A Checkered Past

"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 Obama as Muslim radicals. And of course there are larger resonances too: the many ways issues of race and class propelled what Perlstein calls “a Democratic civil war” that undid the 1972 McGovern campaign. One doesn’t have to be a Washington insider to recognize the rehearsal of the same tensions in the Democratic Party last spring with the tempest around Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Hillary Clinton’s “hard-working Americans.”

The primary purpose of Perlstein’s narrative history is to describe why and how “blood and fire” became part of the American political landscape. For, as Perlstein notes, emotions have not always been a signature feature of our politics. And this is how Richard Nixon becomes a crucial part of Perlstein’s story—“the brilliant and tortured man struggling to forge a public language that promised mastery of the strange new angers, anxieties, and resentments wracking the nation in the 1960s.... Nixon’s character—his own overwhelming angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the chaos of the 1960s—sparks the combustion.”

Yet Perlstein does not reduce his political history to Nixon’s psycho-biography, although he does offer compelling details on that front. For example, he argues that Nixon’s college experiences as an “Orthogonian” (the name of the club Nixon formed as a counter to the polished, black-tie crowd) drove his lifelong disdain for privileged elites. His role as an intentional outsider allowed Nixon to identify with the anger of those who felt they had been unfairly excluded. Of course, as Perlstein details, this did not make Nixon a champion of the oppressed and downtrodden but rather a savvy exploiter of white middle-class fears and discontent.

Indeed, Nixon used resentments to brilliant effect. While he was running for vice president in 1952, it was reported in the press that he took $18,000 in illegal campaign contributions. His running mate General Dwight Eisenhower offered no aid or advice; so Nixon decided to take the fight to a live TV audience.

Nixon began his speech with some formalities, contesting the accounting and so forth, but he turned the tide of opinion when he revealed, “I own a 1950 Oldsmobile car.... We have our furniture. We have no stocks and bonds of any type.” He then detailed what he and Pat owed, including a $3,500 debt to his parents. He noted that Pat did not have a mink coat, although “she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.” He concluded with a final pivotal detail:

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t, they’ll probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the six-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know the kids love that dog, and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re going to keep it.

Before the address, Eisenhower was receiving telegrams demanding that Richard Nixon should be dumped from the ticket. After the address, more than 2 million telegrams poured in affirming Nixon’s place on the ticket. Nixon had convinced folks that when he misquoted Abraham Lincoln (“God must have loved the common people; he made so many of them”), he was one of those common people and was being wrongly persecuted (as many of them had been). Nixon asked them to identify with his struggles and his humiliation. And many did.

Of course, the ramifications of his ability to understand the uneasiness of the time and exploit it for political gain did not end with the relatively harmless “Checkers speech.” Nixon, as Perlstein recounts, was able to harness American fears and resentment to make it appear that Johnson was “soft” on Communism in the Alger Hiss case, that rioting blacks in Watts and cities across the country were “ungrateful for the civil-rights laws,” and that morally degraded and unruly Ivy League students were squandering opportunities for other aspiring hard-working students with their anti-law-and-order antics. As Perlstein notes, Nixon was observing and learning from Ronald Reagan long before the California governor became known as the “great communicator.”

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the book is Perlstein’s ability to synthesize cultural, social, and political history. His chapters on racial conflict, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, show how each element of U.S. society was involved in the denouement of Johnson’s “Great Society.” Perlstein’s writing is lively and the details new, even though the primary elements of the story are well known. What’s more, throughout the narrative Perlstein reproduces Nixon’s interpretation of events—how he read racial strife, why he was often convinced that his opponents did not understand the American way of life. While one is often appalled at how effective Nixon was in exploiting these events, Perlstein is nuanced and thoughtful in his revelations. He also has an impressive knack for details—everything from the fire alarm set off by irate feminists at the 1972 Democratic convention that sent scantily clad Playboy bunnies onto the convention floor to the presidential commercials showing a blank page in Nixon’s passport. “There are still places to go,” it announced. “Friends to be won. That’s why we still need President Nixon. Now, more than ever.”

At the conclusion of Perlstein’s history, one feels a sense of both regret at the opportunities lost and of renewed respect for the power of elected officials to interpret and shape the temper of the times. The American voter’s decisions in the weeks ahead will seem even more important to one who has read Nixonland.

Published in the 2008-10-10 issue: 

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

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