If People Really Wanted Moral Leadership, He’d Give Them Moral Leadership: Rick Perlstein’s “Nixonland.”

Not long after Richard Nixon’s White House crimes were finally coming to light—as Woodward and Bernstein uncovered them fact by fact, link by link—The New Yorker ran a brilliant cartoon. Two men, sitting at a bar. One says to the other: “Look, Nixon’s no dope. If the people really wanted moral leadership, he’d give them moral leadership.” Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein is why that cartoon was, in a nutshell, right.

This book is gigantic, thoroughly researched, and as much of a history of the times of Richard Nixon as it is about Nixon himself. For Nixon, to Perlstein, is a product of his era, someone who both catalyzed it and was a byproduct of the things he could not control. It opens with the Watts Riots in 1965, and ends as Watergate is about to bring down the presidency. In between, we backtrack to see how Nixon jockeyed his way into the vice presidency under Eisenhower, eventually employing his dog Checkers to ward off being dropped from the ticket; how as a congressman he figured out Joseph McCarthy’s tactics before the Wisconsin senator himself did; how Nixon rebounded after the razor-thin loss to Kennedy in 1960, ready to claim the mantle of the GOP again in 1968. (Imagining that a major political party would renominate someone who has previously lost the general election—i.e. John Kerry or John McCain—is unthinkable these days.) The broader point here Perlstein is after are the usual adages of perceptive history: everything we think is new is actually old. The ferocious partisan rhetoric and demonization did not start with George W. Bush or Barack Obama, and the harbored extremes of the country have always been out there, often in plain sight. Rather, Perlstein’s key insight is not how bad politics can be, but how often we falsely imagined how good it was:

It is not too much to suggest that the rages that accompanied the crumbling of this myth of consenus, as the furies of the 1960s advanced, would not have been so rageful—would not have been so literally murderous—had the false rhetoric of American unity not been so glibly enforced in the years that preceded it: that some of the 1960s anger and violence was a return of what America had repressed.

This was a country, after all, that long had the institution of slavery, and that faced fierce income disparities and social upheaval before World War II—long divided along racial/ethnic, income, and rural/urban lines. The long party from V-E Day and V-J Day finally became a hangover by the mid 1960s. And nobody embodied these contradictions, accomplishments, and ideas better than Nixon. He was a relentless worker, as many know. He was fiercely intelligent, as many also know. Perlstein focuses less on Nixon’s personal foibles/failings—the paranoia and the greed and the drinking—and more on how he understood the political situation, how he understood what the majority of Americans (the “Silent Majority” was Nixon’s genius term) wanted and/or needed to hear. For all of its importance and perceptiveness (and later attention), the anti-Vietnam movement, as well as the hippies and the left, never (at least at this particular point in time) represented the majority of Americans. Nixon fully comprehended that the loudest were not the ones he had to listen to—and that a little bit of dishonesty and misdirection in the right way paid off huge dividends.

Nixon’s ethical failings extended to delaying possible peace negotiations in Vietnam in order to help his chances against Humphrey in 1968, to overseeing and approving unbelievable illegal and disgusting conduct on the part of his Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP), and to fibbing about the recording of conversations in the White House. (Even his founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, by executive order, was merely a way for him to gain a firmer control of the federal bureaucracy.) Again, Perlstein is not concerned about what level of sanity Nixon possessed, or why he acted so recklessly; he is concerned with what strands of American thought and belief that the President thought he needed to seek. Nixon thought the extreme right wing was nuts, but he figured how to cater to them anyway. (This through rhetoric, not actual action, a tactic which the current GOP has ostensibly abandoned.) Nixon knew policy, and he knew what it was important to do. But what he prioritized, again and again, was what was best for his presidency and his administration. The real problem was that America was perhaps too distracted with each other—how much they didn’t want moral leadership, but wanted a fighter-in-chief or a demon-in-chief—to notice.

Sometimes Perlstein drifts into being conclusory, but the bulk of the time he lets the evidence do the talking. The hubris on both sides is astounding: for many, the massive and unprecedented Civil Rights gains of the Johnson Administration simply showed how much more needed to be done. For others, unfounded, racist fears of minority takeovers ruled their thoughts on domestic policy. Perlstein balances the two, and deftly shows, via their own records, how absurd the extremes could be, but also how each extreme tended to provide the biggest fodder for the other. (E.g., white suburban xenophobia being partially predicated on violent Black Power rhetoric and calls to arms.)

Nixonland is a place where only those with an abiding interest in the era, in Nixon, or who mistakenly think partisanship is a recent development, should trek. But for those who do, Perlstein provides all the right navigating signposts.