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Dividing lines

Nixonland The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America Rick Perlstein Scribner: 882 pp., $37.50

May 18, 2008|Jim Newton | Jim Newton, editor of The Times' editorial pages, is the author of "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made."

THE SURPRISES begin right away in "Nixonland." The book opens with the Watts riots, a singularly unconventional starting point for a narrative built around Richard M. Nixon, who was not in office and not involved with the 1965 events or their aftermath. But these passages in Rick Perlstein's rambunctious, ambitious, energetic tour through the Nixon era set both the tone and approach that distinguish this remarkable work.

As the initial setting makes clear, Perlstein is after something other than biography here. And wisely so. The world almost certainly has enough Nixon biographies; few subjects have tantalized writers more than the troubled soul of Yorba Linda's favorite son. Instead, he 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, who covered some of this ground in "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus," aims here at nothing less than weaving a tapestry of social upheaval. His success is dazzling.

His method is worth noting as well. "Nixonland" is not, fundamentally, a work of primary research. Its sources largely are news accounts and other books; although there are occasional citations to personal papers and interviews, this is a synthesis, not an investigation. Written with verve and a ranging, incisive intelligence, "Nixonland" re-defines the fissures of that period as the product of conflict between two forces, which Perlstein dubs the Franklins and the Orthogonians after two fraternities that claimed opposite corners during Nixon's Whittier College days.

The Franklins were the dapper, refined Big Men on Campus; in the larger story of "Nixonland," they are the Ivy Leaguers, the U.S. Supreme Court clerks, men of privilege like Alger Hiss and Jack Kennedy, Jerry Voorhis and Eugene McCarthy. This was not Nixon, who co-founded the Orthogonians for the strivers and loners, the shirt-sleeved and tough. Nixon, as is well known, met his wife by driving her on dates with other men, simmering and persisting until eventually she accepted him. He was drawn to others like himself, and he found them on the outskirts of every kind of organization, even in sports, where most observers saw glamour or fame. "It was an eminently Nixonian insight," Perlstein writes, "that on every sports team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous, strategy is to concentrate on the non-spectacular -- silent -- majority. The ones who labor quietly, sometimes resentfully, in the quarterback's shadow: the linemen, the guards, the punter."


THERE began a lifetime of positioning, of nurturing and exploiting the nation's deepest resentments, of rallying the silent and the glum to their champion. This cleavage defines "Nixonland," and the resulting tensions make the riots the right place to start, for it was in those bloody days that the American consensus, such as it was, melted in the streets of Watts, just months after President Johnson crowed about American civilization at its apex, about a nation prepared to deliver "abundance and liberty for all."

As Perlstein tracks the rise and fall and rise and fall of Nixon, he hews to the knife's edge of conflict, opting for the cultural over the narrowly political. Student activist Tom Hayden makes more appearances in "Nixonland" than Justice William O. Douglas, and that's appropriate. This broad scope opens up the narrative, and through it flutter the personalities, large and small, who populated the late 1960s and early 1970s so colorfully. We find Abbie Hoffman and H. Rap Brown, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Herbert Marcuse, Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and John Wayne, H.R. Haldeman and Spiro Agnew. These figures come back to us in Perlstein's able hands, a reunion of old friends and enemies drawn together and mutually repelled by Nixon's influence. They make a dashing backdrop to this exegesis on love and war, politics and art.

Perlstein sends home some scintillating snapshots from his '60s tour. His account of the Chicago Seven trial is superb, as is his portrayal of the nation's response to the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His writing is occasionally overwrought, but more often modulated, breezy in the decade's lighter moments, deliberate when appropriate. Thus, he observes, candidate "Richard Nixon's summer of love was spent abroad." And, "Some people wanted peace because they didn't want America to be humiliated. Some people wanted peace because they preferred America's humiliation. Now the president invited Orthogonians to join him in defining themselves by the split -- in a wager that the majority on his side would grow for it."

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