A Checkered Past

The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
Rick Perlstein
Scribner, $37.50, 896 pp.

"The main character in Nixonland is not Nixon. Its protagonist, in fact, has no name—but lives on every page. It is the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.” So begins award-winning historian Rick Perlstein’s compelling sociopolitical history of four pivotal American elections: those of 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972.

The main argument of this highly readable history is that in the eight years between Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory and Richard M. Nixon’s even bigger landslide in 1972, the “battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire.” Perlstein’s narrative is so riveting and detailed that by the end it is difficult not to be convinced.

Indeed, it is fascinating (and sometimes a bit chilling) how often Perlstein’s account resonates with today’s presidential election in ways it would have been impossible for him to anticipate while writing the book. Even a small detail about a 1968 cartoon depicting Robert F. Kennedy and his wife Ethel as Bonnie and Clyde, which sought to link them to the late ’60s radical youth movement, finds an echo in the recent New Yorker cartoon caricaturing Barack and Michelle...

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About the Author

Melissa M. Matthes teaches in the Government/Humanities Department of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.