Nixonland: Murder in the Cathedral

I just finished reading Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, and need to take a nap. Have you ever been lashed to a barnacle-encrusted pier and smashed by salty waves for days on end? You’d need a nap, too.

The reviewers have fallen over themselves to praise Nixonland, calling it the best book written about the 1960s, brilliant and fun, compulsively readable, hypercaffeinated, stunning, fluently written and carefully researched, terrific, dazzling, compelling, powerful, epic, gifted, grand, riveting, remarkable, and a hell of a book.

It is none of these things.

To illustrate, allow me to don the metaphorical garb Perlstein employs throughout Nixonland and assume the persona of a Franklin (the social club for privileged, smug students at Whittier College) and cast Perlstein as an Orthogonian (the club Nixon formed to provide a counter-identity for the unsophisticated, less privileged commuter students at the college).

Perlstein graduated from the University of Chicago (that eternally Orthogonian outsider to Franklin Harvard and Yale) in 1992, with a degree in history. Nixonland reads like nothing more than an undergraduate thesis. It is sprawling, poorly written, and ham-handed analytically. The Franklin-Orthogonian metaphor tires after only a few pages, and references to it start to feel like blows to the head after the first 50 pages (of an 800-page book).

To his credit, Perlstein has done his research. He knows the Nixon tapes inside-out, takes advantage of most major books and relevant newspaper and news magazine archives, and strings together references to every single person and event — prominent or obscure — that paraded through the 1960s. But the effect is cacophonous and the inherent drama of the period in his narrative often lapses into serial, unconnected moments of melodrama.

I did not exactly dislike Nixonland. Reading it was like visiting an historical theme park while on acid. It was never boring and an event to remember. But Nixonland also exhausted me and frustrated me. The book lacked grace, and given the rapture that its publication spawned, I am compelled to address some of its major problems.

First, Perlstein actually has nothing to say about Nixon and the 1960s that has not already been said before by historians and analysts of the period. Virtually no era in American history has received more study than the 1960s. In fact, I wrote my own manic, gargantuan, poorly written undergraduate thesis about the fracturing of the liberal consensus way back in 1979. We may be ready, four decades removed from the 1960s, for a new assessment. However, Perlstein’s retreat to the one-size-fits-all Franklin-Orthogonian metaphor as the framework for explaining the events of the 1960s and assigning meaning to them sheds no new light on the period.

Perlstein dips into his Godfrey Hodgson (the Tocqueville of the 1960s) and his Hunter Thompson for contemporary insight. Strangely, he ignores the writings of Richard Hofstadter, the Columbia University historian who developed the most sophisticated – and contentious – argument about the rise of “status politics” in the 1950s and 1960s, the idea that cultural and psychological anxiety had displaced traditional economic concerns as the forces driving political reaction and the emergence of a new Republican majority after 1964. Hofstadter’s contribution was to locate this current of anxiety throughout much of American history. There have always been Orthogonians, and politics has always exploited them.

At the same time, Perlstein underplays how Nixon — with unparalleled facility — used legislative initiatives, executive actions, fiscal policy, and the federal budget as traditional economic drivers of political support. Perlstein spares no turn of phrase to inform us of Nixon’s Satanic political ambitions, but leaves in shadow the reality that Nixon may have been the single most skilled US politician of the 20th century.Subscribe to The Morning Email.Wake up to the day’s most important news.

Perlstein also ignores, and in fact never mentions, what remains the most brilliant account of Nixon and the meaning of the 1960s, Garry Wills’s great Nixon Agonistes (which, after its publication in 1970, landed Wills on Nixon’s enemies list). Because Wills is a bit of an intellectual outsider — he was a devout Roman Catholic who received a PhD in Classics — he brings philosophical perspective, Thomist order, and a sense of tragedy and sin to the events of the 1960s. By contrast, Perlstein, who surfs a river of events and citations that may correlate but do not establish a meaningful train of causation, does not possess the philosophical and analytic training that would allow him to rise above events and confer any true meaning up them.

There is a second problem with Nixonland, which has little to do with Perlstein and more to do with the sorry state of commercial publishing in the United States. Book publishers, like print newspapers, are withering before our eyes. It is no longer a new story that large media conglomerates purchased and eviscerated most of the respected independent book publishers during the 1980s and 1990s. The controlling influence of the editorial staff distinguished Random House and other major publishers in they heyday. Today, the truncation of the editing function and the almost systematic destruction of the craft of editing fine books is old news. But its impact on the quality of books — considered as fragile individuals that must be birthed and breathed to life by a concerned and skilled process of editorial midwifery — has been nothing short of devastating.

Nixonland received no editorial care. It reads like a first draft, with fractured prose, no coherent narrative, and a superabundance of words, many of which have no obvious meaning. A strong editor would have reduced the book from 800 to 400 pages, taken a bright red pen to nearly every sentence, and required Perlstein to explain events and knit them into a single garment, not simply string them together like colored beads. Above all, this editor would have formed a partnership with Perlstein and actively performed a teaching function, not merely rushed the book to press because the publishers sensed a money-making opportunity. It is not an accident that in the four rambling pages of acknowledgments, in which Perlstein thanks hundreds of friends, colleagues, and associates, he reserves only a sentence of thanks for his editor.

To illustrate the point, let’s pair the opening words of Nixonland – on the pages lined with praise that precede the book itself — with the tortured penultimate sentences of Nixonland., in which Perlstein aspires to dramatic climax, but only leaves the reader befuddled.

In the first review on the first page, Stephen King captures in a single brilliant phrase the meaning of Richard Nixon — referring to him as “the Great American Political Vampire”. By contrast, Perlstein closes with the following convolution: Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not. I am on page 748. And I am confused. I wish Stephen King had written this book.