We live in interesting times, for better or worse, but I must confess I find the times from the early 60s to the early 70s at least as interesting as ours. Everything seemed at stake, and everything was in flux. Mass movements changed things from the ground up, and flawed but fascinating figures at the top made courageous and tragic decisions (often in the same moment) whose effects we're still living with. But you don't need me to tell you about those years--we've been hearing about them (and hearing about them) ever since.
Which might make a new history of the era seem superfluous, even to a mild obsessive like me. But when the fat advance copy of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland hit my desk, I could tell it would be something special. For one thing, Perlstein had an excellent reputation from his first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which was acclaimed on both sides of the aisle for showing how the Goldwater presidential run in 1964, commonly considered an unmitigated disaster, actually laid the groundwork for the conservative movement that has dominated American politics for most of the past three decades. (By the way, Before the Storm is unaccountably out of print right now--a new edition is due out next spring, but for now you'll have to spend over $100 for a used copy on our site.) I was looking forward to seeing that perspective turned on the more familiar terrain of the Nixon years. And then there's the style of Nixonland: from a few random glances you could tell that it's written with a verve and glee that you don't expect from political history. And the book itself lived up to those early signs: dense with research that puts familiar events on the same plane with forgotten ones and full of a spirit that reminds you of one of his theses, that politics is always an emotional and visceral game, never more so than in times of massive and disorienting change. I made it my Best of the Month pick and even steamrolled my less-obsessed colleagues into making it our May Spotlight selection.
I wanted to bring Perlstein into dialogue on Omni, and I thought a perfect match for him would be former Nixon aide John Dean: in part because he lived at the center of many of the books' events (although the book ends with the '72 election, before Dean was on television sets across the country as the star of the Watergate hearings), but even more so because he's been a student of conservatism as well, and has held to his own identity as a "Goldwater conservative" even as, by his own reckoning, the shifting of the political spectrum has put someone like him much farther to the left than he'd ever have imagined. His newest book, following recent bestsellers like Worse than Watergate and Conservatives Without Conscience (not to mention his original bestseller and one of my all-time favorite political books, the memoir Blind Ambition), is Pure Goldwater, a collection, edited with Barry Goldwater Jr., of the late senator's journal entries and correspondence, which I hope will help lead the discussion toward Perlstein's first book and the Goldwater brand of conservatism as well.
Dean and Perlstein will be taking turns blogging here over the next couple of weeks. Dean begins things with a post this afternoon, which is a direct response to George Will's cover piece on Nixonland yesterday in the New York Times Book Review. May the rest of the discussion continue to be so lively! --Tom