Rick Perlstein: On the left, the right, the '60s, and the illusion of consensus (interview)

Historians in the News

In May 1970 the United States saw a wave of political demonstrations—demonstrations in favor of Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War. The most famous was the hard hat riot of May 8, when Manhattan construction workers beat up hippies and demanded that City Hall raise the American flag. In subsequent days more marches, some spontaneous and some quietly encouraged by the White House, broke out in such cities as Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and San Diego. On May 20 approximately 100,000 union men in Manhattan held what Time called “a kind of workers’ Woodstock,” carrying signs with slogans such as “God Bless the Establishment.” A cement mixer hauled a banner mocking New York’s liberal mayor: “Lindsay for Mayor of Hanoi.”

The first histories of the 1960s and early ’70s weren’t always sure how to treat such events, when they deigned to notice them at all. But over the last decade, there has been a surge of interest in the right-wing movements that produced or cheered on such rallies. In studies ranging from Rebecca Klatch’s A Generation Divided to Lisa McGirr’s Suburban Warriors to John Andrew’s The Other Side of the Sixties, a new wave of scholarship has pored over the defining institutions, personalities, and moments of the ’60s right, deepening our understanding of the decade and illuminating the subsequent rise of Reaganism.

The most acclaimed of those books was probably the independent historian Rick Perlstein’s mammoth Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001), an intelligent and absorbing account of the conservative insurgency that seized the Republican Party in 1964 only to be crushed in the November election. Now Perlstein has published an engrossing, almost novelistic sequel that extends the story through the Republican landslide of 1972. The protagonist of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (Scribner) is not Richard Nixon himself, Perlstein writes, but “the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else…seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the level for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”

Nixonland takes its name from a speech that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote for Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential campaign: “Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies 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. This is Nixonland.” One lesson of the book is that men like Stevenson and Galbraith weren’t above slander, scare, and innuendo themselves, even if they preferred to pretend these faults existed only in the opposition. Nixonland was much larger than Nixon....

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