The Age of Nixon

Rick Perlstein on the left, the right, the '60s, and the illusion of consensus


In May 1970 the United States saw a wave of political demonstrations—demonstrations in favor of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. The most famous was the hard hat riot of May 8, when Manhattan construction workers beat up hippies and demanded that City Hall raise the American flag. In subsequent days more marches, some spontaneous and some quietly encouraged by the White House, broke out in such cities as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. On May 20 approximately 100,000 union men in Manhattan held what Time called "a kind of workers' Woodstock," carrying signs with slogans such as "God Bless the Establishment." A cement mixer hauled a banner mocking New York's liberal mayor: "Lindsay for Mayor of Hanoi."

The first histories of the 1960s and early '70s weren't always sure how to treat such events, when they deigned to notice them at all. But over the last decade, there has been a surge of interest in the right-wing movements that produced or cheered on such rallies. In studies ranging from Rebecca Klatch's A Generation Divided to Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors to John Andrew's The Other Side of the Sixties, a new wave of scholarship has pored over the defining institutions, personalities, and moments of the '60s right, deepening our understanding of the decade and illuminating the subsequent rise of Reaganism.

The most acclaimed of those books was probably the independent historian Rick Perlstein's mammoth Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), an intelligent and absorbing account of the conservative insurgency that seized the Republican Party in 1964 only to be crushed in the November election. Now Perlstein has published an engrossing, almost novelistic sequel that extends the story through the Republican landslide of 1972. The protagonist of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner) is not Richard Nixon himself, Perlstein writes, but "the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the level for the Republican for exactly the same reason."

Nixonland takes its name from a speech that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote for Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign: "Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland." One lesson of the book is that men like Stevenson and Galbraith weren't above slander, scare, and innuendo themselves, even if they preferred to pretend these faults existed only in the opposition. Nixonland was much larger than Nixon.

Perlstein, 38, is strongly left-liberal in his own policy preferences, but his Goldwater book was widely praised by conservatives delighted that someone had taken the time to understand their history and ideas. Nixonland is similarly fair-minded in its account of the backlash against liberalism. That is not to say that it goes easy on its subjects. Many conservatives will be unhappy to be reminded of, say, the intense racial paranoia that helped to kick-start their political successes in the '60s. At the same time, Perlstein refuses to tell the left a comforting story in which the backlash was only about race. The arrogance of the era's liberals and leftists, and the ways that manifested itself in both public policy and personal style, is a theme throughout his account.

Perlstein is already planning a third book in the series, tentatively titled From Patty Hearst to Ronald Reagan. I spoke with him at Georgetown University in April.

reason: When you put these books together, what story are you telling?

Rick Perlstein: My overriding subject is how America deals with conflict and consensus. America was founded on the fissure between slave states and free states, so these huge fault lines are just built into the American project. How we repress them, express them, deal with them, talk around them, think through them, don't think through them, is fascinating to me.

Congress literally passed a gag rule making it illegal to talk about slavery. In structurally similar ways, in Nixonland, Chicago decided that there was no segregation in Chicago and had a Human Relations Commission whose job it was to keep the frequent housing riots of the '40s and '50s out of the papers. There's a certain kind of cultural energy pursued by the gatekeepers of elite discourse, who want to argue that Americans fundamentally agree with each other and that's the health of the nation.

When Walter Lippman in 1963 says, "America is more united and at peace with itself than anytime before"; when people describe the Kennedy assassination as an eruption of violence with no precedent in American culture; when people say Barry Goldwater lost because he "dared question the American consensus"; when you have liberal pundits basically not seeing the coming backlash against liberalism when the evidence is right in front of their faces—what's in operation, I think, is an understudied, underexamined American discomfort with conflict.

reason: What's the relationship between the culture wars in Nixonland and today?

: The earliest article I've seen about those tensions was by one of my favorite writers, Dwight Macdonald. It was about the time Norman Mailer got into a fistfight with a cop in Provincetown, a resort town where Mailer lived until he died. Macdonald wrote about the sociology of the two communities that lived in this town: the artist types, some of them gay, and the townies.

He didn't quite have a language to describe it. But what he was writing about is recognizable: the idea that culturally libertarian left-wing culture is snobby, looking down their noses at us, that we work for a living, that we pay taxes, that we're somehow realer Americans than Norman Mailer and Dwight Macdonald and this crowd that sets upon us every summer.

The most eloquent writer on this dynamic wrote in the '70s. His name is Paul Cowan, and he's a hero of mine. He was the first guy to write about this in a fairly systematic way.

reason: He's the guy who covered the West Virginia textbook wars?

Perlstein: That's right. He went to West Virginia and said, "Why are these people blowing up the school board building? And why am I feeling sympathy for the people who are doing that—as a secular, left-wing, radical Jew?" He was able to think about the class politics of that, how these Appalachian folks felt these textbooks that talked about multiple answers to ethical questions were an imposition on their way of life.

How that alignment of cultural and political forces evolved was not inevitable. None of this was inevitable. And understanding it as something that has a history is very important to me.

reason: You were born in 1969, so you remember little to none of the history in Nixonland. What do you think you're seeing in this that the people who were there missed?

Perlstein: The hegemony of the left has been the dominant narrative of the '60s, because it was written by leftists. The idea that the '60s was basically an engagement between two different sides, and both sides have equal dignity and interest, was pioneered by the guy whose office we're sitting in, Mike Kazin, in his book co-written by Maurice Isserman, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s, which came out in 2000.

It was in the air in the late '90s. Both these guys are baby boomers, Kazin is actually a former Weatherman, but they were writing in dialogue with younger people who hadn't experienced the '60s and were fascinated, for example, with the rise of the Young Americans for Freedom. We were fascinated with the fact that George McGovern's organizers were convinced that they would win the 1972 election because of the new 18-to-20-year-old voters—who ended up going in a majority for Richard Nixon.

reason: Do you think that changes the way you see some of the figures who have been gone over time and time again?

Perlstein: One reader of the book said I definitely seem to be rooting for the Orthogonians, which is my name for Nixon's followers who felt themselves degraded and condescended to by the liberal elites. I think it's easier to sympathize with Nixon when you realize that he was cruelly condescended to.

It's also easier to see how juvenile and destructive a figure like [hippie activist] Abbie Hoffman can be. I tell a story in the book: His police handler wasn't allowed to arrest him, because [New York Mayor] John Lindsay had come up with this policy of having brokers to each community, including the freak community and the radical blacks and the radical Puerto Ricans. So basically Hoffman baited him mercilessly to the point of smashing the precinct's trophy case.

There was a kind of dehumanization going on, on the left, of the people they called "pigs." This is a lot easier for me to see than someone who was an adolescent at the time and grew up thinking Abbie Hoffman was really cool because he was sticking it to the man.

reason: You mentioned that the McGovern "New Politics" types thought they would win with the youth vote. They also had this idea that they might draw on George Wallace's movement and its anger. You quote McGovern saying that Wallace's strong showing in Florida was "an angry cry from the guts of ordinary Americans against a system which doesn't give a damn about what's really bothering the people of this country today."

In a way that's a liberal sympathy or appreciation for the Orthogonian position. Though of course, he calls busing a "symbol of all these grievances rolled into one" and then comes out for busing.

Perlstein: You're plunging into such a whirlwind of ironies and lost trails of history that it's hard to know where to begin.

A lot of this came out of an overintellectualization of what Americans were going through, which diagnosed an epidemic of what they called alienation. There was the idea that somehow, in the midst of all this prosperity, Americans were more miserable than they had ever been before. Real histrionic stuff.

Piled upon that abstraction was the abstraction that since Wallace and McGovern were both appealing to alienated people, maybe they could appeal to the same alienated people. It was almost a willful blindness on the part of the McGovern people to the fact that they were the bad guys in this narrative.

But on the other hand, there was a genuine economic populism in a lot of what Wallace said. He talked about "the barber and the beautician and the cop on the beat"—that's who he was speaking for. Of course, he did mean the white barber, the white beautician, the white cop on the beat. As late as 1968, he was quite explicit about that.

Part of this cultural condition that I call Nixonland is a style of Americans alienating themselves from other Americans. George Wallace would say, "The next protester who lays down in front of my limousine, that'll be the last limousine he ever lays down under." People would give him a standing ovation. And that guy lying under the limousine was probably a McGovern voter—and called "the cop on the beat" a "pig."

That's a lot of conflict. That's a lot of rage. And the people whose job it was to figure out what the battle lines were in this incredibly cacophonous ideological situation were not necessarily well-equipped to do so. They didn't have the perspective, they didn't have the hindsight we have. So you'd get someone like [New York Times columnist] James Reston writing that McGovern's politics appeal to the "conscience" constituency and blacks and women and helping professionals, and is obviously a much more viable political expression than Spiro Agnew's antiquated appeal to the prejudices of the past. Well, Agnew was the one who won the day in '72.

reason: Having written a book about Goldwater and a book that's largely about Nixon, how do you compare the two as historical figures?

: Nixon is a profoundly more (long pause) capacious figure than Goldwater. Goldwater was not a quote-unquote "great man" in the sense that Nixon was.

One of the interesting things about 1965 to 1972 is what drops out of the story: the conservative movement. Nixon almost takes up the space that the conservative movement occupies in Before the Storm. Because he's such a huge figure. He commands every space that he's in. Goldwater in a lot of ways is a kind of a minor figure. He was charismatic, he was handsome, he was straight-shooting, but he was diffident and he didn't have that incredible will to power that all great politicians, for good or ill, have.

reason: Do you think he wanted to be president?

Perlstein: Goldwater? No. He said as much. Whereas not only could Nixon not imagine any other satisfying job, he didn't even find the presidency satisfying. That's how big the hole in his soul was that he had to fill with power and the ability to order the universe.

reason: The other two right-wing figures moving in the background are Reagan and Wallace.

: Sometimes people reveal themselves in intimate moments. What George Wallace would tell his children at dinner was that the only things that matter are money and power.

He was a very black-hearted man. He did bear certain similarities with the classic psychological profile of a fascist.

reason: How so?

Perlstein: He loved having crowds respond to his violent rhetoric. He lived for it. He took a very perverse pleasure in that.

He's a fascinating fly in the ointment. He's this extraordinary figure who ducks in and out and throws the machine off in strange ways.

reason: And Reagan?

Perlstein: Where to begin. First of all, I think that Ronald Reagan's 1966 gubernatorial campaign is the most important political campaign in American history that I've studied. It really midwifed the language that campaigns still follow: liberal elites vs. conservative salt-of-the-earth hardworking folks. The greatest politicians are not market takers. They're market makers.

One of the things people loved to say about Reagan back in the day, when it was a lot harder for liberals to muster up any respect for him, was that he was a totally programmed candidate. People like Gary Wills made much of the fact that his handlers hired a consulting firm called BASICO, which claimed to use social science techniques to manipulate public opinion. They had big binders of positions he should take. This was seen as evidence that ultimately Reagan was an empty suit that twists with the wind. But when these people came to him and said, "Stop talking about all this nonsense about the student uprising at Berkeley, it doesn't show up on our polls as a concern, " Ronald Reagan said, "No, I'm not going to stop doing it. Every time I talk about it I get a standing ovation."

You can't tell a pollster "This is an important political issue to me" if you don't even know it's something that's available to vote on. Reagan's genius was intuiting that he could tell a new story about how to order society that made things that didn't seem political before into voting issues.

Now, it's important to understand a lot of the sadism and cruelty that was behind a lot of what Reagan was doing. When he would tell a crowd, "Look at that sign over there, 'Make love, not war'—I bet that guy can't do either" or "I'd like to harness their youthful energy with a strap," the stereotype of Reagan as a sunny optimist leading us to morning in America breaks down a little bit.

reason: You included some other stories that were the flipside of Reagan's "make love, not war" remark.

Perlstein: Sometimes I felt like I was writing a book about the history of sexual neuroses in the American '60s. You had cops saying about antiwar protesters, "You pull down their pants, and they ain't got no pecker." You had a janitor after the march on the Pentagon being quoted in Time saying this absurd, impossible thing, that all the garbage was panties. You had Richard Nixon saying in 1971, when these brave anti-war Vietnam veterans are encamped in the Mall, "They're just screwing chicks in their sleeping bags." On the other side, you have one of the leaders of the Columbia University strike in 1968 telling women that the cops are so sexually screwed up that if you "pick up your shirt, they won't know whether to jerk off or go blind." You have people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin describing their ideological adversaries as "menopausal men." Basically you have every side accusing the other side of sexual dysfunction because of their ideological disagreements.

Sex was a weapon. Everything was a weapon. During the Kent State situation, which ended with four students being shot by the National Guard, part of the provocation these National Guardsmen felt was that women were looking up their names on their nameplates, calling their wives in Akron, and saying, "Guess what? I'm screwing your man over here at Kent State!"

Even putting a flower in the barrel of a gun is to a certain degree an act of cruelty. If you have someone whose job it is to follow orders and do their duty, and you taunt them for not being able to respond on a human level to an act like that, you're basically just lording your superiority over them. Love can be a hateful thing.

reason: To what extent was that gesture lording your superiority, and to what extent was it an invitation, maybe a naive invitation, to drop the gun and come over to the hippie side?

Perlstein: Oh, they did that also at Kent State. Women would say to the National Guardsmen, "Come up to my dorm room. I'll make it worth your while."

reason: You like to mix cultural history with political history. Bonnie and Clyde is one of the central texts in the book.

Perlstein: My theory is that Bonnie and Clyde was the most important text of the New Left, much more important than anything written by Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills or Regis Debray. It made an argument about vitality and virtue vs. staidness and morality that was completely new, that resonated with young people in a way that made no sense to old people. Just the idea that the outlaws were the good guys and the bourgeois householders were the bad guys—you cannot underestimate how strange and fresh that was.

reason: But there's a long history of heroic outlaws in American storytelling.

: Yeah, and they always end up dead in the end. (pause) As did Bonnie and Clyde. But then you get into some interesting, much too academic issues of psychology and spectatorship, how you can identify with a character that you're supposed to hate.

reason: I think that flux you described in political history is even stronger in cultural history, where you don't have to build a coalition. One person who loved Bonnie and Clyde, was obsessed with it for a while, wrote a song inspired by it, was Merle Haggard—who also wrote one of the right-wing cultural texts you discuss, "Okie from Muskogee," the anthem of the Silent Majority.

Perlstein: And with the I-35 bridge crashing in Minneapolis and the New Orleans levies collapsing on the other end of the Mississippi River, he recently came out with another song that said, "Let's rebuild America first." (Laughs.) A social democratic song about an infrastructure agenda!

reason: Or maybe a populist isolationist agenda.

Perlstein: Yes, also quite isolationist, in a discomfiting way I think. But all these things are in play. In the realm of culture, it almost gets to the level of subatomic physics, these strange paradoxes that are delightful to play with.

reason: Earlier you said the conservative movement almost disappeared while Nixon was on the stage. You gave a speech in 2005 where you asked, "What to make of the fact that some of the names who pioneered this anti-Nixonian movement of principle showed up in the dankest recesses of the Nixon administration?" And specifically about [Young Americans for Freedom leader turned Nixon dirty trickster] Tom Huston: "What does it mean that the member of Nixon's staff who was closest to the conservative movement, who was best-versed in its literature and its habits, was not merely the most ruthless malefactor on Richard Nixon's staff but the one most convinced he was acting on principle?"

Perlstein: I think that conservatives—and maybe even libertarians, I'm not really sure, you guys are pretty strange, I can never figure out where to put you guys—need to confront this fact.

reason: What does it say that Tom Huston took the career path that he did?

Perlstein: It says bad faith. Let me give you an excellent example. When Fred Thompson was beginning to cast about for his presidential campaign, I saw this guy quoted in an article as a kind of Thompson supporter/adviser. His name is Ken Rietz. And I said, "Where have I heard that name before?" I did a search on my hard drive and found that he was a Watergate figure. He was the head of Youth for Nixon, which was part of the Campaign to Re-Elect the President—which, incidentally, Karl Rove worked in.

Ken Rietz was all over the Watergate hearings. He was the guy whose job it was to pass the secret documents that were stolen from Edmund Muskie's campaign to the White House. At the time he was a rising star in the Republican National Committee, and because his name was in the papers around Watergate he was cashiered and lost his job at the RNC.

Well, in 1976 he shows up as the campaign manager for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign in California. I found myself saying to myself, "What does it take to get thrown out of this movement?"

They made Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy into conservative talk show hosts. We're talking about felons. We're talking about a guy, Liddy, who's on the record saying he was willing to murder a newspaper columnist [Jack Anderson] on behalf of the president of the United States.

This is obviously a part of the patrimony of the conservative movement. We know about the black spots of both the liberal left and the radical left. We know about everything from the gulags to arrogant urban renewal throwing people out of their houses because of these cockamamie schemes of government bureaucrats. To a large extent, speaking as a liberal, my movement has reckoned with those sins. I'm not sure conservatives have reckoned with theirs.

reason: The book is framed by the two landslide elections in 1964 and 1972. It seems to me that there's a major difference between the two that has to be brought into the picture: LBJ had coattails and Nixon did not.

Perlstein: They're just fundamentally different politicians. Lyndon Johnson comes out of a legislative milieu. He was "the master of the Senate." Lawmaking was in his bones. When he was a kid, he used to run around the Texas legislature and watch his dad. So it makes perfect sense that he had a high commitment to campaigning for congressional candidates, and that the voters would intuit a connection between voting for Lyndon Johnson and voting for a legislator who would support Lyndon Johnson's legislative program.

I'm not sure people even knew what Nixon's legislative program was in 1972. He was a very different politician, with contempt for lawmakers. One congressman, Jerry Ford, said he treated them like "the chairman of the board of a large corporation regards his regional sales managers."

reason: Your book describes the Orthogonians' resentment for how liberals reacted to the riots, the idea that they could just throw money at the problem. You didn't write about Nixon's Black Capitalism Initiative, but in his first year in office, he basically decided to spend more money in the ghettos and try to co-opt some radicals with it. One effect, perhaps, of the conservative movement disappearing is that there's very little in the Nixon administration that conservatives can be proud of ideologically.

Perlstein: Yeah. Although it's an interesting question: What would have happened in a second Nixon term, had he been unconstrained? He did have genuine contempt for the welfare state. The reason he liked the guaranteed minimum income, along with our buddy Milton Friedman, is because he could fire all the social workers.

In 1972 [Attorney General] John Mitchell was quoted saying this country is going so far to the right you're not even going to recognize it. It was a drunken remark at a party. It's hard to say what he meant. Did he mean, "We're really going to kick some ass on 'law and order'"? Or did he mean, "Once we finally get this election behind us, we're going to dismantle the welfare state"?

Nixon's quote in regard to domestic policy was that it's all "outhouses in Peoria." He just basically didn't care. The path of least resistance was just following the liberal status quo of the day. The reason he made these gestures toward environmentalism was because it polled really well—and his number one rival, Edmund Muskie, was the leader of the environmental movement in Congress. He certainly wasn't going to spend political capital on eliminating Aid to Families with Dependent Children when he had a war to end. He was much more interested in his secret diplomacy with China and in aggrandizing his own power.

reason: The last line in the book is, "How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet." It says something about the book that this felt really compelling as I read it.

Perlstein: (Laughs.)

reason: But then I thought, hold on. Do we live in Nixonland today? The intensity of the violence and paranoia that you describe actually feels pretty alien. Now the hard-core Red Team and Blue Team partisans have to work themselves up artificially into the sort of frenzies that came naturally to people in the '60s.

Perlstein: It's a fair criticism. When I say Nixonland is with us still, that could literally mean that things are just as ideologically intense as they were from 1965 to 1972. Or it could be that things were so ideologically intense from 1965 to 1972 that we're still kind of trailing off the exhaust fumes.

I think the latter is true. There's a lot of surplus rage from the '60s that was never really worked through publicly. I think a lot of that rage still exists, and I think you see that when John McCain runs a commercial that beats up on Hillary Clinton's earmark for a Woodstock museum. I have a friend whose people live in Sulphur, Louisiana, and they still talk about Woodstock as basically a visitation from hell.

reason: In the Goldwater book you wrote that both major presidential candidates in 1964 "would serve up rhetoric that autumn that tingled with the strains of utopianism—intercut with equal and opposite strains of apocalypticism." Is that the story of Nixonland as well?

Perlstein: Yes. I think the thing that made the '60s "the '60s" was this transit between apocalypticism and utopianism. It just suffused everyday life. In Nixonland I quote an ad for an almanac: "'Great Society' or Nation in Crisis: Who Are You to Believe?" It said, "Is America's star rising toward a new utopia, or sinking into a morass of overpopulation, poverty, and crime? Are we making enormous strides toward a golden era of peace and prosperity, or rapidly digging our own collective grave?"

The only thing that was left out of that formulation was the idea that we were living in a moderately interesting time that wasn't going to be particularly different from the time our parents lived in or our children were going to live in. The '60s excluded banality like oil excluded water.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).