Nixonland, or an Empty Parenthesis?: Author One-on-One: John Dean

Rick Perlstein and John Dean on May 12, 2008

Dean_john_300 I like the sampling of bookshelves this site has collected. For a fleeting moment I thought about taking a picture of my bookshelf (actually three shelves in our den which my wife lets me use for my current reading crop for she too is a voracious reader and she correctly points out that I have more than monopolized the walls of our house and my office). But when I looked at my shelves and spotted several works by authors whose sagacity (nay, sanity) I truly doubt but whose books I read to understand their warped and weird political thinking, I feared the picture might suggest to others to consider these works. So no shelf picture and on with more important business.

The New York Times Book Review published George Will's cover review of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which I'll address shortly. But first I am wondering if others spotted the note in the "Up Front" section of the Times review, where "The Editors" discussed their exchange with George Will?  It seems they asked him how "Nixon fit into the larger story of modern conservatism?" Will answered: "He doesn't. His tenure was an empty parenthesis." 

If Nixon has no part in modern conservatism, why have conservatives embraced so many Nixonian governing techniques? Starting with the Reagan and Bush I administrations, and accelerating their efforts with the Bush II/Cheney administration, conservatives have revived and expanded everything from Nixon's imperial presidency (in the name of national security just like Nixon) to blatant abuses of constitutional limitations--not to mention countless statutes--that make Nixon look now like a piker. Nixon famously believed, of course, that if a president did it, that made it legal. Bush and Cheney, and their conservative cohorts, have proved Nixon's point yet gone way beyond it, for in his darkest moment I do not believe Nixon would ever have tortured enemies. 

140397741001_mzzzzzzz__2 Actually, when I read Will's review, I understood why he likes to think of Nixon's contribution to conservatism as an empty parenthesis. Nixon has about him a Pandora of evils that I suspect Will (and many conservatives) would rather that astute young historians like Perlstein keep boxed. This may explain why Will thinks that Perlstein has not lived up to his prior work in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. But I must differ with Will. For me, Nixonland is even better. Both Will and I, no doubt, are too close to Nixonland's years--albeit viewing them from very different vantage points--to fully appreciate how the fresh eyes of a young historian might see it. But suffice it to say I found the portrait Perlstein has painted both fascinating and revealing, and to my knowledge very accurate.

I was disappointed in Will's review not because he does not much like what emerged from Perlstein's efforts, rather because he seeks to discredit the author's works by selecting examples of purported errors.  For example, Will takes issue with Perlstein quoting a Military Policeman who thought B-52 co-pilots were carrying side arms to deal with a co-pilot "too chicken to follow orders and drop the big one." Will found the language adolescent, and said that "an Air Force historian laughed" at the notion. (In fact the language makes the point, and this historian's laugh is a non-denial denial, not to mention the fact that B-52 pilots were often armed.) Perlstein, however, did not quote the MP for his facts, rather his state of mind.

Will next says Perlstein was wrong to state that "before the Kent State violence, 'citizens were thrilled to see tanks and jeeps rumbling through town'" because there were no tanks. Yet a simple and quick Google search shows no less than four eyewitnesses reported tanks at the scene. Similarly, Will says Perlstein is wrong in writing (and citing) the story that "Hells Angels beat hippies to death with pool cues" at the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, California, yet countless stories produced by a Google search corroborate Perlstein. This snarky nit picking goes on until Will reaches his claim that the "cumulative effect of carelessness, solecism and rhetorical fireworks is to make Perlstein seem eager to portray the years and people about whom he is writing as even wilder and nastier than they were." [Emphasis added.]

In fact, Perlstein has not made them wilder or nastier than they were. (Based on his review, I am not sure George Will believes this either.) To the contrary. Perlstein has painted a careful, realistic, and vivid picture of the times and characters.

His assertion that Perlstein's work is "careless" is simply not true, as any careful reader (or inquiring mind) will discover, for there are almost 100 pages of documentation supporting the material in great detail. In fact, when I agreed to do this blog--after earlier reading the book in bound galleys and being impressed by the care and detail (and analysis) in undertaking what had to be a massive research job--I sent word I would like to talk about the author's research techniques in getting his head around, and into, this massive body of information. (A subject I will address with a subsequent blog for I am interested as both an author and reader.)

As for Will's charge of "solecism," I can find none in Perlstein's work although I cannot say the same for George Will's review in making false charges about Perlstein's facts. He should try Google occasionally.

Finally, as for Will's trouble with the "rhetorical fireworks," early in his review he found the work "rollicking," noting that "Perlstein's high-energy--sometimes too energetic--romp of a book also serves, inadvertently, a serious need: it corrects the cultural hypochondria to which many Americans, including Perlstein, are prone"--whatever "cultural hypochondria" involves. And Will closed his review by calling Perlstein's chronicle of the Nixon years "compulsively readable"--and on this I agree. Rick's occasional "rhetorical fireworks" are merely part of the show. --John Dean

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