Nixonland

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After almost a month, I finally finished reading Nixonland last Thursday. It’s truly a remarkable book.

For starters, I never learned about this stuff in school — not in American history or civics during high school, or during any of the political science courses I took during college (granted, the WNMU courses weren’t geared that way, but still). Yeah, the major stuff was covered: it’s kind of hard to skip the Kennedy and King assasinations, Vietnam, McCarthyism, and Watergate. However, while I’ve picked up a lot of the themes over the years, never before have I had such an excellent resource on the era. Rick Perlstein lays it all out in meticulous detail, but in a narrative so lively you don’t want to stop reading.

The book is 748 pages long, and aside from some time on the beach I read it exclusively during my 45-minute commute: first on the bus, then on the blue-line train. Often, I just kept it out for the 7-block walk to the office, reading while avoiding pedestrians and traffic. It was that good.

Nixon is the plot device Perlstein uses to explore the radicalization of the left and the backlash of the right; the lies used to sell an unpopular war; and the racial tensions that led to riots and the rise of the Southern Strategy. The story is about so much more than Nixon, but he’s inexorably the focus: he played such a role in shaping the debates of that time (and today) that you can’t tell the story but through the Nixon lens.

The parallels between that generation and my own are stark yet unsurprising: the political forces have remained unchanged, while the players may have changed. Still, familiar names (especially on the GOP side) like Pat Buchanan, Karl Rove, and George Bush are spread throughout the tome.

Though I kept reading about the origins of todays political debates, I finished the book thinking the next generation will have moved past them. So many of my personal and professional relationships are completely online: I’ve never met these friends and colleagues, and yet my “collected life” is but a foreshadowing of those being built by teenagers across the country. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I think things like race will play less of a role in the future as more people interact over new media.

I might have more on this later, but for now, take my word on it: read Nixonland. You’ll come away from it with a better understanding of our history, and why today’s political conversations are framed the way they are.