Supplemental: Instant cartoons!


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.

How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.
“It would be hard to argue that they do not?” Was Perlstein describing all of us? If so, you can count us out.

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.


  1. Folly of the Dolls

    Wherein the writer of an unreadable blog reviews two unreadable books.

    Sounds like a good scam,,,er skim to me.

  2. Much as I fear and dread Amazon, I'm an excellent customer, and because of books like "Nixonland" much more a Kindle enthusiast than other grumpy old Luddites of my generation.

    Publishers -- to their eternal regret, I'm sure -- use smaller and smaller fonts and less and less ink when it comes to tomes like Perlstein's ream-thick installments. Go to the Morgan Library in New York (ha-HAH, another reference) and see what quality publishing used to look like in the good old days of the robber barons. Enough ink was used to make the each jet black letter seem to jump out from the page. Such contrast makes reading an ease and a pleasure.

    The best way to get that quality of printing nowadays is with a Kindle. Forget traditional publishing. Oh, iBooks is nice, too; but by comparison, iPads are heavy, cumbersome, and unwieldy.

    Was that OK, Mr. Bezos? Can I have my dog back?

    1. I love my kindle too and buy too many books. History books are meant to be exhaustive records and analysis of the past so that makes them unreadable unless you like history as a genre or field. When a book is described as readable you have to start worrying about how good it is as history.

  3. He cited “Klansmen killing civil rights marchers” and “Weathermen preparing bombs for a massacre at a servicemen’s dance at Fort Dix.”

    These are both examples of Democrats committing terrorist acts. Well, the Weathermen were far to the left of the Dems, so it may not be fair to call them Democrats. They certainly weren't Republicans. The KKK were indeed Democrats, much as current-day Democrats would want to disown them.

    1. Nixon's "Southern strategy" took care of all that. That"s when the segregationists jumped ship, became Republicans and went to war against "New Democrats" such as Bill Clinton.

    2. David in Cal, you really think that current-day Democrats need to answer for the KKK? I'd be willing to talk about how southern Democrats of earlier generations (like my grandmother) shouldn't all be painted with the same broad brush (e.g., my grandmother, b. 1890's, was, as a white southerner, a Democrat as a reflex for most of her life; she also despised the KKK).

      But there are things like time, change, historical realignments. (Did you study any of those things at Chicago?) To act as if certain Democrats and LIBERAL Republicans didn't bring about the civil rights legislation that led to reactions -- and something called the Republicans' "Southern Strategy"; to forget that the likes of Strom Thurmond changed from the Democratic to the Republican party.... I mean, how is anyone supposed to take you seriously?

      You're right about one thing: the Weathermen would sooner have died than be thought of as Democrats. And no Democratic elected officials or pundits came close to supporting them (in contrast to today's "respectable" Republicans, who refuse to distance themselves from right-wing crazies).

    3. Troll

      A troll is a supernatural being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore.

  4. P's picture captions in the new book are pretty absurd. It makes me lose faith in his judgment.

    One refers to Billy Carter as having been "a sort of national symbol."


    Another makes it look like Squeaky Fromme was a huge watershed event for the United States. He spends a ton of time on her in fact.

    On what planet?

    1. Isn't Lynette about Bob's age?

    2. I do remember Billy Beer, so he must have been some kind of icon.

    3. "Sort of" @ 1:04. Only "sort of." Count on captions to capture the essence of the author. Sort of.

  5. "We know—you’re tired of that metaphor!"

    Can we talk Tom Turkey for a Manhattan moment? We understand addiction. You are addicted to Rachel just as many of us are addicted to you, big fella! She gets under your skin and you itch all over, start touching yourself, pleasuring yourself until you cream then, voila, you start to sound just like her.

    It happens to many a commenter here. I wish I could explain it, but I don't know squat from squadoosh about the origins of the affliction much less the cure.

  6. Great read, reminds me a bit of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. You can pick it up, turn to any page and get lost in it. It's dense, but in a way in which every "skim" reveals something new.

    I predict Somerby's criticism of the beginning of the book refers to Perlstein's psychological assessment of sorts that describes Nixon's greatest political skill as the ability to identify and stoke resentment. That conclusion rings true. Out of that Roger Ailes, by way of Rush Limbaugh, gave us political talk radio as we now know it, which is all about stoking resentment and has been hugely influential.

  7. To my skimming 77% of the book is very solid. You can count on it. The other 23% can probably be explained by a number of factors but nobody knows for sure what to control for. Anyway it is misleading to call it a great book, and it hasn't gotten any better since it came out six years ago.

    But look at those liberal media types making angry Missourri black people (whose children they don't care about) look like Clive Bundy's followers in Nevada. And themselves like Momma's boys. Which, based on their age, they propbably are!

  8. I read Nixonland and it had an impact on me. It was the book that actually made me realize how selective our memories are when we are witnesses to history. Coming of Age in the 60's I must have been thrilled by the turmoil. My later memories were of great fondness and loss of a magical time. After Nixonland I realized what they mean by rose colored glasses.

    I am half through Perlstein's latest and am enjoying it. Books that are this size seem to make grown men want to cherry pick sections and say "That's just awful!". And yes, the "toy" analogy to everything could be put back in the closet.

    To say the book is a phony read because it has a point of view, is like saying the Daily Howler is a phony blog because it has a point of view.

    A view of history is not just a bunch of random facts. Regardless of our personal views, the only way we can have a sense of time and place is to put events into a context. And like any publication, the facts you highlight and evaluate are a value judgement.

    I will take Mr. Sommerby's concerns under advisement, but I doubt they will detract from my reading. What I get from Mr. Perlstein's works is how every social and political movement can have a counter balancing backlash.

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