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Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein

June 23, 2018

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The Nixon years read like the lyrics to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Viet Nam. Black Panthers. Counter-culture. Revolution. Kent State. Jane Fonda. Timothy Leary. Chicago Seven. Burning flags. Burning bras. Burning buildings. Burning protesters. Bombings. Watergate. Lies, lies lies.

Black Panther Fred Hampton was executed in his bed by Chicago police. The FBI assisted. George Winne Jr., a 23-year-old UC San Diego student, lit himself on fire in protest of the war. Across the Midwest, a dozen campus ROTC buildings were burned to the ground. A lefty college professor was beaten nearly to death in his office by an angry right-winger.

In New York, construction workers assaulted protesters, then forced City Hall officials to raise the American flag, flying at half-mast for the four killed in the Kent State massacre.

In 1971, 13% of American university students identified themselves as “revolutionary” or “radically dissident.” When a survey asked students at the most distinguished universities to list men they admired, the three presidential candidates came in behind Che Guevara.

West Virginia passed a law declaring anyone who disobeyed an order of any cop, or any bystander deputized on the spot by a cop, as a “rioter.” They simultaneously passed a law declaring cops guilt-free in any rioter’s death.

Checking the Nixon years is a dose of healthy perspective to anyone who thinks we’re in an unprecedented era of political insanity. Today is an eerie echo of the Nixon years, and in many ways Nixon set the table for today’s divisiveness.

“The second half of the twentieth century will be known as the age of Nixon,” Bob Dole said at Nixon’s memorial. Perlstein agrees: “In a sense he surely did not intend, I think Bob Dole was correct. What Richard Nixon left behind was the very terms of our national self-image, a notion that there are two kinds of Americans.” These two kinds of Americans are forced by our binary political system into two distinct tribes. They each have very different ideas of what it means to be American, each convinced that they are right and justified and the other is evil and stupid. What is America? Who should be an American? These are fundamental disagreements. Two sides, long at odds but, since the Nixon years, increasingly at war.

Vietnam fractured America. Richard Nixon was the rat that took up residence in the fissure. He and his team eschewed the typical political strategy of consensus-building. They saw opportunity in the polarization and made divisiveness a strategy.

Nixon introduced the idea of the “elite media” and was more openly critical of the press than any previous president. He undercut the credibility of the news. People could start to believe whatever suited their political disposition. Yet Nixon was obsessed with the press’s portrayal of him. He spent hours alone every day, brooding, fuming over the news coverage, angered they wouldn’t pick up the line that he worked 20-hour days, wouldn’t run stories that, ironically, stated he was a man who “cared nothing of public relations.” Nixon, I was amused to learn, made absurd claims about crowd size at his events.

He played to the economic divide and the cultural divide, stoking the anger of middle-America whites who felt left behind. “Negroes at least had a lobby. Blue collar whites feel like a forgotten people,” one journalist wrote.

And then the downfall. Watergate and all the deception surrounding it. The denials, the slippery dodges, dancing on lies until the dance floor disappeared. Americans mistrust their government because the government showed it could not be trusted. Nixon should have gone to jail for what he did to this country. His crimes changed us, made us a weaker nation. Made us a cynical nation. Made us a divided nation.

This book is long, but it is enlightening and, at times, even entertaining. If you look at our current situation and wonder how the hell we got to here, a pairing of Nixonland and the Ken Burns/Lynn Novik documentary The Vietnam War hold many of the answers. Our current President is as toxic to the well-being of America as any in history, but we can thank Nixon for the playbook.

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