TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2014
An important cultural question: Now that our gatekeepers are gone, are we able to reason at all?
Walter and David are no longer there. At one time, they sifted the things we were able to hear, saving us from our ourselves.
Now, Walter and David are gone, long gone. They’ve been replaced by Rush and Sean—and by the ludicrous Maureen Dowd, and by the kids at Salon.
And even by Rick Perlstein!
We mention Perlstein for several reasons. First, he’s considered a major progressive voice, and an important historian. Plus, he made extensive use of Fawn Brodie’s work in his 2008 best-seller, Nixonland.
We refer to Brodie’s 1981 “psychobiography,” Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character. It’s one of the strangest books we’ve ever read, in ways we think are worth recording.
Why does Brodie’s remarkable book matter now? Let us list the reasons:
Brodie, a UCLA professor, was regarded as a major biographer. She had written earlier biographies which were critically hailed. Her bio of Nixon was her last. As she wrote it, she was dying of cancer.
The book is extremely strange. We’re not familiar with Brodie’s earlier work, but her chains of reasoning are so bizarre in her Nixon book that we wonder if her faculties had perhaps been affected by her illness.
Whatever the explanation may be, her chains of reasoning are among the strangest we’ve ever seen in a major book. And make no mistake—the book was taken seriously at the time, as can be seen in this weirdly favorable review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
Lehmann-Haupt wasn’t a hippie. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, he was “senior Daily Book Reviewer” for the New York Times from 1969 until 2001. (Other sources say the run as senior daily reviewer ended in 1995.)
Lehmann-Haupt was a major voice of the Times. According to CJR, “he wrote more than 4,000 book reviews and articles [for the Times], on every subject from trout fishing to Persian archaeology.”
Back in 1981, “psychohistory” was perhaps a bit hip. (The dawning of the Age of Aquarius hadn’t completely quieted down yet.) Whatever one may think of the discipline, it’s amazing to see the way the Times reviewed this deeply strange book.
Even stranger is the fact that Perlstein used Brodie’s book to such an extent in Chapter Two of Nixonland. In 1981, the New York Times wasn’t able to see (or willing to say) how deeply strange the Brodie book was.
Twenty-seven years later, neither was Perlstein! In fact, he often embellished Brodie’s conclusions, a point we’ll explore next week.
We often wonder if we the humans are able to reason at all. If we don’t have Walter and David to regulate what we’re allowed to hear, do we have any ability to recognize manifest nonsense?
As the wild west of the partisan Internet keeps unfolding, we ask ourselves that question more and more often. The polite reception of Brodie’s book—in 1981 and in 2008—makes us wonder even more.
Starting tomorrow, we’ll spend four days reviewing the logic of Brodie’s book. One final point:
One part of Brodie’s analysis seems to have transmigrated into the coverage of Campaign 2000, some nineteen years later. The reporting of that history-changing campaign was somewhat non-human too.
As with the chains of reasoning in Brodie’s book, it seemed that no one was able to see how strange that reporting actually was. To what extent are we the humans able to reason at all?
Are we able to reason at all? Or is it simply narrative and elite preference—narrative all the way down?
Tomorrow: Was Richard Nixon spanked? We’ve marveled at Brodie’s discussion.
Coming Thursday: “Did Frank Nixon kick his sons?”