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 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 now exist as 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 to 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.  Through it all, 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.  He 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.

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