On looking into Perlstein’s Nixonland a second time: We recall Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland as a fascinating book. It appeared in 2008.
Truth to tell, you had to skim it. The problem wasn’t the number of pages (748) as much as the number of words on each page (far too many to count).
Truthfully, Nixonland couldn’t be read. But its subject matter, and its themes, made it a very good skim.
Nixonland confronts an important historical question. It asks how we got from the Johnson landslide of 1964 to the equal but opposite Nixon landslide of 1972. It says the events of those years created our modern political divide, which we have described as red versus blue in earlier parts of this century.
That strikes us as a very important topic.
Perlstein was perhaps a bit overwrought about the division he described. This is the way he started the final chunk of his book:
PERLSTEIN (page 746): In this book I have written of the rise of two American identities, two groups of Americans, staring at each other from behind a common divide, each equally convinced of its own righteousness, each equally convinced the other group was defined by its evil. I have written of the moments where, at the extreme, members of those groups killed one another or tried to kill one another, most often in cold blood.As he continued, Perlstein named some of the people “at the extreme.” He cited “Klansmen killing civil rights marchers” and “Weathermen preparing bombs for a massacre at a servicemen’s dance at Fort Dix.”
Today, we liberals might accuse such a writer of committing the sin of “moral equivalence.” In our view, the righteousness has gotten worse since 2008. We’d say that’s especially true on our side, which has been playing catch-up.
Perlstein has just released The Invisible Bridge (856 pages!), his unreadable sequel to Nixonland. In this report in the New York Times, Alexandra Alter cited two critiques of the new book which led us to look at the older book once again.
For background, see last Saturday’s post.
We were surprised by what we found when we revisited Nixonland. How did we get from Johnson to Nixon? That’s a very important question—and, as Perlstein says, it’s an important question about the poisons of today.
That book was built on a great idea. But we were struck, from its very first pages, by the extent to which Perlstein seemed to be playing with dolls.
We know—you’re tired of that metaphor! But right at the start of Nixonland, Perlstein throws himself, demonologically, onto one side of the nation’s divide. As he does, we’d say he starts creating cartoons about the other side.
We don’t recall being struck by this conduct back in 2008. Six years later, we’ve been struck by the book’s ugly demeanor and lack of obsessive honesty.
The text of Nixonland ends like this. This strikes us as deeply strange:
PERLSTEIN (page 748): 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 that they do not.“It would be hard to argue that they do not?” Was Perlstein describing all of us? If so, you can count us out.
How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.
Was Perlstein perhaps describing himself? At times, we almost get that impression, although we’re certain the impression would be wrong.
At any rate, that’s the way the text of Nixonland ended. In one way, that passage strikes us as very strange—although, in this particular week, that passage may seem to ring bells.
We’ve been studying Nixonland since last weekend. We’ve found it weirdly dishonest.
In Perlstein’s first book, Before the Storm, it seemed to us that he was trying to understand the other side of the nation’s political/cultural divides.
By the start of Nixonland, it seems to us that he’s playing with dolls, creating a set of cartoons. Judged by journalistic standards, the work seems remarkably poor.
The start of the book seems weirdly unpleasant to us, in ways which might be instructive. Tomorrow and Saturday, we’ll try to explain what we mean, although a person could write about Nixonland’s text for weeks.
As Perlstein quite correctly says, Nixonland is still around us—and perhaps inside us. Especially in this particular week, we need to stop “hating each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood.”
Even at Salon, we’d say, it’s time to suspend such enjoyments.