I just finished Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland, which is a biography of Richard Nixon but also a study of 60s era politics and how the divisions that existed then reverberate today. The book was so well done that I can’t think of many substantial criticisms. It is one of the most detailed biographical tomes I’ve ever read (for instance, I never knew Watergate robber E. Howard Hunt was a bestselling suspense novelist under a pen name, or that G. Gordon Liddy admires Nazi Germany).
Perlstein argues that Nixon pioneered the manipulation of cultural divides for political gain. More significant than 60s left wing radicalism for Perlstein was the backlash against it, which was more ubiquitous than the movement itself. Nixon did, after all, win the ‘72 election in a landslide. Perlstein identifies Nixon as the grand innovator when it comes to framing liberals as “elites” and conservatives as the true populists who identify with middle America. This, of course, was aided by Nixon’s own insecurities that come from his history as a blue collar Californian who was beaten down all his life by East Coast elites like the Kennedys.
He saw himself as part of the “silent majority.” According to Perlstein, he and his true believers saw saving the country from the liberal democratic establishment and 60s anarchists (they were all bound together) as necessitating any extreme—even a nationwide campaign of spying, political sabotage and robbery.
Perlstein spends a good deal of time on Nixon’s role in putting away Alger Hiss. Nixon was the House’s equivalent to McCarthy and embraced his position in HUAC. At a time when most thought of HUAC as a bastion of wing nuts, Nixon saw it as a populist platform and a way to blur the distinction between establishment liberals and Communist infiltrators.
Nixonland also has the advantage of hindsight. Older books on Nixon—not knowing what we know now—tend to offer fragmented glimpses of Nixon’s chicanery. Nixonland leaves no doubt of Nixon’s role in, among other things, the infiltration and sabotage of Democratic campaigns, nation wide robberies and domestic spying. In addition to Watergate, Nixon’s “plumbers,” who operated right out the White House, broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and the Brookings institution. Nixon himself even contemplated firebombing Brookings so fake firefighters could break in and steal top secret documents.