Closing the Parentheses: Author One-on-One—Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein and John Dean on May 14, 2008

Well and truly, consider my mind blown. John Dean is an American hero, and to read him defending my honor is like Christmas in May. Thanks so much, John. I like to say that if it hadn't been for his courage, Richard Nixon might still be president.

I don't want to dwell on George Will's review—I've been blessed with too many humblingly thoughtful rave reviews already to gainsay a little bit of criticism—but I would like to reflect on some of the conservative reaction I've been receiving generally, because it's actually pretty relevant to where we are in our current political moment.

Here's a curious phenomenon, one that I guess shouldn't have come as a surprise, but still catches me short. It is how many of my conservative readers seem eager to excuse or minimize Watergate. In this curious exchange, former Bush White House speechwriter David Frum wonders whether Nixon's venality was all that worse than, yes, JFK and FDR's. And in his exceptionally thoughtful Atlantic review, Ross Douthat ventures  a line of thinking  that even with Watergate and all, America could have done so much worse than Richard Nixon. Call me a hopemonger, but I don't think that argument is easy to sustain, as I did my best to explain in this podcast with Ross (conducted in the Watergate office complex!!!). You can't do worse than a man whose own chief of staff arranged for the military commanders to ignore any orders from the President unless countersigned by the Secretary of Defense, because they were terrified he would use the Army to hold on to power. That is the ne plu ultra of un-Americanism.

Conservatives cherish their myths; one of them is that Richard Nixon may not have been their cup of tea when it came to policy, but he was just right when it came to tactics. That he just did what he had to do in a time of social anarchy—he must have had the nation's best interests at heart; or that he didn't do anything that liberal presidents didn't do, only that he got caught. (The two notions, of course, are contradictions.) They can become quite discombobulated when their cherished myths are scrambled. Just this morning I got off the phone with two right-wing radio hosts in St. Louis. One said something like, "well, you can't deny that the Democrats surrendered in Vietnam." That's just a historical fact. (He hadn't read the book, he said.)

I asked him, "What about George Aiken?", and a radio no-no occurred: dead air.

I asked him, "What about Mark Hatfield?"—dead air again.

George Aiken was a hippie. I mean he was an ancient Republican senator from Vermont who said as early as 1966 that the best way to get out of the Vietnam mess just to "declare victory and go home." He said it again when Richard Nixon became president: "Common sense should tell us that we have now accomplished our purpose as far as South Vietnam is concerned." He was, in fact, the first senator to spoil Nixon's honeymoon by recommending "orderly withdrawal."

Mark Hatfield was a hippie. I mean he was a Republican senator from Oregon and a devout evangelical Christian (some evangelicals still revere him for his early pro-life advocacy). In the spring of 1970, he co-sponsored the amendment to the military procurement authorization bill to provide that without a Congressional declaration of war that all American troops must withdraw from Vietnam by June 30, 1971—lock, stock and barrel, no residual forces, no air cover, nothing.

At that, the host started ranting about how everyone knows it was all Ted Kennedy's fault.

It sounded a lot like a letter to Time from the fall of 1969 I excerpt in the book:

Sir: Ted Kennedy's overrighteous indignation at President Nixon's handling of the inherited Viet Nam war is short of ludicrous. How unfortunate that Teddy was so silent when his brother John ordered the first American combat troops of this war into action and is now so vitriolic against the President's honest attempts to reduce these forces. What irony that Teddy also insists that we now toss out the Thieu regime when it was, once again, his own brother who was directly responsible for the fall of Diem, leading to the rise of Thieu.

How tragic, too, Kennedy's professed concern with the loss of lives in Viet Nam when he was so negligent about saying the one young life over which he had direct control at Chappaquiddick.

(MRS.) G. M. GRACE Arlington, Va.

We are living in Nixonland still.

(P.S.: You can read that letter here. With Nixonland, I've done something I think might be unprecedented: an ongoing project—I'm up to chapter nine out of 34—to create a hypertext version of the endnotes, so that any source I refer to available online can be directly consulted, whether it's the 1966 Los Angeles Times article “50 Longhairs Protest Clipping Order" or audio of the blustering governor of Ohio screaming at a press conference— Hear it about 3/4 into the linked podcast—that his National Guard will shut down student demonstrations at Kent State by any means necessary. Head on over to, click on "Books" up top, then just click on the Nixonland chapter for the open-source version of its notes. Write your own Nixonland! Point out my liberal distortions and lies!)

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