Evan Thomas reviews Nixonland

Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland is by all accounts a masterpiece. Thomas (link here) calls it the greatest book on the 60s since George Plimpton and Jean Stein’s Edie.

Commenting on the work, Thomas writes:

So it went in Nixonland. Perlstein ends his story with Nixon’s overwhelming re-election in 1972. He only begins to tell the Watergate saga, the Greek drama of how Nixon was consumed by his own envies and dreads (and brought down by some true Franklins, men like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Harvard ’43, and Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Harvard ’34). “How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet,” are the final words of Perlstein’s 748-page book. Roger Ailes, of course, went on to create Fox News—”fair and balanced”—which routinely afflicts and outmaneuvers the old establishment press. Today’s Red State-Blue State divide is a legacy of the ’60s, argues Perlstein.

The weirdest thing this election cycle has been to see Hillary Clinton take up the populist “anti-elitist” (and shades of anti-black) rhetoric of Nixon. She really does believe that the Republicans have won that argument and there is no way forward except for Democrats to join them–merged with more liberal policy.** But strategy and campaign style, she is Nixonian. Particularly odd given it is occurring at the very point that Republicans realize they have to run a (so-called) maverick/independent (whose really just a conservative) to win the presidency and Newt Gingrich is saying the Republicans are headed for massive electoral defeat in the Congress. She has returned to her Goldwater-girl roots.

For the Boomers they are seared and grooved essentially into this pattern and which side of that divide they stand on (the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan) or the left-wing variant. It’s been so intriguing to watch assorted figures from the latter group make an appearance (the Jeremiah Wrights) while at the same time seeing the formation of new coalitions, a way out of this logjam.

But to be fair to Hillary every individual is massively shaped by his/her generational upbringing and there is simply no way she could see this differently. Obama must be simply another in the long line of McGovern, (Ted) Kennedy, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry: an elite liberal effete America-hater who will be ground up by the right-wing Nixon racist middle America.

That’s why I simply like to see her exit stage-left. There is no other frame for her to understand what is occurring. And Obama might lose. No doubt it. I think he’s got a very strong chance of winning, but he could lose. Jim Pinkerton, for whatever this is worth, thinks Obama will lose 40 states on the back of anti-Jeremiah Wright and anti-Bill Ayers Archie Bunker-esque campaign slogans.

But what is clear, to bring tie this back in, is that Obama (even in that scenario) is the new Goldwater. That is whether he wins or not, he has remade organizationally, stylistically, rhetorically the electoral foundations. It just may take the electorate an extra 4 years (a la Nixon) to catch up to that reality.

The difference between the two men (Gold, BO) is that Obama happens to stand on large issues (war, health care) with majority opinion. So it will be a question of whether the issues and superior organization will triumph or whether the Nixonian marketing of liberals has just enough left to eek out one more victory.

** Edit: On second thought, Nixon by today’s Republican standards would be considered quite a liberal. Nixon (as opposed to Goldwater and Reagan) accepted the Welfare State and even built upon it (e.g. he created the EPA). So maybe Hillary is then completely Nixonian–including her hardline plus realist foreign policy streak on Iran.

Update I:  An article on Clinton as a conservative populist from the ever-sharp Jon Chait at TNR.

Key quotation:

Conservative populism and liberal populism are entirely different things. Liberal populism posits that the rich wield disproportionate influence over the government and push for policies often at odds with most people’s interest. Conservative populism, by contrast, dismisses any inference that the rich and the non-rich might have opposing interests as “class warfare.” Conservative populism prefers to divide society along social lines, with the elites being intellectuals and other snobs who fancy themselves better than average Americans.

Published in: on May 9, 2008 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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