Supplemental: Announcing the death of the west!


Rick Perlstein’s Nixon doll: Was Richard Nixon already crazy when he was seven years old?

Rick Perlstein pretty much gives that impression in the second chapter of Nixonland, his 2008 best-seller.

(For a fascinating reading experience, see “Chapter Two/The Orthogonian,” pages 20-43. Prepare to study hard.)

The chapter presents an overview of Nixon’s earlier years, from his birth on through the Checkers speech. It starts with a peculiar portrait of Yorba Linda, “the godforsaken little burg” where Nixon spent his childhood, doing a series of “dirty jobs.”

Perlstein starts with that highly peculiar, highly unflattering portrait of Yorba Linda. He follows with a somewhat peculiar, highly unflattering portrait of Nixon’s father.

A highly peculiar, highly unflattering portrait of Nixon’s mother appears a bit later on. But at that point, Perlstein offers this highly peculiar portrait of Nixon as a child:
PERLSTEIN (page 21): Richard Nixon was a serial collector of resentments. He raged for what he could not have or control. At the age of seven, he so wanted a jar of pollywogs a younger boy had collected from the forbidden canal that he beaned the kid in the head with a toy hatchet (his victim bore the scar for life). He ever felt unfairly put upon: at age ten he wrote a letter to the mother he revered, rendered distant by the raising of four other often-sickly boys, for a school assignment in the voice of a pet. Addressed “My Dear Master,” it spun out fantastic images of unearned persecutions. “The two dogs that you left with me are very bad to me…While going through the woods one of the boys triped [sic] and fell on me...He kiked [sic] me in the side...I wish you could come home right now.” A few months later, he betrayed another foreshadowing trait: groveling to elevate his status in life. “Please consider me for the position of office boy mentioned in the Times paper,” he wrote to the big-city daily his family took and which he devoured, the reactionary Los Angeles Times. “I am eleven years of age...I am willing to come to your office at any time and I will accept any pay offered.”

He contained his raging ambition in the discipline of debate...
We’re always surprised when writers attack a politician's behavior at ages like 7 or 10. In the case of Candidate Gore, the age of demonization was once lowered to age 6, as we’ll note in a later post. (We mention this to help you picture where these intellectual practices lead.)

Was Nixon already driven by rage at the age of 7? That’s what we seem to be told in that highly peculiar passage—a passage which also announces the death of the west. When major writers feel empowered to write in such ludicrous ways—when no one bats an eye if they do—our most basic intellectual norms are plainly being discarded.

Was Nixon already “raging for what he could not have or control” by the age of 7? Perlstein doesn’t provide a source for this implied claim, so we searched on “pollywogs” to see what we could find.

Success! As part of the Richard M. Nixon Oral History Project conducted in the early 1970s by Cal State Fullerton, we found an interview with Gerald Shaw. Shaw was the “victim” of Nixon’s 7-year-old rage, the fellow who “bore the scar for life.”

Struggling to control his emotions, Nixon’s victim told the story to researcher Jeff Jones. The designations of “laughter” appear in the official transcript:
JONES (6/3/70): Could you tell me something about the red bridge, please?...You know, the bridge that you used to cross to the Nixons’ house?

SHAW: Oh, yes. Oh, that was an old rickety rascal, man! (laughter) That was an old beat-up thing. If you made it across that thing, why, you were quite lucky! There used to be a bunch of pollywogs that were down there in the corner of it, and we used to play with those things. One day when we were playing down there—do you want me to tell you about that?

JONES: Yes, yes.

SHAW: One day when we were playing down there, I went down and got a jar full of pollywogs. He didn’t like that and he wanted them himself. He was a little bit on the temperamental side that day, apparently. So he had this hatcher in his hand, and it’s a good thing that it didn’t have a sharp head because he hit me on the head with the blunt end of it! I have a scar on my head to this day to show for it. (laughter) But other than that, why, it just shows that everyone has a temper. But he’s controllable.

JONES: Who was the person that hit you?

SHAW: Richard Nixon, himself!

JONES: Oh wow, that’s pretty good! (laughter)

SHAW: One day when we were going to grow up, he said that he was going to be Vice-President. Then I said, “Well then I am going to be President.” Well he made both and I didn’t make either one. (laughter)
All too plainly, the victim was still in pain from his encounter with young Nixon’s rage. Moments later, he offered his capsule account of Richard Nixon, age 7 and thereabouts:
JONES: What kind of person did Richard Nixon seem to be when he lived in Yorba Linda?

SHAW: Oh, he was a real nice boy, real good. I mean, everybody liked him and he was real likable child, as far as I can recall.
At the start of the interview, Shaw had defined his relationship with Nixon this way: “During our course of childhood, why, we were quite friendly with each other and used to play with each other quite a bit, and we had quite a good relationship as young kids.” The lengthy interview records the details of their friendship and their play over a number of years.

At any rate, that was Shaw’s view of Richard Nixon, age 7 and beyond. But what would he know? He was there!

In the paragraph we’ve posted, Perlstein goes on to characterize a letter Nixon wrote in the voice of a dog when he was age 10, and a letter he wrote to the Los Angeles Times seeking (needed) employment at age 11. Perlstein characterizes each of these documents in the most unflattering possible way, helping us see that, even in these early years, Nixon “ever felt unfairly put upon” and was willing to “grovel to elevate his station in life.”

It’s hard to know just what to say about such absurd and ugly interpretations, except perhaps to say this:

Such work can’t sensibly be viewed as journalism or as scholarship. Also this: When journalists and historians feel free to novelize in such cartoonish ways, we're looking right square at the death of the west! We all stand to be victims!

Next week, we’ll consider that highly peculiar passage a bit more. We’ll also look at Perlstein’s description of Yorba Linda, the “godforsaken little burg” in which the young demon pursued his succession of “dirty jobs.”

As we do, we’ll ask ourselves where such writing comes from, and where a nation which tolerates such work is likely to be headed.

Perlstein was playing with dolls in that passage. Nine years earlier, a major journalist had played with his Al Gore doll, describing Gore’s revealing conduct at the age of 6.

Perlstein plays with dolls throughout Chapter Two. What does such childishness mean?


  1. OMB (Busting Barbie with BOB)

    WHO IS RACHEL MADDOW: A hint of Pyongyang!
    MONDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2014

    Part 1—Bold leader since earliest youth: As a young person, did Rachel Maddow think she might be on her way to the Olympics?


    The brilliance began at an early age, according to Maddow’s mother. Rachel never spoke baby talk, and things just developed from there:

    BAIRD: Maddow was, according to her parents, a curious, serious child who never spoke baby talk. When her mother, Elaine, would walk into the kitchen to prepare breakfast, the 4-year-old Rachel would be perched on a stool, with her nightgown and bed socks on, reading the newspaper.

    That may be exactly how it went down. But could Kim Il-Sung have done better?"

    FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2014

    "Is Rachel Maddow a bit of a nut? We’d say the evidence has started leaning a bit toward yes....

    As the person who was willing to tell you that Keith Olbermann’s behavior was misogynistic, we’re suggesting that Maddow may turn out to have a screw or three loose, as may be true of us all."

  2. Wow Bob.

    Your hatred of Heather really has no boundaries. Attacking Pearlstein's book is a pretty desperate measure.


    1. Thus will teach her to keep all the polywogs for herself.

    2. I suspected that Perlstein's full of crap, and this proves it.

      I know for a fact that Yorba Linda is quite a nice town. It is and was in a very pretty area. and was certainly much more of a California paradise in the teens and 20s than Perlstein would ever know about. Godfersaken? Hardly.

      But whoa to the Perlstein fans. They will not allow any criticism. Sorry guys, he's unreliable.

  3. Such work can’t sensibly be viewed as journalism or as scholarship. Also this: When journalists and historians feel free to novelize in such cartoonish ways, we're looking right square at the death of the west! We all stand to be victims!

    I admire the hope in "stand to be." There might be another, great nation like the US to emerge somewhere that will remain uncorrupted for longer than this one, but this one is downhill from here.

    1. You ain't lyin 4:28. Of course neither was General Washington. But he couldn't.

  4. Since the west is ending nobody much cares anymore.

  5. Back in the good old days in the heyday of the West, whenever those were, journalists and historians did not novelize in cartoonish ways. That is a recent development.

  6. I want to use this opportunity to thank for helping me get my lover back after he left me few months ago. I have sent friends and my brothers to beg him for me but he refused and said that it is all over between both of us but when I met this, he told me to relaxed that every thing will be fine and after three days of my contact with him, my lover came back with tears in his eyes asking for another chance

  7. I want to use this opportunity to thank for helping me get my lover back after he left me few months ago. I have sent friends and my brothers to beg him for me but he refused and said that it is all over between both of us but when I met this, he told me to relaxed that every thing will be fine and after three days of my contact with him, my lover came back with tears in his eyes asking for another chance

  8. TDH don't care if you like him! "Nixonland" is a liberal shibboleth -- it's wonderful, wonderful we've all agreed. But now TDH puts his teeth in it and tears big holes!? What a terrible man!

    I know, let's pretend the problem isn't how rotten and decayed "journalism" is -- let's pretend it's that TDH demands we revere the past. Got it!! urbanlegend for the win!

    1. Yes, the world is so much better because Bob is around to expose "liberal shibboleth" that is causing the demise of Western Civilization as we know it.

      After all, if it weren't for him, who would else would be telling the rubes that their lives are so miserable because a liberal like Rick Perlstein wrote a book?

      Except, of course, for Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Bernie Goldberg, Laura Ingraham, Charles Krauthammer, Megyn Kelly, et al, conservatives have absolutely no voice in which to expose the dread "liberal shibboleth."

      Again, thank God Somerby is doing this work practically single handedly. And we will only guess what he does with the other hand.

    2. Shorter:

      Rather than dispute your statement's gist, I'll list some Bad People whom I'd like to imagine you must agree with.

  9. Amazon review: "Perlstein is well known as a writer on the left, but his historian's empathies are intense and unpredictable: he convincingly channels the resentment and rage on both sides of the battle lines and lets neither Nixon's cynicism nor the naivete of liberals like New York mayor John Lindsay off the hook."

    Is this post, digging into a 900-page book and finding some characterizations of Nixon's childhood that are questionable, a trustworthy indicator of the the book as a whole? I would say you better read the book yourself. Just recognize that there's a novel being told here, too, and sometimes filling the space for a day requires any little thing be used to advance it.

    1. Without the excellent work of Bob Soemrby many would be unaware of the end of the west nor the marital salvation possible through the good works of yours truly.

    2. It's "a trustworthy indicator" that Perlstein doesn't care about embellishment, or whether "little things" are bullshit or not.

      Because that reality bothers you, focus on something else -- Why, who would bother to fill their blog with such trivia, That's The Ticket!

  10. What does such childishness mean?

    The west is ending due to middle age children while the discourse of the nation is handed off to college kids?

  11. There have been about a gazillion books on Nixon, why the late in the day interest in this one? Not that I mind, but it does seem an odd time to be defending Nixon now that it has become definitive that he was trying to screw around with the Paris Peace Talks. Can anybody invent something worse than that?

    1. Pointing out Perlstein's willingness to shortcut in deceptive ways equals "defending Nixon."

      Some people really are as stupid as Greg; just glad he's here to prove it. Represent, Greg!!

  12. We have serious problems that congress is not addressing due to partisan bickering. Voters are polarized and cannot unite to address their common interests. Perlstein's 2008 book describes the roots of our current situation. I think that makes the book and discussion of it pretty important.

  13. Anoymous@6:19, you miss the point. If discussion is not conducted precisely and exactly as Bob S would have it conducted (by some set of algorithms that get lost in his repetitious prose -- so clever he is to guard his secrets -- after all, he went to Harvard and taught black kids in Baltimore for a few years!), it should not be conducted at all.

    We all want our take to be heard. But to demand that it be the only approach to speaking or listening? That's what Bob does, straining to find a "unique" perspective. (One wonders how he would have fared as a teacher of students beyond elementary.)

    1. That describes the trolls more than Spmerby.

    2. Ah, the old "rubber/glue" rejoinder!

    3. Why is it so offensive for you that Bob demands that our discourse be based on facts? I would think that all responsible adults would want (demand?) that we stick to what is true and avoid embellishment and spinning the facts. Other than invoking free speech, how can you defend a deliberate attempt to deceive?

    4. Hypocrisy is always offensive to me.

    5. I'm really amazed at all this hatred of Somerby. You guys get paid to do this? You don't even stick to the subject half the time.

      I'm glad Bob's nailing Perlstein-- whose arrogance is almost as vast as his historical misunderstanding. P's so often wrong about these incidents that I'm wondering how he can be taken seriously. Also, hasn't anyone else ever heard of Gary Wills? Half of P's insights on Nixon come straight from Nixon Agonistes-- an apparently forgotten book.

    6. Let me add, the whole Orthogonian thing came from Wills-- it is NOT a Perlstein construct. So why does P the amalgamator get all this credit?

      His professional revisionism about the 60s and 70s gets very wearying.

    7. Except for the elephant in the living room: Perlstein's Nixonland came out SIX YEARS AGO.

      SIX YEARS LATER, Somerby is performing the vital task of exposing all its errors, lest his sheep run out and buy it and are rubed into believing a word of it.

      SIX YEARS.

      Sure took Somerby a long time to get around to it. Maybe one of these days, he'll finish "How He Got There."

      But then again, he's got another case of an unarmed black teen shot to death that he is now just beginning to notice.

      That should keep him busy and away from searching for more books published SIX YEARS AGO to review.

    8. Bob raved about the book at the time. Now he's going back and -- in the light of the new one-- possibly reconsidering.

      It was because of Somerby that I read the book myself-- and I was shocked at how much Perlstein got wrong about the post-1967 period, especially in California. I couldn't figure out why, either. Reading Perlsting you would have thought Max Rafferty was still running the state in 1971, or later! When in fact it was Bob Moretti and Jess Unruh.

      Oldtimers in Republican Pasadena were letting their hair grow long. Rock-ribbed Republicans in Burbank were crying over MLK's assassination. Etc. etc.-- which you'll never hear about in Perlstein.

      So then later I read P's old essay in Lingua Franca called something like "Who Own the 60s?" The answer was obvious-- he's a revisionist who's out to show that the 60s and 70s was not Leftist, and that anyone who thinks the Left had much influence is a sentimental fool.

      Problem is-- he relies way too much on the traditional media of the time for his sourcing-- and they were often hilariously unreliable about what was really going on.

    9. He said the book struck him differently upon rereading it. What more do you want?