The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule
By Thomas Frank
(Metropolitan Books, 369 pp., $25)
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
By Rick Perlstein
(Scribner, 896 pp., $37.50)
The conservative movement has never been in poorer shape than it is today, but who among us is confident that it is going away? By all estimates, the Republicans are confronting the worst prospects for a governing party since 1976 (post-Watergate) or even 1932 (post-Crash), and yet the presidential race grows tighter by the day. All this has some thinking back fearfully to elections past, when the Democratic Party seemed to hold the advantage, only to see its high-minded good-government candidates dismembered by the Republican "attack machine." Already some now worry that Barack Obama may simply be next in the line of sacrificial saints, joining Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore, George McGovern and Michael Dukakis. And conservatism's moving parts are still intact. Rush Limbaugh and his fourteen million listeners are very much with us. So, too, is the brain trust that gave us the Iraq war; some of its best minds (Robert Kagan, for one) are now nestled in the McCain campaign. Karl Rove, the tarnished "boy genius" who presided over the midterm debacle of the 2006 elections, is back in the game-- in fact playing several games at once (Fox News, Newsweek, informal McCain adviser). Even George Bush, stuck with the lowest approval ratings in modern history, remains a champion fund-raiser.
The right thrives elsewhere, too--as an example to liberals who have studied its strategies and its tactics. The inflamed young netroots organizers who propelled Howard Dean to national prominence in 2004 and damaged Joseph Lieberman's campaign in 2006 consciously modeled their styles of protest politics on the insurgent campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. And in the last, desperate phase of her primary struggle, Hillary Clinton nakedly deployed the racially charged idiom perfected by "white backlash" candidates from George Wallace to Jesse Helms.
And there is the curious case of liberal academics who have fashioned themselves into authorities on Republican tradecraft, particularly in the realm of button-pushing rhetoric. Foremost among them is the Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, who for some time has been tutoring Democrats in the uses of emotionally charged language so that they, like Republicans, can tap the "irrational" impulses of voters. The appeal of this recomm end ation of demagoguery is its "science." Lakoff's recent book The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain explores Republicans' ingenuity at "preparing the seedbed of our brains with their high-level general principles so that when 'tax relief' was planted, their framing could take root and sprout." He detests the ideology, but he admires the method.
Another important installment in the Democrats' new training in Republican-style ruthlessness is The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, who outlines methods by which Democrats might copy the verbal roundhouses thrown by Republican candidates. According to Westen, Gore's mistake during the 2000 debates was to deflect Bush's personal attacks when he might have roared back in kind. Here, according to Westen, is what Gore should have said: "If someone is going to restore dignity to the Oval Office, it isn't a man who drank his way through three decades of his life and got investigated by his father's own Securities and Exchange Commission for swindling people out of their retirement savings." On the strength of his theories, Westen became a fleeting sensation a year ago. His fans included Bill Clinton, who told The New York Times: "To say I think it's a very important book is an understatement." Clinton added that he was underlining passages for his wife as she was preparing to begin her campaign.
More useful is the emerging literature of the right being written from the left, much of it the work of a new generation of journalists and historians who have embraced, with a kind of ravening fascination, the history and the anthropology of the conservative movement. They are right to have made this their subject. It is the one political narrative they really know--know, that is, as an active vital force in American politics. And so collectively they have produced some of the most illuminating political writing of the past decade--in Matthew Dallek's The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, David Greenberg's Nixon's Shadow: The History of the Image, Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Unlike older liberal writers, for whom the conservative asc end ancy remains an affront, these newer writers were born too late to have experienced any sustained period of liberal triumph, and while some are unabashedly on the left, they do not need to be persuaded of how rich a subject postwar conservatism is--rich in rebellious appetites, in unexpected victories, in stimulating characters.
What these books do not offer, alas, is an enthusiastic or ext end ed engagement with ideas. The authors never really ask what conservatism is, or if indeed there is a single thing that we can call conservatism. Instead they simply equate it with one wing of the Republican Party--the Goldwater-Reagan-Bush wing. This is a mistake, because conservatism--as distinct from the conservative movement--has shaped our intellectual and cultural life over the past generation. These writers pay some attention to conservative thinkers, principally journalists; but they seldom explore the ideas themselves, even though conservatism, especially in its great period--the 1940s to the 1970s--offered a wealth of them: James Burnham's The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians; Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom; Willmoore Kendall's essays on "orthodoxy" as a counterstatement to consensus, and on America's "two popular majorities"; the essays that Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Nathan Glazer wrote in the first years of The Public Interest; Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes and Confessions of a Conservative; and others. This same curious resistance to ideas is a striking, and disappointing, feature of two of the most ambitious new chroniclers of the right, Thomas Frank and Rick Perlstein.
Thomas Frank became famous with the publication of his first book, What's the Matter With Kansas?, which argued that Republican election victories are rooted in the conservative movement's deployment of a cynical politics of bait-and-switch practiced on Middle American voters, who, failing to grasp that the GOP is the enemy of their economic interests, are dep end ably hoodwinked by appeals to their cultural prejudices against the elite snobs in the Democratic Party, even though it is Democrats who offer programs that would actually benefit the working class. When it appeared in 2004, What's the Matter With Kansas? was a best-seller much read by liberals reeling from the blow of George W. Bush's re-election.
Frank's new book is a more determined work of expose, in the muckraking tradition of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. Its stated theme is "the capture of government by business interests," but it is really a scathing portrait of Washington, D.C.--the "privatopia," the "city of bought men," "Golconda on the Potomac"--a den of corrupt operators fitted into $1,000 suits, gleaming cuff links, "vivid, shimmering ties." Where once it was populated by New Dealers, "talented, idealistic about the possibilities of government, and young," it has now become a cesspool, "the developers' city, the lobbyists' city, the defense contractors' city; a capital undone and remade by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and a thousand wild-eyed deregulators." The principal villains in The Wrecking Crew--Jack Abramoff, Grover Norquist, Tom DeLay, and Newt Gingrich--already belong to the past, but Frank usefully traces their overlapping connections, which in some instances date to the Reagan years or before, when they and other operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove were just starting out. All share the movement's hatred of government--especially when it functions well; and their collective goal was to destroy government by "boring from within," as the communists used to say, and at the same time feeding at the deep Beltway trough. Washington, in Frank's account, is the movement's Gomorrah, "what all of America looks like when conservatives run the machinery of the state."
Frank writes with the delighted outrage of an authentic satirist. The book repays reading just for its portrait of Abramoff--the "supercorruptionist" with "his constant references to The Godfather, his black trench coat and fedora, his Meyer Lansky memorabilia, the murder argot which will no doubt serve him and his fri end s well during their prison years." Abramoff resurfaces throughout the narrative, appearing now as the insurgent leader of the College Republicans, honing dirty tricks on campus liberals; now on K Street as a prodigiously connected lobbyist, colluding with Gingrich "revolutionaries" and representing the "labor gulag" of Saipan, notorious for its brutal mistreatment of imported Asian workers: "What happened on Saipan really was an experiment in the free market in about as unregulated a state as it gets."
Much of this is entertaining--if also familiar, and at times monotonously so. But the trouble comes when Frank moves from satire to argument:
"Yes, today's conservatives have disgraced themselves, but they have not strayed from the teaching of their forefathers or the great ideas of their movement. When conservatives appoint the opponents of government agencies to head those government agencies; when they auction their official services to the purveyor of the most lavish 'golf week end '; when they mulct millions from groups with business before Congress; when they dynamite the Treasury and sabotage the regulatory process and force government shutdowns--in short, when they treat government with contempt--they are running true to form. They do these things not because they are bad conservatives. They do them because they are good conservatives, because these unsavory deeds follow naturally from the core doctrines of the conservative tradition."
What "tradition" is Frank referring to, exactly? Apparently there is just one: Albert Jay Nock and his book Our Enemy, the State, which was published in 1935. Nock's book certainly is important. It was required reading in the first stage of the movement, when "economic individualists"--or libertarians--were beginning to attack Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Nock (like his fri end H.L. Mencken) insisted was a dictator, a homegrown version of Mussolini or Stalin. But Nock was principally a literary man, a dandiacal elitist and member of the self-appointed "remnant" who stood apart from the mob and its vulgar aspirations and tastes. (William F. Buckley Jr. was much influenced by his prose style.) His sketchy political ideas, such as they were, did not reverberate in the broader conservative world. To pin an entire ideology on him--to say, as Frank does, that "generations of young conservatives" acquired their hatred of government from Nock--is a fantasy.
But then fantasy may suit Frank's intention. Since conservatives are absurd, conservative ideas must be absurd, too. Or at least the one conservative idea that Frank has selected. But there are competing ones--a plenitude of them, in fact, and many resist Frank's complacent formulation. Consider Herbert Hoover, who was the model of a pro-business conservative, but also a Theodore Roosevelt-style progressive, utterly dedicated to the ideal of incorruptible government. His fame and his political career were owed to his heroic administration of diminished food supplies during World War I. He was also an ardent critic of rampant Wall Street speculation who in the 1920s pleaded with Calvin Coolidge to regulate Wall Street. Or consider another conservative seriously immersed in questions of centralized power: the ex-Trotskyist James Burnham, whose discussions of post-New Deal Washington acknowledged the dangers of lobbyists (the "fifth branch" of government). He def end ed them, as a matter of principle, because they had been present since pre-constitutional times and helped to diffuse centralized power and encouraged citizen participation in lawmaking. "As the American government actually works," Burnham wrote of lobbying in his book Congress and the American Tradition, published in 1959, "it is thought entirely normal, and neither scandalous nor odd, that the text of a law on veterans' pensions should have been prepared by the American Legion ... or the American Federation of Labor as well as the National Association of Manufacturers on the wording of amendments to a labor relations law." That is hardly a recipe for a later generation of Jack Abramoffs.
Frank's grasp of conservative ideology is more secure when it comes to the middle range of think-tank writers and op-ed specialists who write tracts such as The Politics of Plunder (which describes public transportation as "mass transit robbery") or contribute to Regulation magazine (published by the Cato Institute). Frank's summary of this style of conservative anti-government argument is pitch-perfect:
"Bribery? Well, the wingers demand, what do you call the subsidies and welfare and food stamps and affirmative action and Social Security benefits that flow from Uncle Sam to the "special interests" who keep returning these damned liberals to the Congress? Self-aggrandizement? How about the vast army of bureaucrats and Washington "experts" whose only concern is to grab more power for themselves, to exert control over every little aspect of the economy? Theft? Isn't that just a synonym for income tax? And isn't waste a synonym for all the idiotic pork-barrel projects on which they blow our money? Political machine? Why, isn't that what you call such an arrangement in its entirety?"
Frank's subject finally is a limited class of conservatives--the middle rung of Washington ideologues, who give voice to a particular brand of libertarianism that occupies one sector, but only one, of the conservative spectrum. And for all the power that Frank ominously imputes to them, they are only the symptoms, and not the causes, of conservatism's decline.
Rick Perlstein is an altogether more interesting case, a narrative historian whose two giant histories neatly book end the Bush years. His first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was a genial, absorbing, incident-thick chronicle of Goldwater's long-shot presidential campaign of 1964. Published six months before September 11, 2001, it was the rare work of history that seems destined to explain its own moment--the first months of the Bush administration. Today, after so much has happened, it takes some effort to recall just how unusual that brief period was. After the election of 2000, Bush's claim on the presidency was thinner than any in modern memory. The only clear precedent dated back to 1876, when another sitting Republican governor, Rutherford B. Hayes, lost the popular vote, with disputed outcomes in several states (including Florida), and then secured the presidency by supervention--in his case a commission of electors who, voting along partisan lines, awarded Hayes the office by a single vote. Recognizing the fragility of his victory, and the depth of division within the nation, Hayes wisely pledged in writing to serve a single term.
No one expected George W. Bush to do the same. The office of the presidency and the dispensations of power have changed too much since then. Moreover, Bush seemed likely to govern much as a Democrat would. As David Frum points out in his recent book, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again, it was Bush, not Gore, "who cunningly presented himself as Clinton's true heir.... Like Clinton, Bush claimed a record as an 'education governor.' Like Clinton, Bush promised a small tax cut only after he had met all his sp end ing priorities. Like Clinton, Bush deftly maneuvered his opponents away from the political center." To which one might add, Bush had run as a conciliator, and had also built a reputation, when he was governor of Texas, for being a skilled compromiser who had collaborated closely with Democrats in the statehouse and professed unease with hard-edged partisanship.
And yet, once installed in the White House, the Republican Clinton metamorphosed almost instantly into a doctrinaire winger. Few had grasped the man's underlying sense of mission. Bush was an ideologue after all. How could this be? Perlstein's book, a sweeping account of the conservative movement's first great national crusade, the doomed presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, helped to explain it. First, Goldwater's nomination, achieved in defiance of the GOP's national establishment, established a pattern of insurgent conservative campaigns propelled by the aggressive tactics that Bush's election team used so many years later: the grassroots Goldwaterites who filled stadiums in 1964 prefigured the herd of Republican operatives who desc end ed on Florida during the recount, exhibiting a passionate intensity unmatched by the other side. They won, it seemed, because they wanted it more. Second, Goldwater's campaign had permanently realigned the Republican Party, shifting its base of power to the Sunbelt. George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove were in this sense Goldwater's progeny. Each was also heir to the movement's contempt for East Coast elites and to its ingrained loathing for Washington "bureaucrats."
Now, as the Bush years limp at last toward their conclusion, Perlstein has written a big book, even longer and more sprawling than the first, about Richard Nixon and his legacy. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America again promises to illuminate the condition of our current politics. This time the central character is another Sunbelt figure who, in Perlstein's telling, emerges as a sinister genius of divisive politics--"positive polarization," perfectly attuned to the disruptions of the 1960s, when an aggrieved but very large class of Americans felt increasingly alienated from their society.
The narrative begins where the Goldwater story end ed, with Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory in 1964, and it concludes with Nixon's equally massive re-election in 1972. How could the same nation that gave 61 percent of the popular vote and 486 electoral votes to the author of the Great Society provide an equivalent margin (not quite 61 percent of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes) to a president who preached the virtues of "law and order" and was a critic of the liberal welfare state? The answer, Perlstein explains, is that "in the eight years in between" the two elections, "the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire." The blood and fire were Vietnam and civil disorder, which end ed the great period of liberal consensus that climaxed under Johnson and then unraveled. The same voter who in 1964 "pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else ... seemed to court civilizational chaos," in 1972 "pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason."
Perlstein rightly starts with Johnson, reminding us just how much he was able to do in his first years, thanks to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the nomination of Barry Goldwater. "In late 1963, Kennedy's principal legislation had been stalled in Congress for many months. With his death, the bills were passed--out of homage, not to mention 'remorse, guilt, fear,'" in Moynihan's words; the subsequent Goldwater debacle swept in huge majorities. "Lyndon Johnson took advantage of the weakened opposition," Perlstein writes. "His hero was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Now he became Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Actually, he outpaced him. The liberals' struggle to pass federal funding for education had been a dry political hole since the New Deal. Johnson passed it in the House in March  by a margin of 263-153. He then insisted the Senate pass the same bill without a single word changed. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act passed the Senate two weeks later with only eighteen votes in opposition." Next came Medicare, "another stalled New Deal-era initiative, steered by Johnson past its permanent obstacle, the American Medical Association."
But the cracks in consensus liberalism had already begun to show. Racial tensions had moved out of the South and into northern cities. There had been a sequence of summer riots during the 1964 campaign, followed by fears of "white backlash." In the primaries, George Wallace, the arch-segregationist, ran up impressive numbers in cities such as Gary, Indiana. Johnson's landslide quieted the problem but did not eliminate it. In August 1965, five days after the Voting Rights Act was signed, there was a major riot in Watts--12,000-plus National Guardsmen were brought in to subdue the mobs. "Some whites noticed a pattern," Perlstein writes. "In 1964, rioting had broken out a few weeks before the signing of the last civil-rights-law-to-end-all-civil-rights-laws. Watts wasn't even the only riot that week; in Chicago, a black neighborhood went up after an errant fire truck killed a woman. Some whites noticed some liberal politicians seemed to be excusing it all. Time quoted Senator Robert F. Kennedy: 'There is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes the law is the enemy.'"
Perlstein sets all this out quickly and fluently. He excels at journalistic reconstruction, weaving together news accounts (at times simply headlines), magazine pieces, television clips. And he has read a lot of books. Yet there are curious elisions in this huge volume--elisions in the realm of ideas. Perlstein leaves out, for instance, the historic speech that Johnson delivered at Howard University in June 1965, in which he announced a remarkable change in racial policy premised on a new vision of racial equality. The government would no longer limit itself to issues of judicial and constitutional rights addressed in the two civil rights acts, Johnson declared. The government was now obligated "to shatter forever not only the barriers of law and public practice, but the walls which bound the condition of man to the color of his skin." Re-making the economic and social landscape was, Johnson asserted, "the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity--not just legal equity but human ability--not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and as a result." This was the centerpiece of the War on Poverty.
The speech was based on Moynihan's report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," submitted to the Department of Labor. It argued for a "national family policy" that would address the "tangle of pathology" besetting inner-city blacks, in particular the "drastic" increase in illegitimate births. Meant only to be read internally, which explained Moynihan's blunt, urgent prose, the memorandum was leaked to the press by the administration in order to show just how serious Johnson's stated intentions were. But the strategy backfired. Moynihan came under fierce attack--not from conservatives but, to his astonishment, from liberals, who interpreted his report as defamatory because he seemed to be accusing blacks of vices, including sexual promiscuity, found equally among prosperous whites. Moynihan, the architect of a radical proposal for aiding black families, found himself accused of racism.
Perlstein, though he omits the Howard speech, does discuss Moynihan's report and the furor it caused. He cites, accurately, its role in Moynihan's increasing conservatism, which attracted the interest of the incoming Nixon administration. Of the report Perlstein remarks that "the message that culture, not economics, was the driving force in poverty delighted conservatives and made Moynihan public enemy number one among left-wing antipoverty activists." This is misleading. Moynihan's report did indeed describe the culture of poverty. But it also described the unique obstacles faced by blacks, chief among them the legacy of racism, along with welfare laws that encouraged single-parent households. And Moynihan was hardly indifferent to economics. His concern, in fact, was that despite the civil rights measures Johnson enacted, African Americans "remain terribly weak in economic and social terms--a situation that is, if anything, more conspicuous in the face of a booming, full-employment economy."
Wounded by the denunciations he end ured, Moynihan did indeed sour on Great Society idealism and on some government programs, though later he reconsidered. But the original object of his wrath was a growing ideological force that opposed consensus policies, namely, "the liberal Left," whose adherents, said Moynihan, were indifferent to the plight of those they claimed to def end . "Typically, the refusal of the liberal Left to accept the unpleasant facts of life for the poor--there is delinquency in the slums, but those kids in the suburbs are just as bad and don't get arrested, etc. etc.--leads to the same position as does the insistence of the extreme conservatives on just such facts: namely, to do nothing," Moynihan maintained. "The liberal Left will acknowledge the relevance of these facts only to the extent that they serve as an indictment of American society; after that it loses interest."
Why does this episode matter? Because it complicates the picture that Perlstein wants to simplify. It is much easier to cast Moynihan as an embittered defector from liberalism than to explore the ways in which, under particular conditions or pressures, liberal premises may be reformulated into expressions of conservative protest--and conversely, the ways in which conservative principles may become the unexpected bulwarks of liberal values. Yet it was this dialectic, repeated constantly in the 1960s, that caused so many voters to switch sides in 1968 and 1972.
Some, no doubt, were simply frightened or angry. But others suspected that right and left--and perhaps the two parties--had traded places. The first sign came in the 1966 congressional elections, lately misrepresented in George Packer's essay "The Fall of Conservatism," published in The New Yorker this spring. Packer describes how Nixon, looking ahead to 1968, "saw that he could propel himself back to power on the strength of a new feeling among Americans who, appalled by the chaos of the cities, the moral heedlessness of the young, and the insults to national pride in Vietnam were ready to blame it all on the liberalism of President Lyndon B. Johnson." These angry whites included "the kind of men whom Nixon whipped into a frenzy one night in the fall of 1966" in a hotel in Columbia, South Carolina, in a room "full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage," Packer reports. The evening's "rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, 'burned the paint off the walls.'" The result? "In November the Republicans won a midterm landslide." It is a rich tableau. But it is inaccurate. The big Republican winners in 1966 were not rednecks or rabble-rousers. They were centrists, senators such as Charles Percy (Illinois), Howard Baker (Tennessee), Robert Griffin (Michigan), Mark Hatfield (Oregon), and Edward Brooke (Massachusetts), the first African American elected to the chamber since Reconstruction. In the governor's contest in Maryland, the segregationist Democrat George P. Mahoney ("Your Home Is Your Castle--Def end It") lost to the moderate Republican Spiro T. Agnew. It all signaled the ascendancy not of the martial right, but, as the Times put it in an editorial, "a new generation of young, moderate Republicans."
In April 1968, after a strong challenge by Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary prompted Johnson not to seek re-election, there was much jubilation on the right. No one should have been more pleased than Buckley, the decade's leading conservative intellectual, unsurpassed in his loathing of Johnson's "statist" programs. Instead Buckley was disturbed. "This is an important datum," he wrote in his column shortly after Johnson's announcement:
Some will hail it as evidence that The People are in better command of their own affairs. Others, conservatives for the most part, will wonder whether it is all a cause for rejoicing. The conservative fears plebiscitary government, for the very reasons given by Burke and Adams. Instant guidance by the people of the government means instability, and instability is subversive of freedom. If Lyndon Johnson has to step down because 45 percent of the Democrats in New Hampshire, half of them unable to reply accurately to the question whether Senator McCarthy was for or against the Vietnam War, voted for McCarthy, and because thousands of college students moo over Bobby Kennedy ... there is something somehow unsettling about it all.
This nuance is missing from Perlstein's book, which, for all its impressive sweep and vivid detail, insistently simplifies the subjects it touches. Here, for instance, is how Perlstein introduces the protagonist in his narrative:
Richard Nixon was a serial collector of resentments. He raged for what he could not have or control. At the age of seven he so wanted a jar of pollywogs a younger boy had collected from the forbidden canal that he beaned the kid in the head with a toy hatchet (his victim bore the scar for life). He ever felt unfairly put upon: at age ten he wrote a letter to the mother he revered, r end ered distant by the raising of four other often-sickly boys, for a school assignment in the voice of a pet. Addressed "My Dear Master," it spun out fantastic images of unearned persecutions: "The two dogs that you left with me are very bad to me.... While going through the woods one of the boys triped [sic] and fell on me.... He kiked [sic] me in the side.... I wish you would come home right now." A few months later he betrayed another foreshadowing trait: groveling to elevate his station in life. "Please consider me for the position of office boy mentioned in the Times paper," he wrote to the big-city daily his family took and which he devoured, the reactionary Los Angeles Times. "I am eleven years of age.... I am willing to come to your office at any time and I will accept any pay offered."
This is the burlesque edition of Auden's "psychopathic god." Out of small hungers--and quite normal ones (a boy lonely for his mother and desperate for a job)--a monster arises who absorbs into himself all the blind ferocities of his age. Like Thomas Frank, Perlstein is almost comically reductive. Lurking beneath the swaths of colorful prose is the same Nixon, awash in self-pity but also self-aggrandizement, who has been thrust at us for many years now--the Nixon of the novelist Robert Coover, of the psychobiographers Fawn M. Brodie and Bruce Mazlish, of Oliver Stone's melodramatic film, and of Peter Morgan's maudlin play Frost/Nixon. Perlstein has added one new ingredient--or rather borrowed it (as he acknowledges) from Chris Matthews's book Kennedy and Nixon: The Rivalry That Shaped Postwar America, which describes--as other books have also done--the campus rivalries at Whittier College, the small Quaker school that Nixon attended.
Whittier had a social club, called the Franklins, whose members came from the social elite, such as they existed on an obscure campus in small-town southern California in the Depression years. "Franklins were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly," Perlstein writes. Nixon, not meant for this company, gathered other outcasts into a rival club, the Orthogonians (meaning "those at right angles," four-square). They were "the strivers, those not to the manner born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one's unpolish was a nobility of its own." Nixon enjoyed a great triumph when he defeated a Franklin for student-body president.
For Perlstein--following Matthews, who is still promoting, on his television program, an "ins versus outs" view of the world--this battle of the frat clubs would remain paramount throughout Nixon's life. His adversaries, the sons of privilege, would always be Franklins, while he was the tribune of the awkward, plainspoken, "Republican cloth-coat" Orthogonians--the townies, shut out of the country club, up past midnight doing their homework, in Nixon's case waking at 4 a.m. and driving to Los Angeles markets to buy fresh produce for his father's grocery store. He was naturally disposed to tangle with Franklins. Alger Hiss was a Franklin. So was Jack Kennedy. The list could stretch on indefinitely. America is a big country, a rich preserve of potential "smart guys." There is always room for another name on the enemies list.
All this is accurate enough, but as an analysis it is not especially deep, fixated is it on Nixon's fixations. To be sure, Nixon was the most broodingly interior of presidents--painfully shy, miserable in most company. His craving for privacy was magnified by the hugely public humiliations that he suffered, many, though not all, of his own doing. He had, as Garry Wills wrote in Nixon Agonistes, still the one indispensable book on its subject, "a permanent air of violation." But Nixon's air of violation matters only because it opens up vistas on the public life that he chose for himself. That a man so introverted should have made a career in politics almost defies reason. That he succeeded so well makes Nixon interesting, because it means his defining conflict was with himself; and so, of all the modern presidents he has inspired the most good writing.
It is also what makes Nixon most like us, in his doubts and insecurities; and this in turn explains the fact, so often overlooked, that Nixon was one of the most accomplished vote-getters in history, a phenomenon who appeared on his first national ticket, as Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, at the age of thirty-nine. How to understand this?
In Perlstein's formulation, those who voted for Nixon were really voting against something else: Watts and Woodstock, militant campus revolts, riots at both conventions in 1968, Kent State, and all the other events that occupy the teeming foreground in Nixonland. It is a thoroughly plausible argument. It is, in fact, Richard Hofstadter's theory of American popular movements as upsurges of repudiation, of grievance and spilled-over anxiety. But the formulation is incomplete. However much the "outs" may resent the "ins," they are never more off end ed than when the "ins" exhibit contempt for their own privilege, for this implies contempt for the fondest dreams of the aspirants. This is why one Orthogonian, Joe McCarthy, launched his notorious attack on "those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer ... the finest homes, the finest college educations and the finest jobs in government we can give." It is why, too, the pro-Nixon hardhats who stormed City Hall in 1970, enraged that the flag was being flown at half-mast in respect for the Kent State dead, carried a placard that read "God Bless the Establishment."
And it is why Nixon, to the astonishment of so many, proved to be an upholder of the liberal consensus. Shortly after taking office, he resumed the very policies that Johnson had pursued. Perlstein writes:
Nixon established something called the Urban Affairs Council, a domestic NSC [National Security Council], and named a Democrat, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of the Kennedy-Johnson Labor Department, to run it; the cup of bipartisanship, that Holy Grail of the pundit class, runneth over. Moynihan helped prepare Nixon's first message to Congress, a conciliatory performance that endorsed Johnson's poverty program. The Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, predicted a stronger role for the Senate than under LBJ. "He knows that if his administration is to succeed," the Post observed, "he will have to have the cooperation of the Democratic Congress." In February, Nixon took his presidency's first overseas trip, to England, France, West Germany, and Italy--to "listen," Nixon said. The New Republic found the March 4 press conference upon his return "dazzling"; The New York Times called it a "tour de force." The editorial headlines ran "A National Good Deed," "Good Work, Mr. President," "Mission Accomplished."
It didn't last, of course. The mutual distrust was too great, even when Nixon began to end the Vietnam War. "By 1972 the original 1969 print-out tables of withdrawal that [Melvin] Laird still flourished in the office of the Secretary of Defense were dirty, dog-eared and tattered, but the targets had been met," Theodore H. White wrote in The Making of the President 1972. "From 549,500 to 524,500 to 484,000 to 434,000 to 284,000 to 184,000, the number of troops had fallen to 139,000 as election year opened. In 1968 and early 1969 it was not uncommon for 300 Americans to be killed in a week; by midsummer of 1972 the average had fallen to 3 or 4. Out There, Nixon had promised to get the boys home; and for three years he had not missed a target date, or fallen short of the promise."
Nixon had inherited Vietnam from Kennedy and Johnson. It was the liberals' war--the climax of their policy of communist containment. Then the liberals turned against it, and so, eventually, did most of the country. But the Cold War was still in full swing, and a hardline anti-communist such as Nixon had the best chance of getting us out of Vietnam without s end ing the wrong message abroad. And Nixon got the job done. His reward was to receive no thanks or even credit, least of all in the media, with which he was fatally locked in a bitter battle of his own, dating back to his earliest days in politics. He avenged himself by loosing on the press his bizarre vice president, Spiro Agnew, a hinge moment in modern politics that set us on the course that later delivered us Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, with its sardonic parody ("fair and balanced") of a "mainstream" media it assumes to be rife with contempt.
When Nixon declared war on the press, the public sided with him. In fact, it sided with him most of the time--until the crimes of Watergate, the outgrowth of his paranoia, brought him down, as well they should have, although Watergate too was a more ambiguous event than we may suppose. The best that can be said of Nixon's transgressions is that they did not lapse into violence, unlike so much else in that period. In fact, the ultimate contribution of modern conservatism may be that it re-directed political passions back into institutions. The "movement" can be accused of much, but its legions seldom took to the streets.
All this points to another Nixon, for whom politics was not merely an outlet for his pent-up rage, but also an instrument of solidarity. Even "positive polarization" was a means of building a constituency. Nixon understood that all elections, no matter how harshly contested, are finally exercises in consensus. They have to be. There is no other way to win a plurality of votes. And Nixon aimed for more than that. He envisioned a new majority--and he achieved it, one that far outlasted the permanent majority Karl Rove predicted in 2004. Nixon the master political strategist was best described by White: "Anyone who has talked to Richard Nixon, over a period of years and privately knows that, without ever avowing it, he has been running against Franklin D. Roosevelt since he began campaigning for office." Roosevelt! "He speaks of Roosevelt not with bitterness or disrespect or anger," White added, "but in a way that makes it clear in all conversation that his own measure of himself is a measure against" FDR. A powerful fact united these wholly dissimilar men. Only Nixon and Roosevelt "in all American history have run for office--Presidency or Vice-Presidency--five times," White wrote. "The easy record reads that Roosevelt won four, lost one, and Richard Nixon won four, lost one. Roosevelt, of course, scored heavier, but between them, these two men go down as the most enduring American politicians of the twentieth century, and they span a period of fifty years of continuing American revolution."
The essential word is "revolution." It was what the 1960s seemed to be undergoing--and not just to conservatives. In January 1969, right before Nixon took office, Richard N. Goodwin, the wunderkind of the Kennedy-Johnson years, published an extraordinary essay, called "Sources of the Public Unhappiness" in The New Yorker. The opinions he expressed didn't sound especially liberal. Goodwin called for "decentralizing the government" and criticized "federal housing programs" that "have failed miserably under the pressure of social demands for slum clearance and the creation of livable neighborhoods." He noted curious affinities between the left and the right in their defiance of "the 'power structure'" as detectable in "the recent pronouncements of George Wallace, the manifestos of the New Left, and the demands of black militants." Goodwin also noted the anxieties of the "urban white" voter whose "discontent is fed both by envy of the more prosperous and by anger at the blacks--not just because he fears the blacks but also because their problems, and not his, seem to be the focus of national concern. That is why it was possible for many members of this group to support [George] Wallace after having supported Robert Kennedy; both men, in very different ways, could be identified with their wants, and both conveyed a deep emotional sympathy with the importance of their fears and their plight."
Goodwin, who had campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, was not a likely candidate for the Nixon White House, unlike Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But both men were reacting to the same crisis--the decline of authority at a time of cultural disruption. It was conservatives who promised to restore that authority, for better or worse. Most liberals did not even notice its absence. But conservatives certainly did. "Although established liberalism certainly has deep ideological responsibility for nihilist radicalism," the conservative thinker Frank S. Meyer wrote in National Review in 1970, "it has also been the governing form of the social order in this country for the past forty years." The question was whether conservatives, organically opposed to the centralized state, would choose to uphold it--or help to hasten its collapse. Nixon chose to uphold it. It was the price of being a serious politician in a period of "continuing American revolution."
The story of Richard Nixon, like the story of modern conservatism, is not just a story of rage, but of a rage for order. Perlstein is right: the same voters who elected Johnson in a landslide in 1964 voted for Nixon in 1972. But it is important to understand why. They did so not because they had changed, but because they had not changed. In a period of extremisms, right and left, the majority of Americans stayed where they had always been--in the center. That was where they found Johnson in 1964, and where they found Nixon eight years later.
Today conservatism looks startlingly different. After eight years of resolutely partisan rule and an accumulation of failures, foreign and domestic, the Republican Party has abandoned the center, and every pillar of ideological conservatism has buckled. The best evidence of this is the emergence of John McCain, the first nominee in recent memory to capture the nomination despite the active opposition of the party's most entrenched constituents (though he is now doing his disheartening best to reassure them). This year's election, the first truly "open" one since 1952, is in some respects a mirror image of that one. In 1952, the Republican Party, after five consecutive losses, looked poised to reclaim the presidency. What, then, would be the fate of the New Deal? Would all its gains be revoked?
In The Future of American Politics, an important book timed with the 1952 election, the journalist Samuel Lubell, perhaps the era's keenest poll-watcher, saw that the feared outcome might actually be the best one:
"To solidify itself permanently in American life the New Deal needs at least one Republican victory. As long as the Republicans remain out of office it is possible for politicians on both sides to stir deceptive fears that the whole New Deal is at stake. But once in office the Republicans will automatically end orse much of the New Deal, through the simple device of leaving things untouched. Extreme right-wing Republicans, who talk as if they would repeal every law passed in the last twenty years, would find they had to accept much of the New Deal under Republican administrators. The more ardent Roosevelt followers would find that most of what is loosely called the Welfare State was here to stay."
That is exactly what happened. The Republicans chose a popular moderate who kept the New Deal in place. In our time, a conservative president, should one be elected, will serve us best by performing the opposite service. He will need to dismantle what remains of a movement that, in its last and genuinely decadent phase, has done America more harm than good.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. He is the author of An Un-American Life: The Case of Whittaker Chambers.
By Sam Tanenhaus