Supplemental: Where do our cartoons come from!


In Perlstein’s case, we can tell you:
Increasingly, the journalism of our election campaigns is a series of low-grade cartoons.

The process has been unfolding for some time. We were surprised by Rick Perlstein’s cartooning when we revisited his 2008 best-seller, Nixonland, a few weeks ago.

Nixonland concerns itself with some very important historical questions. But in Chapter Two, The Orthogonian, Perlstein constructs a remarkable series of highly peculiar cartoons.

There’s a cartoon of the young Nixon himself, along with cartoons of his mother and father. There’s even a cartoon of Yorba Linda, the community where Nixon was born.

There’s even a peculiar cartoon of the dirty, humiliating role of work in American life.

The scholarship is appalling. The logic is that the crackpot. The sensibility is drawn from the world of the silly cartoon.

Where do our cartoons come from? In this case, we can show you.

Below, you see part of Perlstein’s cartoon of the young Nixon. On August 16, we discussed this peculiar passage.

We don’t know which is worse in this passage—the gong-show logic, the ridiculous scholarship, or the unvarnished hatred Perlstein is willing to direct at a child.

We highlight the first of the chunks which constitute this initial cartoon. Below, we’ll show you where it came from:
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.”
Really? When the 7-year-old bopped that kid on the head, he was displaying his “rage?”

In our earlier post, we included chunks of the oral history interview in which Gerald Shaw, the “victim” in question, laughed about the horrible incident and described the years of friendship and play he shared with Nixon, extending into high school.

Today, we can show you where Perlstein’s pollywog passage comes from.

In his endnotes, Perlstein doesn’t cite a source for his account of the rage-driven victimization. That said, the passage was basically cut-and-pasted from Fawn Brodie’s often ridiculous 1981 “psychobiography” of Nixon.

Many scholars have rolled their eyes at Brodie’s often-peculiar book. This is the passage in question:
BRODIE (page 24): There was rage in Nixon as a child. At age seven, when he wanted a jar of pollywogs a six-year-old friend had captured in the irrigation canal, and the boy would not give them up, Richard hit him on the head with a hatchet. The victim bore the scar all his life.
Brodie provides a source for her passage. She cites the very same oral history interview we excerpted a few weeks ago, in which Nixon’s “victim” laughs about the traumatic event and describes his ongoing friendship with his rage-filled friend.

Brodie skipped Shaw’s lengthy account of the continuing friendship. She only discussed the troubling “rage” Nixon displayed toward his victim—when he was 7 years old.

Basically, Perlstein cut-and-pasted Brodie’s account. For ourselves, we’re less concerned with the sketchy scholarship than with the extremely peculiar judgment. If you were going to borrow a passage from an historian, why would you choose to help yourself to a ludicrous judgment like that?

As Perlstein continues, he offers two more demonic anecdotes from the life of the young Nixon. In this case, he sources each passage to Brodie’s 1981 book. This is odd, because Brodie’s interpretation of the job appeal to the Los Angeles Times is completely flattering to the “studious, ambitious, respected” young Nixon (pages 77-78), while Perlstein apparently felt compelled to complete his demonic cartoon of the Damien-like fifth-grader who was already willing to grovel.

Why would someone compose such an ugly cartoon about a mere child? There is no scholarship involved, just the ability, and the desire, to construct a cartoonish portrait.

Why would someone compose that cartoon? We can’t answer that question, but Perlstein also composed a cartoon about Yorba Linda itself. In this August 18 post, we showed you his long portrait of the “godforsaken little burg” where Nixon was forced to spend his earliest years.

We were struck by the stunning condescension of that highly peculiar passage. For whatever it may be worth, Brodie’s portrait of Yorba Linda was quite different. “To the visitor Yorba Linda seemed like a languid paradise,” she wrote (page 66). She described the “sweet-smelling air” from “thousands of acres of young trees” and the glorious climate, with the fog occasionally rolling in from the coast.

Picture postcards of the area “advertised the Promised Land,” she wrote. She described the play of the children, who “hunted rabbits or rattlesnakes in the summer and chased tumbleweeds in the fall.” She quoted the novelist Jessamyn West, Nixon’s older second cousin, describing this era in Yorba Linda as “the Midas-time” of her life.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at Perlstein’s cartoons of Nixon’s parents. In the case of Nixon’s demonically lying mother, Perlstein’s extremely peculiar cartoon was rather plainly adopted from Brodie—and we’ve begun to wonder if Brodie’s original cartooning may have affected the coverage of a later White House campaign.

Brodie’s often ridiculous psycho-biography appeared in 1981. That seems like ancient history today, but it was only eighteen years until the coverage of Campaign 2000 began.

Good lord! In the many cartoons the mainstream press composed concerning Candidate Gore, they often compared him to Nixon. And good grief! One of the press corps’ most punishing themes seems to have transmigrated from Brodie’s poorly-reasoned book.

It had only been eighteen years. Could it possibly be? Did the influential reporter we have in mind cadge his ridiculous, punishing theme from Brodie’s once-famous book?

We’ll consider that question on Friday. Warning! Once we let the cartoons start, they may be hard to turn off.


  1. "In the many cartoons the mainstream press composed concerning Candidate Gore, they often compared him to Nixon."

    TDH 6/4/04:

    Hannity was troubled by Gore’s alleged sweating. For the record, the notion that Gore sweats too much was an established theme in dimwit press commentary. (It showed that Gore is like Nixon.)

    1. Here's one where Somerby compared Gore to Nixon (2/14/03):

      To Teddy White, it was all Nixon’s fault. He couldn’t make himself say the obvious—that his colleagues engaged in gross misconduct as they sang their songs on the Kennedy plane. Forty years later, it was Gore who was trashed—and pundits said it was all his fault, too

    2. Here's one where Gore compares Bush-WPE to Nixon:

      GORE (on videotape): He has brought us humiliation in the eyes of the world. He promised to restore honor and integrity to the White House. Instead he has brought deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest president since Richard M. Nixon.

    3. When you watch those debates now it's JFK who seems the flake. Nixon is uncomfortable, but JFK appears vague and uninformed. Nixon also comes off more liberal!

    4. Yeah! Too bad Kennedy won! He denied us four more years of Nixon. Well, that is, unless he ended up having to resign earlier.

  2. In fairness to Brodie, she wrote the book when she was diagnosed and dying of cancer. She refused treatment in order to finish the book, which was rushed and not up to her previous standards because of her illness. She did dislike Nixon but many people did during that time and I think she would have made her case better if she were in different circumstances. My complaint about the book, reading it when it first came out, was that her use of psychoanalytic concepts was incoherent and piecemeal -- her picture of his psyche didn't hang together and form a whole. She grabbed one kind of explanation in one circumstance and another elsewhere in the book without bothering to form a consistent picture. In other words, explanation was ad hoc with respect to psychoanalytic dynamics. I remember resenting her use of the field so poorly to serve her own political animosities toward Nixon, because that isn't how a portrait of a person's functioning should be written. At the time, that kind of approach was both new and controversial and I think she was insufficiently trained in psychoanalytic theory to do it properly -- she had a good idea but poor execution.

    For Perlstein to pick and choose the parts he wants to use for his own purposes from the book is similar to what Brodie did herself, drawing from psychoanalytic theory and events of Nixon's life, in my opinion. The parallels between JFK and Nixon, both being second sons whose older sibling had died, is pretty interesting and was an important contribution.

  3. The other day I picked up his Reagan book and was amazed at how badly it was written. Lots of three word sentences, breezy paragraphs that are way too chatty and with a weird, snarky conversational tone, that kind of thing. Disappointing.

    The photo captions too are a hoot. Billy Carter was a national mascot of sorts? Maybe for some in the media, but not for anyone else. And that's the big problem with Perlstein-- he relies way too much on silly popular media accounts of the period, which were highly unreliable.

  4. Somerby has found a way to combat trolls! Do a revised book review of a six year old biography of a politician who left office 40 years ago, say it has relevance to current election coverage and prove it by revisiting and election that happened 14 years ago.

    More of this good work Bob S.!