Rick Perlstein & Sean Wilentz: Face-off over Nixon and Reagan (exchange, part 2)

Historians in the News

From: Rick Perlstein

To: Sean Wilentz

Dear Sean,

I've been wielding my Nixon hammer for so long now--I signed the book contract for Nixonland in November of 2001--that sometimes the whole world starts to look like Nixon-shaped nails. Ask my friends: I've got a Nixon story for every occasion. And I mean every occasion: You call my book "sassy," and that reminds me of a story about Alger Hiss's car. ...

And your opening thoughts get to that issue of hammers and nails: Do I see Nixonland everywhere, to the exclusion of Reaganville? How much influence should Nixon be granted as midwife of our present political moment, and how much Reagan? It's a question I'm not entirely comfortable with, because I never intended to write a book with direct relevance to our present political moment.

My book originally ended this way: Richard Nixon, the greatest Electoral College victory in hand since James Monroe in 1820, is brooding angrily about the Republican Party's failure to capture the Senate. He's berating the press ("that's how they'll piss on it"), and he's getting ready to reward his cabinet by firing them all. My editor Colin Harrison, whose judgment is superlative, sent me back to the drawing board. My readers had come this far (746 pages!), and they wouldn't be satisfied with a mere reflection on the mood of Richard Nixon because the main character of the book was actually "the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least on that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason." I needed, my editor said, to explain what happened to that voter. And so I gave Colin and Nixonland two more pages--one thousand words to explain what the previous 325,000 had been "about." I'm proud of what I wrote, and stand by my words. But it's left me in the position of having to talk more about the snappy conclusion than the messy book--which means defining what it means to say that we're still living in Nixonland.

Sean, with your usual severe intelligence, you argue that Nixonism was a "hiccup" and that the last 25 or so years of American history tie more directly back to Reagan. Because, on the one hand, Reagan sanded the edges off Nixon-style Republican tactics, and on the other, he sharpened the edges of Nixon's ideology.

I'm not sure if that's entirely true, though. For my next book, which will cover the years from 1973 to 1980, with Reagan's ascent to the presidency as its frame, I'll be testing my hypothesis that the differences between the two presidents are overstated. ...

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