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Book Review -- Nixonland


Nixonland by Rick Perlstein covers the time in American history when it really seemed that the country was about to collapse. The book covers the time period from 1964 to 1972 when urban riots, assassinations, war, massive protests, and campus unrest were constantly being broadcast into people’s home via the nightly news and on American’s doorstop via their daily newspaper. It was also the time that Richard Nixon exploited this unrest and the fears it brought to win two terms as president.

If the past few elections have gotten you down because they seem to have played on the people’s fears rather than issues and positions, blame Richard Nixon. He was the first candidate to really exploit middle class fears, resentments even, about changes in the culture, fears about crime, fears about blacks moving into white neighborhoods, and college students who were not respectful of their elders. People who had never voted for a Republican candidate in the past were scared and mad and confused about what was happening in the world and Richard Nixon spoke to these people like a politician never spoke to someone in the past. And even though he was never well liked, he won two terms as president.

The book is a fascinating read and it really takes you through all the momentous events of the era. The riots in Watts, Detroit, and Newark, the escalation of the Vietnam War, Civil Rights struggles, MLK and RFK assassinations, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, rising urban crime, Woodstock, Nixon going to China, Kent State, the first inklings of Watergate, and much, much more.

It’s especially interesting because it seems that, 44 years after it was first used as a campaign tactic, fear and resentment is losing steam as an effective political tool. First Hilary Clinton and now John McCain have tied to use fear and wedge issues against Barack Obama with diminishing results. Of course there are pockets of the population that still respond to these tactics as the ugly crowds that have been showing up at Palin rallies can attest (cries of “kill him? were heard on Monday, referring to Barack Obama). However people who feel this way seem to be more and more isolated as the cranky old coots they really are.

So if you like recent American history, interested in how we got to where we are today politically, I strongly recommend reading Nixonland. It should be a must read for all students of American history.

Ezra Klein states much better what I was trying to say above:

Similarly, attacks that should have shuttered Obama's campaign did not. In 1988, the Willie Horton ads managed to make Michael Dukakis seem too black. In 2008, Reverend Wright couldn't derail Obama. Indeed, to assert Obama's otherness, they've need to stack racial attacks atop insinuations of Muslim heritage atop cries of political radicalism. In 1984, Ayers would have been enough. In 1988, Wright would have been enough. In 2004, his Arab name would have been enough. In 2008, it seems likely that all three combined won't keep Obama from the White House. Which suggests that the traditional sore spots of American politics are becoming quite a bit duller.

We may be entering a time when attacks like this don't work anymore. If you want to read about when these kind of attacks first began, and how effective they were, read Nixonland

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