene touchdown fests where the Wildcats scored as much as humanly possible because they weren’t particularly good at stopping other teams, and they seemingly won every game by having the quarterback run around for 35 seconds and then heave the ball to the endzone. Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern has evolved into a much better defensive team that has introduced new types of players to the Wildcat canon: enormous run-stoppers going toe-to-toe with the Midwest’s beefiest linemen and ball-hawking defensive backs. Almost simultaneously, the ‘Cats have become a bruising ball control offense, still running the spread offense but doing so almost parodically.

This shift from offensive chaos to steady defense has been extremely effective for Northwestern. The team has had an unprecedented run of sustained success under Fitzgerald, the type of run that involves going to and winning bowl games, upsetting genuinely good teams, and forcing several fanbases to do the unthinkable and contemplate losing to Northwestern. But aesthetically it is a major change. To watch Northwestern football now is to revel in a festival of punts and a spectacle of guys leaping around the field with closed fists raised just before the punt.  Pat Fitzgerald and his coaching staff have decided that the way they prefer to move the ball should resemble watching someone angrily try to start a lawnmower for 90 minutes.

This was the story against Wisconsin, where Northwestern's defense shut down superstar running back Jonathan Taylor.  Wisconsin has an excellent defense of their own, and both teams mostly glared and snarled at each other until the Badgers were able to turn a few turnovers into points.  The Wildcats made a comeback in the fourth quarter, but Fitzgerald's aggressive moves to go for two both backfired and prevented them from getting it to a one-score game.  Fitzgerald said the numbers supported his moves and offered to teach a class in analytics that are derived from him sitting up all night in front of a giant chalkboard testing various formulas for point scenarios but the chalkboard is instead filled with imprints from him headbutting it.  

Northwestern plays Nebraska in one of their baffling annual contests.  The Huskers have also struggled this season and are coming off an ESPN Gameday dismantling at the hands of Ohio State.  Nebraska brought in Scott Frost to revolutionize their offense and bring about a new era of high-flying Huker football away from people demanding a return to the option and screaming "let's go 'shirts" blissfully unaware that all of the players are wearing shirts.  The Wildcats will attempt to smother them on defense and take them to overtime.  


Approximately one week after the Chicago Bulls fired bland VHS enthusiast Fred Hoiberg and replaced him with windsprint maniac Jim Boylen, I wrote that the Bulls had fallen into a pattern of replacing a Hair Guy with a Bald Asshole. Boylen came in, started emphasizing toughness, led the Bulls to their worst home defeat in the history of the team, pulled his starters in order to subject them to a ludicrously tough practice, and spurned a revolt. Bulls players reportedly began contemplating a minor industrial action to no-show the practice. The Bulls became the laughing-stock of the National Basketball Association. The Sacramento Kings, a burbling cauldron of organizational dysfunction in their own right, beat the Bulls, and their players mocked them by yelling at them to enjoy their windsprints. After Bulls players formed a Leadership Council because they were so concerned about their coach’s Last Chance U tactics and general unhinged vice principal aesthetic, Boylen responded that he was “jacked up and juiced.”
When you are jacked up and juiced

It is time for me to eat some crow. I was wrong about Jim Boylen. He is not a rigorous taskmaster who models his life and fashion choices after the aircraft carrier commander in Top Gun. Or, more accurately, he is not just that. His constant emphasis on players’ awesome souls and kick-ass spirits has revealed him as reaching a new level of coaching derangement: he is a New Age Meathead. 

This not necessarily a novel phenomenon. There has long been a crossover between professional athletes, who are attempting to push the limits of human possibility at the physical level, and all sorts of wacky wellness cures. And given the shifting ambiguity around nutrition, exercise practices throughout the years, there have always been quackery and strange practices to fill in the gaps. These involve muttonchop guys going around with tonics advertised with 2,300 word leaflets and people who wrote books about about how you cannot eat legumes or you will angry up the bean gland.  

The greatest trend of the twentieth century weird new-agey health stuff infiltrating sports were a brief run of baseball pitchers wearing phiten necklaces with titanium-infused magnets.  NYU's Scienceline got an explanation on how this all was supposed to work: "According to the company, the necklaces and bracelets work by stabilizing the electric flow that nerves use to communicate actions to the body. 'All of the messages in your body travel through electricity, so if you’re tired or just pitched nine innings, the electricity isn’t flowing as smoothly as it can,' said Joe Furuhata, a Phiten spokesman. 'Our products smooth out those signals.'” 

If you were to ask me who would be the most apt endorsement 
of the magical titanium magnet-necklace, I would say Josh Beckett
 before you even finished talking although please do not search 
my internet history to see if I have searches like "was travis hafner a phiten guy"

Those necklaces, combined with late '00s-decade baseball fashions like MMA shirts and disgusting, elongated soul patches, were part of a certain type of baseball pitcher's arsenal before fading away because they didn't do anything and they did not come free with the purchase of a Puddle of Mud box set.

Jim Boylen, to me, is an anthropomorphic phiten necklace, a strange confluence of weird pseudoscience and new-age quackery wrapped in the packaging of a classic toughguy sports asshole.  This means that he is tearfully screaming about how much he admires Wendell Carter's life essence after he breaks his ankle in a hamburger drill.  It is Boylen talking about his vision quest when explains why he played Ryan Arcidiacono 38 minutes.  One can imagine him putting his forehead through drywall after excoriating the team for being soft after losing by 25 instead of 13 and then being unable to sleep because he has just heard of chakras and is trying to see if Cristiano Felicio has them.  He is unknowable and bizarre and weird and is likely going to be the difference between the bulls winning 18 games or somehow scrapping for an eight seed in the putrid Eastern Conference and I am fascinated by what he is going to do all of the time.


Baseball season has come to its autumn climax, and as the tension mounts in do-or-die playoff games involving the game's greatest players, I am thinking about Todd Frazier.  Frazier, an aged power hitter for the New York Mets who is from New Jersey enough to use Frank Sinatra as his walkup music, comes across as a relatively placid personality.  He played his best ball on those early 2010s Reds teams.  I am thinking about Todd Frazier because Adam Eaton is up for the Washington Nationals and got into a fight with Frazier earlier this year, which revealed the two of them despise each other since they were teammates on the almost operatically bizarre 2016 White Sox.

The 2016 White Sox became a swirling morass of insanity.  As the crosstown rival Cubs went into the season as World Series favorites and somehow rent a hole in the space-time continuum that has plunged the world into chaos, the South Siders completely lost their minds.  The major issue was that left-handed platoon DH Adam LaRoche wanted to have his son Drake spend the entire season with the team as a sort of junior player soaking up the exciting and intellectually challenging atmosphere of a major league locker room.  Other players reportedly did not want a 14 year-old around all of the time, the team asked LaRoche not to bring his son into the locker room, and LaRoche retired instead.  This split the White Sox into pro- and anti-LaRoche factions, with Eaton calling the teenaged Drake a "leader in the clubhouse" and other teammates putting up LaRoche jerseys in solidarity.  Adam LaRoche then went in retirement to the natural path of extremely bizarre Christian sting operations in overseas brothels. 

LaRoche jerseys hang defiantly in the White Sox clubhouse like medieval pennants

Can we be sure that the Eaton/Frazier split was about the LaRoche controversy? No.  Their falling out could be about all sorts of normal baseball disagreements such as sunflower seed disputes or whether to play Creed or P.O.D. in the locker room or whether Bigfoot or Gravedigger was a better monster truck.  But given that the LaRoche spectacle hung over the clubhouse and that Frazier was a newcomer to the White Sox that season it seems likely that it's the case and also it is extremely funny to imagine a bloodfeud between Frazier and Eaton that involves multiple generations of LaRoche.  

Also that year pitcher Chris Sale completely flipped out and reportedly sliced up a bunch of throwback uniforms because he refused to wear them.

Frazier's fracas with his former teammate was not his only incident.  Somehow, Frazier got involved in something with Jake Arrieta that broke my brain and still continues to haunt me to this day.  In early July, Arrieta hit Frazier with a pitch and Frazier took exception.  The video shows him making disgusted remarks to the umpire and catcher and then yelling at Arrieta as he made his way to first before being ejected from the game and in a hilarious baseball pantomime of yelling and aggressive pointing at the officials.  After the game, Arrieta told the media that if he was still angry "he can come see me and I'll put a dent in his skull."  

This is an insanely violent thing to say about another person even in the context of baseball macho posturing, but it is not this bit of midseason baseball aggression that has broken me, it is the headlines.  Here is a headline from the Sporting News that is likely going to stay in my brain until I die:
Todd Frazier responds to Jake Arrieta Skull threat.  It is Todd Frazier responding. To a threat. So far so good. What kind of threat, you ask? A skull threat.  Just your everyday, ordinary skull threat, the two words that everyone knows when you put them together.  I have been thinking about this combination of words for months and they are just rattling around my head slowly causing me to go insane.

It's not just the Sporting News that had trouble with this.  Here is an ESPN headline describing the same incident:

I think that what is happening here is that our headline writers are completely unable to handle the concept of a baseball player threatening to dent another's skull.  Because that is the most colorful word in the exchange, they want to get it into the headline, but there's no precedent for players specifically threatening skull harm, so the reader is left completely baffled.  What is a skull threat?  Does that mean, as Arrieta did, specific attacks on Frazier's skull? Or does it mean Arrieta will threaten him by using skulls to scare Frazier with a grim Halloween aesthetic.  And anything can be a skull remark.  A reader could assume that Arrieta was possibly mocking Frazier's skull with the skill of a Mean Phrenologist. 

There is one other figure in sports who I would trust to have a handle on such pressing, confusing issues, and it's Jim Boylen, who I believe could easily explain why he loves Chandler Hutchinson's "awesome skull."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

All Sorcery

Northwestern managed to do something it hasn't done since 2017 and win a home game against a theoretically overmatched non-conference opponent. And then they went out the next week and got grimly buried by Michigan State.  Northwestern's offense has seemed to stagnate; this is not a new issue for the Wildcats, but generally the plan allows the offense to sort of keep busy for a little bit while the defense goes in stagnates the other offense in a mutual Big Ten stagnation and both teams sort of push each other back and forth around the gridiron like an impossibly slow motion sumo wrestling match until somehow Northwestern wins.

That was not the case last Saturday from what I understand (I have not watched this game for the same reason that the Wolf Man does not want to go and watch All-22 footage of his rampages across the Welsh countryside even if he keeps a blog about it)
Look at the head up and knees bent, that's a perfect lurking position in that 
fog there. This guy right here, I call him the Wolf Man because he is afflicted with lycanthropy

One of the central contradictions about Northwestern football is that to follow this team in the Pat Fitzgerald era is to let go of certain assumptions-- that any sort of trend matters, that several games worth of ineptitude has any bearing on any other given game, and just book them to inexplicably appear in a low-rent bowl game in early December under the same logic that sends Ernest to jail or Jason to hell.  Part of this comes from the nature of college football that sees teams careen from world-beating heroism to the depths of nincompoopery repeatedly during the same season, but a lot of it is a phenomenon localized to Ryan Field.

There exists no epistemological case to think Northwestern will suddenly reverse course and start to win Big Ten games other than the fact that we have seen them do it repeatedly and under even more ludicrous circumstances over and over again season after season with no reason for them to do it other than somehow harnessing the forces of chaos.  I have given up on seeing Northwestern as a football team and have instead chosen to see them as a swirling vortex devoid of meaning or consequence that swallows up everything in its path whether it involves losing to a team that appears to be learning about the rules of football as the game goes on or by somehow squatting on a conference opponent.  Northwestern's Big Ten wins tend to be close and absolutely maddening as evidenced by the number of times the Wildcats have left a road stadium under a hail of snowballs or garbage.

The Wildcats travel to Wisconsin as almost 25-point underdogs to a vicious Badger team that should probably win the West.  This is what gamblers and analysts have determined after watching Wisconsin bludgeon and maul opponents included a vaunted Michigan team and Northwestern largely sleepwalk to a 1-2 record.  These analysts and gamblers are approaching the Wildcats as if they are a normal team and not an unwieldy purple tornado.  The early results of the season would lead a reasonable person to expect to see Wisconsin rampage upon them early and often, and that very well may take place.  But anyone who wagers on Northwestern in Big Ten play has ascended to a dangerous level of degeneracy that may very well end with them tearing up their gambling slips as Wisconsin fans prepare a to unload a trebuchet of cheese curds on the officials after they have repeatedly taken away Wisconsin touchdowns.


Northwestern fans irritated by the Michigan State loss can at least take solace that Pat Fitzgerald is in the news again.  Fitzgerald upbraided a reporter who asked him about his gameplan to mention that there are 40,000 fans on twitter calling plays and they should e-mail him at "hashtag i don't care."  This is part of a bit Fitz has been expanding on over the past few years, a sort of sequel to his anti-phone rant from Big Ten Media days where he gets to standoffishly attack hypothetical critics and luxuriate in some Performative Oafishness.  Pat Fitzgerald, who is 44 years old and has likely had an e-mail address for his entire adult life, obviously knows that "hashtag i don't care" is not an actual e-mail address, but it is a delightful callback to the type of circa-2002 joke where Tim Allen would tell his tv wife to go to "meatloaf dot com" and that would be the whole joke, the existence of a dot com whatever that was to an audience of hooting grandparents.  It is the same joke as someone putting the phrase "hashtag get off my case" under a picture of a glowering looney tune on a t-shirt.
The Glowering Looney Tune is an integral part of the early 1990s 
"attitude" t-shirt industry that included ribald double entendre brands 
and for some reason a large number of crudely-rendered Barts Simpson 

But the central question that gets raised by this kind of thing is who is it for? A college football coach is, at root, a salesman.  In this case, the job requires a particularly deranged salesman whose job also involves screaming at teenagers, spending a dozen Saturdays turning 35 percent of the way into the Incredible Hulk on regional television, and appearing in car commercials.  College football coaches spend half their lives on camera, and everything they do-- from jubilantly fistpumping a replay review to going on bizarre soliloquys in the weird and ludicrous press conference rituals that someone at some point thought was necessary so they can talk about fumbles or cell phones or extremely apocryphal historical anecdotes that have been telephoned onto inspirational coaching anecdote websites -- all of this is part of a coach building his brand to ultimately attract recruits or facilities called the R Meister "Grubb" Rowsdower Center for Fooball-Related Grunting.

Is Fitzgerald aiming to dazzle teenagers by sneering at the devices to which they are umbilically connected? Is he attempting to assure their parents that Northwestern is a wholesome place where the coach doesn't know what e-mail is and gets his hair cut with a protractor?  Is he trying to gladhand a few more billionaires into deciding that their fortunes can best be spent making it possible for quartebacks to learn how to elude pass rushers in a fully virtual environment and also if you push this button here I can make the linebacker look like a screeching, beak-foaming pterodactyl?

I genuinely don't know.  Maybe Pat Fitzgerald just thinks he's imparting a helpful message.  Maybe it's working, as the Wildcats have been, for a program with a reputation and history that borders on farce, almost impossibly successful under him.  But there is one thing that we can all agree on, and it is that when Fitz decides it's time to go off on a rant on cell phones or social media or impossibly anachronistic terms for e-mail, or even the concept of communism it is extremely funny and more fun to write about than a boring loss to Michigan State.

Anyway here is a profoundly stupid video that this whole thing inspired:


An earlier blog entry this summer looked at Ricahrd Nixon through Richard Perlstein's Nixonland and Nixon's own bizarre Six Crises.  One of the things that stood out in Nixonland was Nixon's own obsession with Theodore H. White's The Making of the President, a book that pointed out flaws in the Nixon's 1960 campaign and that shaped his controlled and media-focused campaign in 1968.  Nixon, in Perlstein's account, was so alarmed by how he had come off in White's book that he was determined to master the medium that had tripped him up in 1960, television.  He became consumed with his own image.  White was not the only postmortem, but it had been widely read.

Reading early chapters, it was unclear what Nixon could have possibly been worried about.  White, a political reporter who had followed both campaigns, seemed to have been enraptured by Kennedy's campaign, but his reporting on Nixon appeared fairly benign.  But then you get to the chapter on the television debates, and Nixon's reason for enmity becomes clear.  The notion that a telegenic Kennedy defeated a damp, grimacing Nixon through sheer image is a narrative that almost every American is familiar with from high school history class and the osmosis of pop culture.  It provides a literal textbook example of the power of the new medium of television.  And yet I am not so sure that the contrast was as obvious at the time as it has become in retrospect, and I suspect the cementing of the handsome Kennedy/rodent Nixon narrative that endured gained significant support from White's book.  This is because White's depiction of Nixon is so evocative, grotesque, and hilarious that it is almost impossible to think of anything else.  Here is how White describes Nixon at the debate:
The Vice-President, by contrast, was tense, almost frightened, at turns glowering, and, occasionally, haggard-looking to the point of sickness.  Probably no picture in American politics tells a better story of crisis and episode than that famous shot of the camera on the Vice-President as he half slouched, his "Lazy Shave" powder faintly streaked with sweat, his eyes exaggerated hollows of blackness, his jaw, jowls, and face drooping with strain.
In another passage, White makes Nixon out to be a creature from the Universal backlot:
The Vice-President, to begin with, suffers from a handicap that is serious only on television-- his is a light, naturally transparent skin...On television, the camera on Nixon is usually held away from him, for in close-up his transparent skin shows the tiniest hair growing in the skin follicles beneath the surface, even after he has just shaved...(in the later debates, Nixon was persuaded to wear theatrical make-up to repair the ravage TV's electronic tube makes of his countenance)
Nixon had suffered a serious infection from a knee injury he suffered banging his leg into a car door that had kept him bedridden for weeks.  This illness only exacerbated the innate ghoulishness that White described as revealed under the television lights.
White describes the debates as a turning point and spends the next chapter excoriating Nixon's campaign strategy.  He describes how Nixon ignored his brilliant and qualified support staff in order to pursue his own quirky, lonely, campaign style in a way that makes it obvious that this information came from the same support staff who were trying to distance themselves from a losing candidate.  But White goes further to explain Nixon's own speeches as self-pitying, filled with anecdotes of failure and unfulfilled pony dreams and describing his effect on a crowd as a desire to "comfort or help this man who, like so many of his listeners, was one of life's losers."  He mentions that unlike Kennedy, Nixon snapped at hecklers ("Don't try anything on me or we'll take care of you," he said).  In a single day in Michigan he "had been the target for five eggs and three tomatoes thrown at him."  White goes out of his way to mention in a footnote that "Nixon liked Kennedy, which was not reciprocally true.")    

White describes Nixon as almost pathetic and running out of steam.  But perhaps he failed to identify that quality as a strategy.  Perlstein argues that Nixon's own sense of hard luck and scrabbling in the face of people, like the Kennedys, born into wealth and ease formed the basis of his appeal to the large number of Americans who also felt this way.  And, as White scrambled to understand, Nixon survived his vampiric television appearances and simpering campaign speeches to surge into a near lead.  Nixon very nearly won.

There is a final note on the debates that is fascinating beyond the issue of whether or not Richard Nixon appeared to have been roused from a casket.  We accept televised debate and all of its bizarre variations as a central part of presidential elections, but in 1960 the format and rules were less clear.  One of the important questions was how to deal with the so-called "equal time" rule that said that every radio and TV station had to offer the same amount of time to all parties.  This question got raised in 1959 when a weirdo fringe character named "Lar Daly" challenged the doctrine in court to secure equal time not only for the two major parties but for all of the bizarre, hopeless parties gathering on the margins, and was angling to also get on the debate stage.  Here, in my favorite footnote, is a list of candidates running in 1960:

Nixon would learn from White to obsess over his image, especially on television.  As Perlstein notes, that campaign launched the careers of young people such as Roger Ailes, who eventually went on to found Fox News.  Theodore White would lament the nickname "Tricky Dick," seeing Nixon as fundamentally honest but just personally very weird, but by 1968 and 1972 Nixon would learn to wield the mass media like a weapon to smear, lie about, and ineptly burglarize his opponents from his increasingly haunted White House.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Here, under protest, is Body Clocks

It is a cliche to explore all of the ways that paying attention to sports has changed in the twenty-first century except to add that they have added a bevy of new and gut-wrenching ways for a sufficiently damaged person to be neurotic about sporting events. 

For much of the existence of modern sports fandom, people have wanted to know: what is the dang score? And people have come up with ways to get it, whether it is by having small children screaming it on corners with newspapers or radio broadcasts, or even those insane live scoreboards that they showed on Ken Burns Baseball where 58,000 people are screaming at some guy who is moving around little baseball guys and none of the people realized they would be set to a mournful rendition of the national anthem and a voiceover from a 1980s newspaper columnist living in a madman's library.

In the twenty-first century, we got even more options all of which I have used to follow a Northwestern game: radio broadcasts over the internet, pirated streams filled with the types of computer viruses that announce themselves with animatronic cackling skulls and can only be defeated by typing very fast, and those little internet scoreboxes that show an arrow moving across a field. 

But one of the stranger innovations that we have is an attempt to not figure out the dang score because the game is being recorded.  This first became possible with VCRs and their semi-complicated recording settings that baffled an entire generation of standup comedians.  But avoiding the score is a particularly twenty-first century peccadillo because all of us are armed with devices that are shrieking at us at all times and require a person who wants to be absolutely certain of watching a sporting event unfold has to be prepared to vanquish all sorts of squawking internet distraction to try to avoid any unwanted information.  The solution to this could be to simply not care but anyone who has attempted watching a sporting event where they already know the score but not what happened knows that is its own sort of neurotic hell, like watching a movie where the trailer has already revealed that Arnold Schwarzenegger will at some point emerge from a body of water holding the barrel of a tank in each hand and saying "Tanks for nothing" but having no idea what the context is.
The moment in Eraser when Arnold Schwarzenegger kills 
a computer generated alligator and says "you're luggage" is 
the greatest dumb Arnold one-liner I've ever seen only because 
it seems excessive to quip at an animal that has no access to human language

I recorded the Stanford game and turned it on at 11:30 at night only to be greeted with a new feature from the cable company that automatically shows where the commercial breaks are.  This is intended to be useful so that if you record an episode of Welcome Back Kotter you can fast forward through a commercial for fraudulent dental accessory class action lawsuit and not miss a single Sweathog insult, but in the context of a football game is maddening.  Here were little orange lines signaling a commercial break but also forming a hieroglyphic of breaks in play that could be anything-- turnovers, punts, touchdowns, Pat Fitzgerald going into a crew-cut reverie from an uncalled holding penalty and having to be shot with multiple tranquilizer darts to prevent him from going on a frenzied spree of linebacking across the Bay Area.  It was watching football with a manically flawed oracle at the bottom of the screen explaining in no uncertain terms that something unspecified but significant was about to happen.  This is no way to watch football.  I ended up using my arm to physically block out the bottom of the screen whenever daring to fast forward like a sane and rational person.

The other bizarre effect of recorded football is a shift in time itself.  I like to fast forward through everything but the plays, because I don't necessarily enjoy watching guys huddle up and announcers describing that #43 right there is making football plays because he is part football that's right Tim I think one of his parents was an actual football what we are seeing is a horrible abomination but gosh dang it can this kid tackle, but doing so always involves moving slightly past the action.  What that meant for me is that when Northwestern got the ball back with 30 seconds left, I fast forwarded enough to see a referee raise his arms to signal a touchdown and thought that it could only mean that Northwestern had managed to pull off an insane victory right play to salvage a fairly miserable game only to see that what had happened is that the Stanford defense viciously strip sacked and scored an insult to injury touchdown.

The opening game for Northwestern was bad.  The offense sputtered.  The team suffered numerous injuries.  Several Northwestern tacklers fell victim to Wile E. Coyote physics.  The encouraging thing is that at no point until the final minute in this hideous abomination of a football game were the Wildcats not in it against a ranked team on the road.

I have given up getting concerned over the non-conference schedule.  It is clear after last year that the non-conference games don't seem to matter and Pat Fitzgerald is solely concerned with taking Big Ten teams into overtime or at the very least punting 75 times before scoring a touchdown somehow and winning 13-10.  Stanford was at least a decent team, and it was a road game; the Wildcats are very content to lose to any team at any time in the nonconference schedule whether it is a ranked Pac 12 team or a defunct college team from the 1940s fielding a team of octogenarians.  In the past few years, Northwestern has lost to an FCS team at home and then won a bowl game and lost to a team that has literally never defeated a Big Ten team and then played in the conference championship game.  All this loss has done is probably eliminate Northwestern from the Playoff that they were unlikely to make and if somehow they actually get close we can just blame the whole thing on Body Clocks.


The Wildcats will open the home season against the University of Nevada Las Vegas and expect all of Ryan Field operate at maximum revelry: the Emaciated Wildcat Tunnel, the throbbing AC/DC music, and the single red firework that they shoot during the rocket's red glare part of the National Anthem while more often than not there is someone parachuting in with a gigantic American flag and sometimes it is terrifying because you are screaming "oh no oh no there's parachute guys  up there" but then the rocket harmlessly red glares itself past all paratroopers.

I cannot claim to pretend to know anything about UNLV football other than they do not go by the "Runnin' Rebels" except in basketball and the entire team is unexpectedly Confederate.  They are 1-1 with a comfortable victory over Southern Utah and a crushing loss to the Sun Belt's Alabama State.  Northwestern has already had a bye week and will be back in Chicago's Big Ten Time Zone. 

But what point is in trying to figure things like this out? Pat Fitzgerald's vintage of Northwestern is less of a football team than a variety of avant-garde football projects designed to undermine the concept of rational thought and projection.  In my brain, Fitzgerald is so angry at statistics and math that he has become a sort of Steakhead Foucauldian, casting football statistics as an exercise of a power structure and attempting to subvert it by losing to FCS teams at home while sinking to his knees and grass-staining his official Wildcat Coaching Shorts.  While it is clear and obvious that Fitzgerald operates as the head of a bizarre Overtime Cult, it may also be true that his secondary objective is to ridicule and dismiss the concept of S&P+ rankings.  This makes for a bizarre and stressful situation as a fan but given that the general expectation for Northwestern any given year is to get more or less rampaged upon, it is perhaps by continuously doing the unexpected such as losing games in which they are favored by double digits that allows them to inexplicably get to the Conference Championship game and irritate everyone.  This is the third goal of Northwestern Football, and my favorite.

This blog is going on vacation and will return after the Michigan State game

Friday, August 30, 2019

College Football's Impossible Task

As college football kicks off in all of its maniacal indecency, an enormous number of fans, pundits, and college students hopped up on memes are going to attempt to do one of the funniest things that anyone does in American sports and try to explain which college football teams are better than other ones.

This futile task consumes sophisticated numbers nerds with homebrew formulas and men on television with necktie knots so large that they affect the positioning of their cohosts’ neckties, all of whom can be shaken awake in the middle of the night during a natural disaster and still manage to sternly turn to anyone in the vicinity and say “I gotta say, I like that defense but they’re not gonna win if they don’t hold onta that ball;” the burden also falls on people who are drunkenly yelling at each other in parking lots.

College football’s innovators have come up with several key methods to examine whether a team is better than another one such as having them play games against each other. This method, though, remains fraught with uncertainty. The vagaries of a single game resolve little. After all, football analytics specialists tell us that games decided by seven points or fewer are basically random tossups. And even more decisive victories can be explained away by other issues—in 2015, for example, Stanford lost to Northwestern in the opening game and spent the rest of the season claiming that it should not count because the effect of flying to Evanston for an 11:00AM kickoff had so disrupted their Body Clocks that only an uncaring philistine ignorant in the basics of human physiology would expect them to have been able to win. Other hazards of games include poorly-timed injuries and athletics scandals, and, most importantly, uncalled holding penalties, a particular malady that aggrieves internet message board commenters.

But far thornier is the problem of the teams that do not play each other, which is the vast majority of football games. In order to deal with this issue, anyone attempting to rate football teams must take into account conferences, opponents, how badly they trounced other teams or found themselves the victims of Body Clocks, etc. In a normal sport, there would be a manageable number of teams to allow them to all play each other. But the college football universe is vast and unfathomable, and at some point the only way to divine true football ratings is to imagine an entire architecture of hypothetical football outcomes through computer models or by taking a vision quest aided by psychotropic drugs. 

Every year, this issue culminates in the controversy over the Playoff and the Championship.  College football has no idea how to handle this and keeps handing the job over to various cabals of bureaucrats and groups of people who attempt to persuade them by flying airplanes with banners over stadiums or by cutting wrestling promos on Paul Finebaum who has become the Mean Gene Okerlund of college football.  The whole enterprise continually reeks of conspiracy theories about preferential conference treatment and baroque Pynchonesque societies of mascot syndicates going back to the middle ages.  College football is the only sport where it is routine for teams to claim national championships like they are pretenders to a throne, their armies of fans surrounding NCAA headquarters under the banner of an AAC False Dmitry.

The forces of the University of Central Florida besieging a castle under the false flag of the Colley Matrix
Despite this grumbling, the playoff picture presents the most sane way of judging college football teams.  Those are where the very few colossus teams play-- the Clemsons and Alabamas, and handful of other teams steamrolling their way across hapless opponents in a grotesque spectacle.  Those teams are unmistakably good by any metric whether it is by S&P+ or press rankings or the trail of limbs and helmets strewn over the field by any team unfortunate enough to line up against them and spend the next several hours exploring the chemical composition of their soil or field turf from millimeters away.  There are also the unmistakably shitty teams too-- UCONN and whatever sorry squad has emanated from Lovie Smith's beard in any given season who spend most of their time advancing on ball carriers as effectively as a group of henchmen menacing Jason Statham.

But in college football's Roiling Middle, there is no way to weigh the performance of teams.  They play with an oblong ball in conditions raging from feverish swamp to blizzard, they are made up of teenagers, and everyone in charge is a red-faced maniac named "Chip" or "Bobby" who manages to ascend to histrionic heights not experienced by normal human beings-- imagine the angriest you have ever been in your life, so livid that no circumstance whether being in public or running short on time to evacuate before a volcano erupts can stop you from hollering as loud as you can at the target of your wrath and doing it for four hours at a time and that is how the persons in charge of football comport themselves on a normal Saturday.  An analyst can devise the most sophisticated model in the world that takes into consideration wind conditions and how players did on their midterm examinations or whether or not the coach is wearing shorts and still somehow a team will absolutely annihilate a good team standing in their way and then go out the next week and lose to Rutgers.

The combination of certainty and chaos makes college football so compelling.  In the macro sense, college football is dull-- the same cluster of teams get the best players, build the most ludicrous Harold J. "Zip" Clobbsmann Football Performance Centers With Waterslides, and ultimately win the trophy; most teams enter the season knowing they do not and will never have a chance for a championship short of simply claiming one.  But week to week, some team with a number in front of their name will get obliterated, embarrassed, field-charged and forced out of the playoff picture or even knocked down in the Great Hierarchy of Bowl Prestige and even the staunchest green-visored number zealots will rejoice while fans of the losing team get performatively angry online and demand that the offensive coordinator be fired.


We're not sure how, but the Northwestern Wildcats will play football again, even after scathing reviews.  The 'Cats lost every single out of conference game including one to Akron, a team that hadn't beaten a Big Ten team ever in more than 100 years of trying. They also won the Big Ten West and played in the Conference Championship Game then won a bowl game after going down 28-3.  They played hideous football, had no functioning running game for large chunks of the season, rotated quarterbacks with the capricious whims of a Football Caligula, and still won the Big Ten West with three weeks to spare.  They played 14 games, more than any other Northwestern team in history, inflicting themselves on the entire country.  It was one of the most confounding, silly, and greatest seasons in school history.

Pat Fitzgerald has put together his program, and that involves grinding the clock down to nothing and waiting for a Northwestern player to perform a miracle or for an opponent to do something transcendently, operatically stupid at the worst possible time and it's happened more often than not.  Fitzgerald is the only coach who watches Friday Night Lights for the gameplans.  But whatever it is that is happening, it is working, and Fitzgerald has grown more prominent in the coaching ranks, getting more resplendently red and coming up with increasingly weird grumpy takes.  So far, Fitzgerald has inveighed against communism and cell phones; this season, expect him to take aim at reckless Auto-Mobilesmanship and the designs of the Kaiser in the Ottoman Balkans.

The big story for Northwestern is a changing of guard at quarterback.  Clayton Thorson has graduated and gone to the NFL where Philadelphia's fans have greeted him with shoulder-mounted bazookas.  Fitzgerald has been coy about his replacement.  It will be either Hunter Johnson, the heralded transfer from Clemson or stalwart T.J. Green.  Most expect Johnson to play, but football coaches love not saying who the quarterback is because they enjoy pretending they are stentorian generals controlling Sensitive Classified (Eyes Only) information, and they will not compromise the integrity of the mission.

The 'Cats will face off against Stanford in a sequel to the 2015 contest.  That game was a stunning upset and, as always mentioned, a catalyst for the hundreds of Body Clock jokes I have made for the last four years.  Say "The Big Game" to most people in the context of Stanford football and they will conjure images of John Elway and players wending their way through the marching band before arriving in the endzone and obliterating a hapless trombone player who was riveted to the spot like a Godzilla victim, but for me it was the time that Stanford lost a game and then mentioned Body Clocks and then me never shutting up about it.  False start? Oh, that's a body clock. Incomplete pass? Better check on your precious bodily fluids.  Honestly, there's fairly compelling evidence that West Coast teams having to play early games further east are badly affected by this, but latching onto incredibly dumb shit is a time-honored and essential element of college football discourse and I will never stop.  I probably won't even know what the score to this game is other than body clock to non-body clock.
Precious Bodily Clocks

If it is, as I have argued, nearly impossible to tell what football teams will do this season, it is completely impossible to predict what will happen in a Northwestern football season.  They will beat teams they should not, they will probably lose inexplicably to a bad team, they will attempt to send every game into overtime whether they are winning or losing, and they will confound anyone insane enough to get into the football predictions business.  No analyst can pin them down, no formula can constrain them.  They are strange and infuriating and they are defending the Big Ten West crown.       

Monday, August 12, 2019

COLD COPY: Bill Carmody, Basketball Zealot

Bill Carmody retired on June 18. Here is a brief appreciation of that I wrote and half-heartedly and unsuccessfully attempted to get published elsewhere. Readers of this blog will note that there is not much that is new here as I've rhapsodized about Carmody in previous articles on Northwestern's sports gimmicks and the strange sensation of watching Carmody take Holy Cross to the NCAA Tournament, but I am posting this here because I remembered that it exists.

Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein wrote that at a Northwestern basketball event, one fan asked head coach Bill Carmody a “long-winded and ill-informed” question about changing his Princeton offense to fit his star players.  “No,” said Bill Carmody.

The thing to know about Bill Carmody is that he is a basketball zealot.  Carmody, who retired in June from coaching after stints at Princeton, Northwestern, and Holy Cross, believes wholly and truly in the Princeton offense.  There is nothing that basketball has thrown at Carmody in nearly a quarter century of head coaching jobs-- not rule changes, stylistic revolutions, NBA players, the bludgeoning crew cuts of the Big Ten-- that Carmody has not tried to solve with a series of slowly-developing back cuts.  “The only active coach who has been loyal to an offensive system for longer than Bill Carmody,” basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy tweeted, “is Roy Williams.”

Carmody won but not a lot, appeared occasionally in the postseason but never led a team past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, made a few quips at press conferences but never made waves as the type of larger-than-life character bred by college basketball.  His greatest achievement was to take his slow, methodical, and grinding offense, fuse it with some disconcerting and undulating zone defenses, and stock his teams with strange beanpole physiques and odd, catapult jumpshooters and players with a general rec-spec handball aesthetic-- and to bring all of this into storied basketball arenas and sometimes win.

Carmody learned the Princeton offense at the hands of its inventor Pete Carrill.  He worked as Carrill’s assistant for fourteen years and then took over the program in 1996.  His Tigers made the tournament two years in a row; in the 1997-1998 season, they were ranked as highly as seventh in the nation.

But it was Carmody’s stint with Northwestern that allowed him to push his system to its absolute limit.  Here, in the Big Ten, he would face name brand programs, legendary coaches, NBA players, and raucous, hostile arenas on the road and at home, where visiting fans regularly overwhelmed the few Northwestern fans who could still stomach turning out to watch their historically moribund team get clobbered twice a week.  

The Big Ten in the early 2000s was, with few exceptions, not a home for fleet, exciting basketball.  It appealed to fans of violent, fundamental defense and lumbering. Carmody surveyed this situation and decided, as he always did, that he would slow it down.  Northwestern teams passed the ball around the perimeter and looked to find a lane for a cutter or an open jump shot for all 35 seconds if necessary; they’d wait for a sliver of daylight or missed rotation or for defenders to just get bored and walk off the court to try to find a game of basketball somewhere.  Then Northwestern would shoot, run to the other end, get violently dunked on, and start it up again.

Carmody had little time for any gladhanding niceties foisted on a college head coach, things that cut into his true love which was standing around a practice gym with arms folded muttering “aw, c’mon.”  He seemed ill-disposed to the slick salesmanship involved with recruiting and he did not have much to sell-- Northwestern had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and a spot on the team before Carmody offered only the opportunity to get glared at by Gene Keady or heckled by a visiting fan at close range because the only way for players to get to the court at Welsh-Ryan arena was to shoulder past the hot dog line.  Carmody and his staff convinced some talented local players like Jitim Young (a 6’2” guard who somehow led the team in rebounding) to join, but also began recruiting heavily overseas where Northwestern’s reputation as a basketball wasteland had less resonance. This international backcutting unit managed to pull off heretofore unimagined feats: in 2004, they managed to win as many Big Ten games as they lost for the first time since 1968; several years later, they made the N.I.T. 

Under Carmody, Northwestern did the unthinkable and became decent.  He found his greatest player, John Shurna, a spindly forward with a hideous but unstoppable jump shot that came from his chest and fired like the spring-loaded projectile from an action figure.  Those teams found themselves knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament. During the 2011-2 season, they came as agonizingly close to making the tournament as possible. The Wildcats took nearly every high-ranked team they needed to beat to overtime or the very last second and then someone would push a button for the buzzer and send them back to the N.I.T.  Shuna graduated, went on to play in Spain, and appeared in a New York Times article because he grew an enormous and ungainly beard.  They never made the tournament, and Northwestern fired Carmody after thirteen seasons.

Holy Cross hired Carmody in 2015, and something magical happened.  The Crusaders won ten games in the regular season. They lost all of their Patriot League road games and finished the regular season on a five-game losing streak.  Then, they somehow swept the conference tournament and cut down the nets. Bill Carmody was finally back in the NCAA Tournament with one of the strangest and least likely runs in the history of the sport.  And it was all there: the back cuts, the 1-3-1 zone lunging across the key, the one guy who could shoot threes, the offense grinding with the smoke and squeak of Victorian machinery designed to frustrate an opponent into just wanting to get this shit over with already-- this could have been any Bill Carmody team at any point playing the only type of basketball that he would ever allow himself to play.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

When Nixon Was In Nixonland

Richard Nixon looms over the twenty-first century.  There is Nixon as a cultural kitsch object, with his gestures and his catchphrases and deeply unsettling television appearances  and his damp paranoiac scowl that makes for an easy punchline.  There is Nixon now, in 2019, invoked as government hearings and special prosecutor's reports swirl around us-- former White House counsel and Watergate witness John Dean recently testified, and former Nixon ratfucker Roger Stone flaunted his Nixon tattoo and victory pose after his arrest.  But Nixon casts a larger shadow in politics.  In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein uses Nixon as a stand-in for American polarization along new axes, divisions based on apocalyptic language and violence. 

Nixon, in Perlstein's depiction, serves as an odd symbol of the political chaos of the 1960s.  He comes across as a ruthless striver (an Orthogonian, as Perlstein calls him using the name of the club of outsiders from college that Nixon formed in contrast to the natural, wealthy, elite Franklins-- Perlstein uses Orthagonians and Franklins throughout the books in a device that loses its novelty long before page 700).  Nixon is not a fanatic, but an opportunist-- he rises from obscurity by riding the wave of anticommunism in the Alger Hiss case, strengthens his anticommunist bromides by yelling at Nikita Khrushchev, and aligns with the hard right burbling in the Republican Party represented by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan only when it becomes his path to victory in the 1968 Republican primary.  Nixon certainly made decisions to intensify the tensions rivening Amercians-- his law and order campaign language that implicitly privileged police violence against protesters, his deal with Strom Thurmond to undercut integration efforts and by implication all civil rights, his vice president Spiro Agnew's operatic denunciations of the press in the mode of a hammy stage villain with an unreliable false mustache.  But it was Nixon's efforts to prolong and intensify the war in Vietnam as the horrific effects of the bombs and fading justifications for American involvement became more apparent that most dangerously divided the country. As bombs devastated Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Americans became further enraged either in disgust for the war or entrenched in support for it.

Perlstein's biggest challenge in Nixonland comes from the fact that he is writing about the Turbulent Sixties, a time that exists in some readers' living memory or for younger readers, the endless discussions, reproductions, and omnipresence of The 1960s in culture as the Baby Boomers came of age and devoted a large percentage of media to building 1960s simulacra.  This is a strange situation.  While certain distorted elements of the past have been reconstructed and commodified (the "old west" springs to mind), the combination of readily accessible television and recording archives and media executives' decisions to prioritize this particular era for nostalgia has left entire subsequent generations marinating in The Sixties.  As we speak, someone somewhere is splicing "For What It's Worth" into a documentary.  The Rolling Stones are still on tour, and Danny Boyle has just made a movie about how Beatles songs would still vault a performer into superstardom that can be read as boomer cult of immortality.  What can Perlstein write about the Nixon-Kennedy debates after they've been so solidified into pop culture that the popular understanding of them can be summarized in 30 seconds on the Simpsons?

The toughest thing for anyone writing about the Nixon era not only involves historians' normal difficulty gathering sources, making sense of them, and assembling material into something that provides fresh insights or sells books, but also involves grappling with a time that has been churned over and calcified into a Gump-hued caricature that everyone already thinks they know about.

In Nixonland, the familiarity of headlines is part of the reason why the book is so compelling.  Perlstein brilliantly weaves them all together with an emphasis on what people were reading in newspapers and watching on television to give a sense of the chaotic and overwhelming events and how they were all almost immediately subsumed into some sort of political narrative.  Perlstein also highlights now-obscure issues that were a big deal at the time and since-forgotten ephemera.  In one case, Nixon, grappling with the Moratorium movement against the Vietnam War that had organized a massive, national protest in 1969, decided to do some PR by personally responding to a letter from a college student.  That student responded to Nixon's speech about the democratic process by denigrating it because he was the president of the Ignatius J. Reilly-esque Student Monarchist Society, and he demanded the iron fist of some aristocrat riven with inbreeding.

While Nixonland is about more than Nixon himself, Perlstein does spend enough time with Nixon to capture his own own innately bizarre Nixonness.  Nixon, preoccupied with his image after the 1960 election, spends his time obsessively shaving like he's some sort of damp werewolf.  Nixon, bingewatching Patton while marinating in scotch.  Nixon figuring out his greatest political asset, according to Perlstein, was his talent to get the sniffy elites and protesters despised by the voters he courted to hate him.  During a campaign for the 1970 midterm elections, Nixon and his press office arranged to show him abused by large crowds. At a stop in San Jose, Perlstein writes that Nixon chief of staff Bob Haldeman arranged for protestors to have time to surround Nixon's motorcade.  "Nixon lept up on the hood of his bulletproof limousine, made the two-handed V-salute, and jutted out his chin.  He told his handlers 'That's what they hate so see!'"
You hate to see it

Here Nixon echoed one of the most important moments of his career, an attack on his motorcade in Venezuela during a 1958 tour as vice president.  For this moment, and several other early Nixon episodes, the strangest accounts were those left by Nixon in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to sell himself.


Nixon released Six Crises in the wake of his loss in the 1960 presidential election.  Six Crises is by no means a good book-- like most politician's tomes it is boring, self-serving, largely ghost-written, and meant exclusively to pump up the author's profile before an election (it came out as Nixon was running his ill-fated 1962 campaign for California governor).  The ostensible point of the book is a manual for crisis management through Nixon's various humiliating fuck-ups, times people tried to bludgeon him to death, etc.  Instead, though, the point is to describe how Richard Milhous Nixon is a cool customer and always acts with propriety in the interests of the United States despite unscrupulous political rivals and vicious communists trying to foil him at every turn.

Nixon's posturing in Six Crises in 2019 serves as its own punchline because we all know how the story ends, with a Seventh Crisis, the series of political smears and setups and the bumbling boob-henchmen and the botched robbery and the coverup and the tapes that are all just Nixon sitting around the oval office grumbling about those bastards and hot pants and everything else that has been subsumed into the larger grotesquerie of Nixonia.

"Friday, November 7 was a bleak day at the start of a long, cold, Washington winter," one paragraph begins jackwebbically.  "It was a particularly cold day in the fortunes of the Republican Party and of Richard Nixon." According to his publisher Kenneth McCormick's New York Times obituary, Nixon wrote that section on the 1960 election himself and I would have really enjoyed an entire book in that style, just Nixon freestyling on meteorological portents and referring to himself in the third person: The wind whipped through parade as the boos cascaded around the limo like the leaves cascading from the trees.  But there was one man who was not whipped: Richard Nixon.  The thermometer said it was boiling but nothing on the face of the Earth was as hot as Richard Nixon as Khrushchev rained another blow on the Maytag.

Most of the crises in the book unfold with a series of meetings, negotiations, speeches and television appearances.  The most interesting chapter, though, involves violence and  thrilling escapes.  In the spring of 1958, Nixon was sent on a tour through South America.  There, Nixon finds himself spat upon, screamed at, and attacked in what he describes as a series of literal communist plots.  "This paper [the Tribuna Popular, the Venezuelan Communist Party's organ] contained a particularly vicious attack on the United States and a front-page photograph of me, doctored so my teeth looked like fangs and my face like that of a war-mongering fiend." During a parade in Venezuela, Nixon's motorcade got ensnared in a road block and attacked; Nixon did find himself in legitimate physical danger.

My favorite passage in the book comes earlier in the Caracas chapter.  There, Nixon also meets with protest in Lima, where he describes shoving his way back to his hotel through a hostile crowd.  In this section Nixon reveals the funniest possible Nixon, Tough Guy Nixon:
Just as I reached the hotel door I came face to face with a man I later learned was one of the most notorious Communist agitators in Lima.  I saw before me a weird-looking character whose bulging eyes seemed to merge with his mouth and nose in one distorted blob.  He let fly a wad of spit which caught me full in the face.  I went through in that instant a terrible test of temper control.  One must experience the sensation to realize why spitting in a person's face is the most infuriating insult ever conceived by man.  I felt an almost uncontrollable urge to tear the face in front of me to pieces. [Secret Service agent Jack] Sherwood deserves the credit for keeping me from handling the man personally.  He grabbed him by the arm and whirled him out of my path, but as I saw his legs go by, I at least had the satisfaction of planting a healthy kick on his shins.  Nothing I did all day made me feel better.
Six Crises is clearly meant to prop up the seemingly dead political career of Nixon, and therefore he portrays himself as statesmanlike, at times even courtly.  But Nixon was also not going to write an entire book without sticking a few shivs into his variegated enemies.  The Caracas chapter, for example, ends with reports of his rival Nelson Rockefeller landing at his estate in Venezuela a few months after Nixon's escape and telling the crowd there "I have nothing to do with Nixon."  Nixon writes "I had received a cable from Nelson Rockefeller which read 'your courage and determination have inspired democratic forces throughout the hemisphere.  We all feel a great sense of pride in your action.  Congratulations."  That is the end of the chapter.

The section on the 1960 election allows Nixon to get in all of his jabs at Kennedy again, blasting him as inexperienced at foreign policy and able to get away with waffling on key issues all because he did not go on TV in the debate and look like he was going to crawl through the set and eat Americans the way Nixon did.  Nixon magnanimously concedes defeat for the good of the country while also presenting readers with a numbered List of Election Irregularities.  Nixon alleges that Kennedy used privileged information about plans to train insurgents to depose Castro to trap him in an impossible position.  Nixon, in the 1968 edition that I have, continues the argument in a vindictive footnote that ends "beyond this I have no comment. My book speaks for itself." 


"Our nation stands at a fork in the political road.  In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.  This is Nixonland.  America is something different," Adlai Stevenson said in a speech during the 1956 campaign. 

But Perlstein disagreed.  He saw Nixonland as intrinsically wrapped up in America.  "Nixonland," Perstein writes, "is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coexist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans."  Division, dirty tricks, and acts of political violence are not novel to the Nixon era, but are foundational parts of the country, what Philip Roth called the "American berserk."  However, there are novel features of the American landscape that Perlstein calls attention to: the specific realignment of partisan politics that has recontoured political parties into their modern form, the importance of television, the Nixonian attacks on the media emanating from Agnew and Nixon's dead-eyed Munster castoff Watergate-era press secretary Ron Ziegler.

And while Nixon looms large, Perlstein himself would caution against reaching too literally into the past.  Don't you dare fucking tweet at Perlstein that some political event is exactly like Nixonland like you're comparing the Denver Nuggets to Game of Thrones.  Nixon's brand of corruption surely reminded contemporaries of the past figures while few people before him could envision his own brand of flinty-eyed, Haldeman haircut paranoia, the past not repeating but echoing into grotesque distortions unimaginable until they already happen.