three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
35-July-Aug-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-NixonlandRick Perlstein, a historian and journalist, has written for The Village Voice and The New Republic and maintains a blog for the progressive group Campaign for America’s Future. His previous book was Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

The Topic: Speaking at Richard Nixon’s funeral, Republican Senator Bob Dole remarked that the second half of the 20th century could be called "the age of Nixon." Perlstein, in his own roundabout way, agrees. His expansive history explores many facets of the nation that witnessed Nixon’s rise and fall, only to be remade by him. His central thesis is that the divisions that define today’s politics can be traced back not just to Nixon’s faults but also to the fault lines he exploited in the pursuit of power. With this idea in mind, Perlstein reexamines crucial events from the 1960s and 1970s—from protests to riots to civil rights legislation and war—and recreates them by using a wide range of sources to synthesize vivid descriptions of the era.
Scribner. 896 pages. $37.50. ISBN: 0743243021

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Bucking the conventional wisdom, Perlstein recognizes Nixon’s central role in the rise of the American right. In the standard accounts, Goldwater became the Moses of the conservative movement, steering it through the political wilderness until Ronald Reagan could lead it to the promised land of power. … But Perlstein rightly insists on Nixon’s crucial role in recasting the Republican Party into a vehicle for an anti-elitist, populist conservatism that appealed to longtime Democrats." Bruce J. Schulman

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Perlstein] tells the story of Nixon’s America, a country of division and resentment, jealousy and anger, one where politics is brutal and psychological, where victors make the vanquished suffer. Perlstein … aims here at nothing less than weaving a tapestry of social upheaval. His success is dazzling." Jim Newton

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Perlstein’s long yet never boring new work traces the arc of this pendulum’s swing. With anecdotal flair and an encyclopedic marshaling of facts, he measures the cultural and political eruptions that are still spreading lava from sea to shining sea." Ariel Gonzalez

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"More than a portrait of a complicated and corrupt president, Nixonland offers a detailed account of the birth of the culture wars. … [It] cements his reputation as a gifted and discerning historian. An exceptional work of excavation, synthesis and storytelling." Elbert Ventura

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Idiosyncratic and often original, Nixonland is neither a definitive biography nor a comprehensive account of the era’s politics and culture. It is, rather, a fascinating, compelling and powerful book that will, one hopes, engender healthy discussions about the past and present." Eric Arnesen

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]o Perlstein, the story of Richard Nixon in the 1960s and early 1970s is the story of modern American politics. In this case, I think he goes too far. … But Nixonland is a fascinating book that reads like a novel. Whether readers lived through the ’60s or not, they will be gripped from start to finish." Terry Hartle

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Perlstein’s high-energy—sometimes too energetic—romp of a book also serves, inadvertently, a serious need: it corrects the cultural hypochondria to which many Americans, including Perlstein, are prone. … Having cast the Nixon story as a psychodrama, Perlstein has no need to engage the ideas that were crucial to conservatism’s remarkably idea-driven ascendancy, ideas like the perils of identity politics and the justice of market allocations of wealth and opportunity." George F. Will

Critical Summary

Perlstein’s writing earned high marks from almost all critics; even the conservative columnist George Will, whose review in the New York Times was at times quite negative, called the book "compulsively readable." Other reviewers’ opinions seemed to depend on what they were looking for from Nixonland. Some accepted Perlstein’s book as a work of synthesis, a much-needed historical exploration of why today’s politics are so vitriolic. Others were more skeptical of Perlstein’s choice to center the book on "Tricky Dick," but they still thought he contributed to the understanding of the man and his era. Also, some critics, who were otherwise quite impressed by the book, came short of calling it a classic because of typographical and factual errors. The Los Angeles Times wrote: "These mistakes are distracting, but hardly debilitating. Once they are remedied, what will be left is a superb history."