October 4, 2009 | By | COMMENTS

This morning I finished reading a 750 page book by Rick Perlstein called “Nixonland.”

I won’t lie, it was a bit of a struggle to get through it. There were parts of the book where I’d get frustrated with all the minutiae (whoah, is that really how you spell that?) details of political machinations and national conventions involving Senators and delegates and party leaders and Mayor Daley of Chicago. It made my head spin and often times I’d throw the book down in frustration. In fact, halfway through the book I read two other books before picking the book back up again.

But that’s not being totally fair to the book, which, in all its detail and all its research, paints such a vivid portrait of the 1960s and early 70s and the way that the politics of that era (from Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964 to Nixon’s landslide victory in 1972) shape our current political climate, it’s still very much a worthwhile read–almost essential reading for anyone who wants to understand American politics in 2009.

It’s definitely an even-handed approach: I found myself as disgusted, reading these detailed accounts, with the left-wing radicals (setting off bombs, mocking working class soldiers and cops) as I was with the right-wing radicals–well, almost. The anti Civil Rights movement stuff–especially the account of a race riot in Newark (a jaw-droppingly awful and unstudied chapter in American history)–will make any liberal’s blood boil, but I suppose that’s the point. That righteous anger that I felt reading those pages was the same righteous anger so many Americans felt on both sides of the political divide; and the clever politicians who exploited that anger–notably, Richard Nixon–are responsible for the same exploitation that takes place today over similarly contentious issues.

Issues aside, though, this book is immensely entertaining. There’s fun to be had, for example, spotting famous figures from modern times back at the dawn of their careers. For example: who’s the TV producer who helps Richard Nixon reshape his image, staging “candid” rap sessions with a planted audience fed scripted questions? Why it’s Roger Ailes, founder of Fox News. And who’s the crafty conservative who sabotages (or “ratfucks,” as it’s less politely known) liberal candidates by posting flyers on college campuses advertising their rallies with free booze and rock music only to have students show up to a non-event, furious at the liberal for being fooled? Why it’s none other than Karl Rove!

At the center of the book, of course, is Richard Nixon, whose brilliance and bitterness form a character so complex and compelling he’s practically Shakespearean. He does some pretty awful things in the book’s final chapters–most of them known, others not so much (did you know, for example, that after the attempted assassination of George Wallace, he sent his minions to plant liberal propaganda in the assassin’s apartment?)–and as much as you may despise him by book’s end (the book holds him accountable for hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), you simply can’t ignore his tenacity, his ferocity and his drive.

The most unexpected result of reading “Nixonland” is that I feel like I understand better, now, my parents and their whole generation. The divides that were forged in the 60s and 70s were character-defining. Understanding those divides not only helps us understand an earlier generation, it helps us understand ourselves. And for that alone, “Nixonland” is an excellent read.

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Categories: Books