One of the advantageous of working among the elite in Wash DC is getting the opportunity to participate in the very elite culture the area has to offer, including being able to attend very elitist type book-readings where very elite authors, most of them liberal elitists, hold forth on their latest publications and afterward, agree to affix their elitist signature to the books.
Last night was such an occasion, as I went to hear the great Rick Perlstein read and discuss his latest, Nixonland. Seven years in the making, the book is a follow up to the much acclaimed Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.
I imagine I'll have more to say on the book as I get through it, although I confess to being in the middle of reading a lot of other material as well, so my remarks on Nixonland will probably come along later.
But I enjoyed Perstein's reading of a passage taken from 1967 and the discussion afterwards. And yes, I got him to sign a copy I had just purchased.
I was a little worried that Nixonland might be a type of "stream of consciousness" book, full of rambling anecdotes and loosely drawn inferences, but the book appears to be well organized, by election cycle. As Perlstein took great pains to point out, Nixon himself was a rather complex character. One questioner in the audience asked Perlstein if he thought Nixon was a demagogue. "No", the author responded. While conceding Nixon's brutal style of politics (not particular to Nixon), Perlstein said Nixon was more subtle than that. George Wallace was a demagogue, but not Nixon. I considered asking Perlstein what he thought of Nixon's campaign charges of Helen Douglass being pink down to her..., but I thought better of it.
For anyone interested in reading historic epics and fascinated by the changes wrought by and during the 1960's will I'm sure greatly appreciate Rick Perlstein's Nixonland.
One point that occurs to me of the period that came to be associated with what is sometimes thought of as the Conservative Ascendacy is that, while the conservative movement that rose from the ashes of the 1964 Goldwater landslide loss was effective in mobilizing a broad coalition of disaffected reactionaries and high-brow financiers in the decades beginning with and after Nixon, the conservative movement's actual achievements seem rather meager to me. That is to say, while the country's political rhetoric, campaign styles and partisan balances have gotten more conservative, the underlying structure of government and the wider culture remain to a large degree, liberal, and increasingly so.
Nevertheless, we appear to be entering upon another period of partisan and cultural upheaval, and Perlstein's Nixonland should remind us that things may not necessarily be what they seem. That is, if we think we are witnessing a conservative meltdown over Iraq and other calamities and changes, we could be in for a comeuppance. On the other hand, one of the points Perlstein stresses is that, the establishment media, Johnson administration, and Democratic Congress failed to perceive the resentments, changes and dynamics forming in response to the war, racial upheaval and other developments, and found themselves disgraced or swept away by the changing tide. The Establishment didn't get it, in other words. A similar thing could be said today of the Bush II administration, the war in Iraq and the seemingly dramatic changes taking place in the economy, high gas prices, mortgage problems, household debt, etc, which the government and media seem only partially responsive to. Whether liberals or conservatives end up addressing or successfully responding to these changes and upheavals may prove to be the subject of a future book and a much debated historical epic when America as we knew it dramatically changed forever.