“This country is going so far to the right you are not even going to recognize it,” attorney general John Mitchell uttered in 1970 at a party while drunk. A sequel, in a sense, to the author’s earlier book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), this harrowing tale examines the causes of the late-1960’s conservative revival foreshadowing the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980’s. Perlstein focuses on so-called swing voters “who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilized chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.” Few would have foreseen that the Watts ghetto in Los Angeles would go up in flames just days after Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, or that President Lyndon B. Johnson would escalate “that bitch of a war,” as he called it, in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Poised to profit from the resultant “backlash” was an unlovable two-time loser (the presidency in 1960, the California governorship in 1962) nicknamed “Tricky Dick.” Languishing in a New York law firm, Richard Milhous Nixon confided to partner Leonard Garment that he’d do anything to become president “except see a shrink.”
The son of an Irishman who felt the world had it in for him, Nixon resented bluebloods and pretty boys who played by a different set of rules than outsiders such as himself. At Whittier College in California, the in-crowd belonged to the Franklins. Nixon started a rival club of strivers and commuter students, the Orthogonians (square shooters). He got elected student body president by promising to repeal a campus ban on dancing. At Duke University in North Carolina, the dogged law student, nicknamed “Iron Butt” for putting in long, uninterrupted hours at the library, graduated third in his class. Even so, establishment law firms spurned him. No connections. Ditto the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the Navy his patience paid dividends in barracks poker marathons. Running for Congress in 1946, Nixon labeled the voting record of opponent Horace J. “Jerry” Voorhis “more Socialistic and Communistic than Democratic.” He dogged the heels of former New Dealer and State Department official Alger Hiss during House Committee on Un-American Activities hearings until he tripped up the supercilious witness. Nixon employed “hardball” smear tactics his entire career. His 1950 Senate campaign literature included a pink-colored sheet that branded opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas the “Pink Lady,” right down to her underwear. Relishing the role of hatchet man as Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower’s 1952 running mate, he charged Ike’s rival Adlai E. Stevenson with being a graduate of the “College of Cowardly Communist Containment.” His aggrieved Orthogonian sensibility, an admixture of rage and piety, carried him to within a heartbeat of the presidency by age forty.
Liberal Harvard economist and Stevenson speechwriter John Kenneth Galbraith coined the word “Nixonland” to describe “a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win.” In 1960, however, it was the Democrats, particularly in the Windy City of Chicago and in Texas hill country, who used fraudulent practices to deny Nixon the presidency. Two years later, blaming a loss to California Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown on a biased fourth estate, he petulantly renounced elective politics. Not for long, however; it was too much in his blood. By 1964 he was maneuvering to accept a party draft in the event Goldwater’s bid fizzled. In 1966, after Reagan defeated Brown, Nixon advised the California governor-elect to foreswear running for president two years hence. The former actor slyly demurred. Leading up to the 1968 primary season, Nixon benefited from Michigan Governor George Romney’s naïve claim to have been brainwashed during a trip to South Vietnam and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s indecisiveness over throwing his hat into the ring. To prevent Southern delegates from defecting to favorite son Reagan, whom most preferred, Nixon promised racist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina that he’d tolerate all-white schools and place “strict constructionists” on the Supreme Court. Enhancing Republican prospects exponentially were Robert F. Kennedy’s violent death and Democratic convention turbulence in the streets of Mayor Richard R....
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