On Aug. 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing African-Americans the right to participate in the political process. Five nights later, Watts, the mostly black neighborhood of Los Angeles, erupted into rioting. For four days angry, young men ran wild, looting and torching buildings, shouting, "Burn, baby, burn!" LBJ was stunned by the hatred of the rioters. "How is it possible after all we accomplished?" the president cried in anguish. "How could it be? Is the world topsy-turvy?" The 1960s were supposed to be a new Age of Reason—"These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem," Johnson declared as he lit the White House Christmas tree after winning in a landslide election in 1964.
But Watts was just the beginning: in dozens of cities, race riots (so severe in Detroit in 1967 that the president had to send in the 82nd Airborne); LSD-dropping college students calling cops "pigs" and taking over college-administration buildings; Yippie leader Jerry Rubin telling kids they needed to be prepared to "kill your parents." By the end of the decade Johnson was in exile, and America, it seemed, had become a strange dystopia, decadent and almost prerevolutionary in its feverish discontent.
The establishment press had been flummoxed by it all. In 1966, the pundits were sure that the Republican Party would pick a reasonable, moderate candidate, someone with a little Kennedyesque charisma like Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, or maybe New York City's attractive young mayor, John Lindsay. None of the pundits imagined that Richard Nixon, the sweaty, shifty-eyed loser to JFK in 1960, could take the GOP nomination. "It simply couldn't be Nixon," writes Rick Perlstein, whose sprawling, vivid "Nixonland" is the best book written about the 1960s since George Plimpton and Jean Stein published "Edie," their oral-history collection about Andy Warhol's "it" girl, in 1982. The Walter Lippmanns and Joe Alsops and all the Harvards of the Georgetown set were stuck in their own "echo chamber," writes Perlstein. "They were men who hardly noticed the ideological ground shifting under their feet."
Nixon understood. Full of bitterness about his hardscrabble youth, he knew how to exploit the bitterness of others. At Whittier, the small California college attended by Nixon, the smoothies and swells had formed a club called the Franklins. The campus Big Men were envied--but they were also resented, Nixon perceived. So he formed his own club, of strivers and nerds, called the Orthogonians. Nixon knew that there were many more natural Orthogonians than Franklins at Whittier—and before long he was elected student-body president.
Nixon was the ultimate striver. At law school they called him "Iron Butt," but he still got turned down by all the white-shoe law firms on Wall Street. As a politician, he told a friend, he would do anything, make any sacrifice, to get where he wanted to go. "Anything," he said. "Except see a shrink." Nixon's base was the "silent majority," the vast mass of white middle-class Americans who felt threatened by the tumult of the '60s. As the Democrats' New Deal coalition of rich and poor collapsed, he was able to "co-opt the liberals' populism, channeling it into middle-class rage at the sophisticates, the well-born, the 'best circles'—all those who looked down their noses at 'you and me' (a favorite phrase of Ronald Reagan's, who was both a student and a teacher of Richard Nixon)," writes Perlstein.
Nixon's mean streak was never far from the surface. Running for the U.S. Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas during the Red scare of the early 1950s, he promised chivalry: "I am confronted with an unusual situation. My opponent is a woman … There will be no name-calling, no smears, no misrepresentations in this campaign." Then he promptly called her "pink right down to her underwear." He won the election but earned a reputation as "Tricky Dick." He learned to be a little more subtle. In 1967, as the cities burned, he wrote a guest editorial for U.S. News: "If Mob Rule Takes Hold in U.S.—A Warning From Richard Nixon." He chastised a generic "professor" who, "objecting to de facto segregation," ends up turning youth into insurrectionists. The professors needed to draw the line, set an example. One-upping the scholars, Nixon quoted Chaucer: "If gold rust, what shall iron do?"
Profane and paranoid in his private rants, Nixon played the statesman in public, denouncing racism and intolerance. He was content to have demagogues like Alabama Gov. George Wallace rage at "pointy-headed intellectuals, swaydo-intellectual morons tellin' [regular folk] how to live their lives." Wallace's raving "made Nixon look respectable when he couched the same sentiment in four-syllable words," writes Perlstein.
Nixon's media coach during the 1968 campaign was a young TV producer named Roger Ailes. When Ailes was putting together televised panel shows, highly contrived to "meet the candidate," he hit on a clever idea for a citizen panelist: "A good, mean, Wallaceite cab driver. Wouldn't that be great?" suggested Ailes. "Some guy to sit there and say, 'Awright, Mac, what about them n----rs?' Nixon could then abhor the incivility of the words, while endorsing a 'moderate' version of the opinion." Perlstein reports that "Ailes walked up and down a nearby cab stand until he found a cabbie who fit the bill."
As president, Nixon never got over being unloved by the press and the Georgetown crowd, and he seethed if he sensed his own staff going soft. The White House taping system recorded his railing about the press: "I don't give the bastards an inch!" He complained about his staff, "Goddamn it, they're people who, they're in Washington, the Establishment's brainwashing them, they're reading the Washington Post, the weekly newsmagazines … And they get sort of discouraged and so forth, they don't realize that that is the time to get tough, to kick the guys"—he shouted at the top of his voice—"in the BALLS! That's what they won't do. That's what I always do."
So it went in Nixonland. Perlstein ends his story with Nixon's overwhelming re-election in 1972. He only begins to tell the Watergate saga, the Greek drama of how Nixon was consumed by his own envies and dreads (and brought down by some true Franklins, men like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, Harvard '43, and Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Harvard '34). "How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet," are the final words of Perlstein's 748-page book. Roger Ailes, of course, went on to create Fox News—"fair and balanced"—which routinely afflicts and outmaneuvers the old establishment press. Today's Red State-Blue State divide is a legacy of the '60s, argues Perlstein.
He is persuasive—up to a point. Voters in this election year will have a powerful sense of déjà vu when they read "Nixonland." But history never repeats itself exactly. Hillary Clinton has been exploiting white working-class fears of "the other" with subtle (and not-so-subtle) innuendoes and brandishments. But what kind of Orthogonian is a woman who went to Wellesley and Yale Law School? And Barack Obama may speak with the smooth self-assurance (and, occasionally, edge of disdain) of a Franklin. But he is black and grew up feeling like an outsider. The fact that a woman and an African-American are vying for the presidency suggests the '60s produced something more positive than riots and druggie be-ins.
One thing never changes. As Ross Douthat recently noted in The Atlantic, politicians have been scaring voters since the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was painted as a secret agent of the French Revolution. If John McCain wants to, he will be able to stir up old fears and suspicions against the Democrats in the November election. Or maybe he will remember how, in the 2000 election, he was smeared by Republican operatives who learned their dirty tricks from the master.