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Nixon: a life divided

Richard Nixon never lost the mind-set that pitted 'us' against 'them.'

By Terry Hartle is vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education. / May 19, 2008

A few years can make a big difference in the life of a nation. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson was elected president in a landslide so definitive that political observers saw it as the emergence of “a liberal national consensus” or, as Johnson himself said later that year when lighting the White House Christmas tree, “These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”

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Yet just eight years later, the Democratic Party was in a complete shambles and Richard Nixon won 49 states. Some consensus.
How this happened, according to Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, is largely the story of Richard Nixon and his ability to identify the resentments of middle-class Americans, articulate them, and turn them into votes.

Nixon’s penchant for defining issues as “us” against “them” started when he was an undergraduate at Whittier College and sought to join a “circle of swells” called the “Franklins.” He was rebuffed and started his own group made up of young people like himself – quiet, hardworking strivers. He named the club “The Orthogonians,” and told its members that they were “upright” and “straight shooters.”

Perlstein says that this mind-set stayed with Nixon (“a serial collector of resentments”) throughout his life and was the essence of his worldview. Indeed, whenever Nixon faced a crisis, as in his 1952 “Checkers” speech, he portrayed himself as a scrappy underdog battling against elites and privilege.

The ’60s, of course, were about much more than Richard Nixon: Vietnam, urban riots, campus disturbances, social upheaval, civil rights battles, and political assassinations were commonplace. According to Perlstein, middle-class Americans reacted to these developments with resentment and fear, and Nixon succeeded politically because he convinced what came to be called “The Silent Majority” that he understood and shared their concerns.

This is, of course, a complicated, multifaceted story and Perlstein marshals impressive organization skills to incorporate it into a coherent narrative.

The central themes of the story are the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam conflict. In describing the civil rights movement, Perlstein spends considerable time documenting the unconcealed hatred and racism that characterized the era and the reader is reminded how far we have come as a nation. But in retelling the story of the Vietnam War, he describes the colossal mistakes made in Southeast Asia and the reader cannot avoid thinking of the Iraq war and realizing how little we have learned.


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