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Nixonland: An Interview with Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein's books have helped redefine the history of American conservatism in the modern era. His first book in a projected trilogy was Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The next book was Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (paperback, April 2009). This interview was conducted by email.

It's been a year since Nixonland was published in hardcover. Now it's come out in a paperback edition. Did you make any changes?

No changes, save for some typos and factual mistakes, some of them quite stupid. For example, in the original, the job title of a construction worker who beat up a hippie who was depicted beating up a hippie in the 1970 Hard Hat Riot in Lower Manhattan was "pie fitter" (sounds like a job Abbie Hoffman would invent). Now, more prosaically, he's a pipe fitter.

On The New Nixon blog your book came in for sustained criticism. Did you read it or ignore it?

I don't ignore anything about my work. I read everything anyone anywhere writes about it, in real time. (Thank you, Mr. Google!) Like most writers I'm voracious for any visible response to my presence on Earth, which is to say, neurotic. And I actually quite appreciated most of what was said at the New Nixon blog. New Nixon blogger Jack Pitney made several useful corrections in particular I was able to incorporate into six subsequent printings.

In the most serious mistake, I pointed out that Nixon claimed during one 1966 speech that "polls still place the war in Vietnam and the rising cost of living as the major political issues." The context for the point is that it served his political purposes to distance Republican gains in 1966 from the racially charged issue of law and order. "He was lying," I wrote. "As far as domestic issues went, Gallup showed race far outstripped inflation as a concern." Pitney looked up the Gallup poll I cited to back up my claim, and found that indeed at the time he made the speech, Gallup showed inflation outstripping race as a concern. That soon would change—the reality on the ground had changed, what with riots breaking out in city after city every day, and the Gallup polls would soon change to reflect that. I do think Nixon was misleading, if not lying, so I changed it to, "This was misleading." I also proposed another change that my publisher did not accept: "As far as domestic issues went, Gallup would soon show race far outstripping inflation as a concern." In this instance I betrayed an unfortunate overeagerness to, well, impeach Richard M. Nixon and I regret that.

At other points the issues were more complicated—such as Rev. John Taylor's argument that my citation of J. Anthony Lukas's Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years was inadequate to support the claim that Nixon knew about the break-in of the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist in advance. He's right on the narrow point, but I think more broadly the preponderance of the evidence suggests that Nixon probably knew what was going on. I would have loved to have hashed this out with Dr. Taylor when I spoke at the Nixon Library at the invitation of the National Archives last September, but none of the "New Nixon" people—associates of the Richard M. Nixon Foundation, which used to run the library—showed up. That was disappointing; even more so that one of them, Sandy Quinn, said in my presence earlier in the day, "I haven't read the book, and do not intend to read the book"! Same guy never returned my calls, first for my Nixonland research, then, last year, when I was working on the anthology Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents.

Have any critiques of the book caused you to rethink your analysis?

I still feel pretty confident with my analysis. The most frequent criticism was that I overplayed the extent to which the culture-war topography I map in Nixonland extends into our own time, red in tooth and claw. As Elizabeth Drew wrote in the Washington Post, the author "carried away and pushes his theme too far." She singled out this line on Nixonland's last page in particular: "Do Americans [hate] each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not." She answers, "I, for one, don't find it so hard." Needless to say, with the death toll of ideologically motivated assassinations in America since that review adding up to ten by my last count, I find no pleasure in the vindication: America remains a deeply divided nation, largely along lines forged in the crucible of the 1960s.

Do conservatives still like you? They loved your book on Goldwater (Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus). But now?

Well, I spoke to a Washington luncheon of conservatives hosted by Jim Pinkerton of Fox News, and the reception was quite convivial. So I still seem to be on good paper with at least some of them. I guess a fuller test may come as I continue my research, if I choose to double back and re-interview some of the Goldwater veterans—Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips, et al—who went on to found what was called the "New Right" in the 1970s. I don't think I'll have any doors slammed in my face, though. A couple of reasons why: first, people who have made a career of ideological combat don't tend to flinch from ideological combat; they relish it (it's the mushy centrists who are more likely to be uncomfortable with having their political feelings hurt). Second, these same conservatives feel their stories to have been slighted by the previous "liberal" histories of the era, so they seem glad to get them out there on the record. Partly, I hypothesize it has to do with the sort of psychological motivations I make it my business to try to understand: conservatives crave validation from the same "liberal elites" they claim to despise.

The harshest review I came across of your book was in the American Spectator, which lambasted you as a Nixon basher. It was written by Tom Charles Huston, the author of the infamous Huston Plan, which recommended a crackdown on civil liberties. What was your reaction to his review?

Awfully curious: the second most fulsome review the book received was in the conservative (and now defunct) New York Sun, "engrossing," "masterful," "obviously has a deep knowledge of the period," that sort of thing. Then three weeks later they ran a second review, by Conrad Black, who was a funder of the New York Sun and a diehard defender of the Watergate-era Richard Nixon and a man convicted, among other things, of obstruction of justice for hiding evidence against the orders of a judge (Black wrote the review, which up-is-down-ingly claimed Nixon "stopped ... anti-war riots," from prison).

The first most fulsome review, however, was assigned by the American Spectator and ran on their website. In it David Weigel argued "This is by no means a conservative book. It is bigger and better than ideology." Then, a few months later in the magazine, they ran the Huston review, in which the guy who convinced Richard Nixon it was worth breaking the law to spy on political enemies, and one of the figures featured in the book, said "Nixonland has been inexplicably well received by people who should know better."

Partisan Republican organs tossing opinions they don't prefer down the memory hole: Almost, you might say, like a scene out of Nixonland.

I have to admit that I found this second time around so far beyond the editorial pale that I only found my way through a few paragraphs of the thing—at first. But let me tell you a story. Later, when I began research for my next book, I found an extraordinary text by Huston in the October, 1973 issue of Harper's. Printed at the height of the Watergate story, it was a morally nuanced, introspective, and courageous examination of how a passionately idealistic right-winger like himself could have let his absolutely honorable and reasonable fears in 1970 that civilization was on the verge of surrendering to barbarism run away with him, and end up committing objectively immoral acts. He pointed, as I tried to do, to the context of the times: an epidemic of left-wing arson, bombings and bomb threats (as I report in concluding Chapter Twenty-One 15,000 people were evacuated from Manhattan buildings in one day in March alone), radical snipers firing from rooftops (one of them, I reported in Chapter Seventeen, was picking off white people in East St. Louis at random, and praised by the Black Power columnist Julian Lester for moving "from self-defense to aggressive action")—a country, I argue, that reasonable people could find at the very edge of armed insurrection. This, Huston explains, is why he wrote the "Huston Plan" recommending illegal breaking and entering against administration enemies; but why, he soberly owns up all the same, it does not excuse the Huston plan: "an example of the dangers of letting down your guard against increased executive power—no matter what the circumstances. Not that the danger was not real, but in this case the risk of the remedy was as great as the disease. There was a willingness to accept without challenge the Executive's claim to increased power. That's why we acted as we did, and it was a mistake."

I read that, and thought: wow. This Tom Charles Huston is a beautiful cat. How I wish a former single member of the Bush administration could show in 2009 the wisdom he did in 1973! I wondered whether and to what extent Huston would recognize my attempt (though perhaps an inadequate attempt) to advance that very same argument. So I revisited Huston's America Spectator piece, read it straight through—and found it, in my personal opinion, to be a whiny Orthogonian rant.

Again: I was disappointed. I'd love to meet Tom, though, and hope he's cooled down about my work, whose positive reviews he calls "libels against history."