About Rick Perlstein

Photo Credit: K.A. Westphal

Rick Perlstein is the award-winning author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. His essays and book reviews have been featured in The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Nation, and he can be found online at rickperlstein.org. A senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, he lives with his wife in Chicago.

About John Dean

John Dean was counsel to president Richard Nixon for a thousand days and the government’s key witness in the Watergate trial. He also served as chief minority counsel for the House Judiciary Committee and as an associate deputy attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice. His nine books include the New York Times bestsellers Worse than Watergate and Conservatives Without Conscience.

Posts by Rick Perlstein and John Dean

On the politics of the "authoritarianism" temptation (Author One-on-One: Rick Perlstein)

Perlstein_rick_300h John feels strongly about the scientific merit of the literature on the "authoritarian personality," whereas I'm agnostic, or at least heuristically suspicious. John's right: I'm not qualified to evaluate to evaluate this literature on scholarly terms. So let's grant John the arguments on the scientific merits. (At least one historian I greatly respect, however, Christopher Lasch, argued at length in this book that the concept collapsed back on itself, and was analytically useless.)

Even so, I'm pretty confident that labeling wide swaths of the American public as "authoritarian" is politically disadvantageous. How do I know? It's been tried, and backfired badly.

In 1966, new mayor John Lindsay promised to improve law and order in New York by installing a Civilian Complaint Review Board to oversee the police. The police were, after all, corrupt; a 1964 investigation had traced gambling graft all the way up to the department's elite 48-man "watchdog" group. Law-abiding ghetto residents became used to being forced to carry around the receipts for every possession they carried so they wouldn't be accused of stealing them. The cops had lost the confidence of the public, Lindsay said; restoring trust between the police and the community would make it easier to fight crime together--or so he reasoned.

In May his police chief handed down General Order No. 14, officially establishing the board. And the police went berserk. They immediately got 96,888 signatures to get a referendum on the November ballot to dissolve it. The law only required them to get 30,000. And their methods for gathering these signatures were not entirely un-authoritarian: if a policeman went up to you and forcefully presented you a petition to sign, how free would you feel to refuse? And the political campaign the Patrolman's Benevolent Association ran to secure the initiative's passage bore unmistakable authoritarian elements as well.

When a bill to cashier civilian review came up for consideration before the City Council the PBA saw to it a highly unorthodox call went out over all radio cars: "Everybody to City Hall!" They mustered 5,000 cops in their civies, a record quarter of their membership, many with signs around their necks: "Pressure Groups Want Control of the POLICE DEPARTMENT" (ironically or not, the PBA, a presure group, was also then demanding a civilian board to hear their labor grievances). And when the CCRB's membership was announced at a televised news conference, the PBA's president John Cassese snapped, "I am sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting." The New York branch of the American Civil Liberties Union denounced Cassese's "thinly veiled racism." Wilkins of the NAACP called his opposition "irrational"--unless he believed a policeman, unlike any other civil servant, was "above the law."

074324302101_mzzzzzzz_ Of course, the cops did believe themselves above the law. Ever seen Serpico? The man on whom it was based, Frank Serpico, whose story was told in a classic book by Peter Maas, was an idealistic young cop who, during riot duty, was handed, possibly mistakenly, an envelope with $300 cash in it by another cop. He asked a captain what he could do about it. He was told he had two choices: forget it happened, or end up "face down in the East River." The PBA talked about the CCRB fight as a battle over the soul of their profession, over "who's going to run the police in New York." They said they were prepared to spend their entire treasury of $1.5 million, culled from $2 monthly dues, to make sure it wasn't nosy do-gooders. No wonder, that: even the lowliest beat cop stood to preserve many times that each month by preserving the system of traffic bribes, shakedowns of neighborhood bodegas that wished to remain open in contravention of the city's labynthine Sabbath laws, in free meals and "flutes"--Coke bottles topped off with liquor--from their precincts' restaurants and bars. (Then there were the especially sought-after assignments: the Youth Squad, which made for easy graft from establishments that relied on the custom of underage carousers; plainclothes divisions, where each officer might make a monthly "pad" in the four figures in payoffs from numbers runners, pimps, and drug dealers.) Civilian review queered their sale.

That wasn't what they said, of course, when they launched their political campaign at an American Legion luncheon with the cry that, "Communism and Communists are mixed up in this fight. If we wind up with a review board, we'll have done Russia a great service.... The doctrine of the Communist Party is to knock out religion and break the spirit, as well as create confusion in the police department, cause chaos, and interrupt the public function."

The people fighting to keep the Civilian Complaint Review Board presumed they had a can't-miss electoral strategy: they called their opponents authoritarians. "A crusade against the Civilian Review Board is being waged by a coalition of right-wing groups--the Conservative Party, the fascist National Renaissance Party, the John Birch society, and the American Legion allied with the PBA against the forces of reason an civic leadership in this city," a press release stated. "Don't Be a 'Yes' Man for Bigotry, Vote 'No,'" their billboards read. "Do New Yorkers Want a Police State?" A pro-review spokesman proclaimed, "Before this campaign is over people will feel ashamed to do anything but vote against this referendum."

Long story short: they didn't. Civilian review was crushed by 26 points; even Jews, supposedly liberal, opposed it 55 percent to 40.

I offer this more as allegory than argument. Perhaps John will find it irrelevant to his larger point. The point is not that the cops, in this campaign, and in many cities at that time, didn't exhibit profound authoritarian tendencies (in fact I document in Nixonland that policing in 1960s in America was badly broken, fatally rife with authoritarian tendencies; a new police chief in Chicago, in 1967, shut down a Ku Klux Klan cell operating within the force, with its own arsenal of firearms and hand grenades; in Oakland, on Friday, nights officers lay in wait outside the bars that served as the ghetto's de facto banks. A factory worker would emerge, find himself arrested for drunkness, and be robbed of his week's wages on the way to the precinct house.

This is, by any measure, authoritarian behavior—worse, I think, than anything anyone can pin on David Frum.

I'm just not sure of the political utility of labeling it thus. Cops are much better now; I'm not sure why; it's something I'd like to research historically myself. How did that happen? I don't know. I know how it doesn't happen: you don't achieve social change by accusing the people you'd like to convert of being crypto-Nazis. New York's cops were authoritarian; but to defeat their authoritarianism took something more than patiently explaining this via intellectual arguments.

How do you defeat right-wing abusers of power? How do you call to account genuine evil, when it's invested in the authority of the state, within a democracy? That is a very, very tough question. It's one I look forward to debating with John for years to come. But not with labels; of that I'm pretty confident. --Rick Perlstein

The Science of Authoritarianism (Author One-on-One: John Dean)

Dean_john_300 It seems there is some misunderstanding in the Nixonland blog about "authoritarian conservatives," and I do not believe it is mine. Like most who examine the study of authoritarianism closely, and those familiar with my writings know, I have rejected the work of Adorno and his colleagues, for their work was highly subjective and based in Freudian psychology (with all its well known problems). The study of authoritarians left Adorno & Company behind decades ago. Authoritarianism is not about pathology, nor is it a pejorative, rather it is descriptive of a distinct personality type that has appeared over and over in five decades of empirical testing. Not all conservatives are authoritarian, but all authoritarians are in varying degree conservative--the more authoritarian the more conservative. Authoritarianism is, indeed, a disposition that can and has been tested, with tens upon tens of thousands of people participating. Not all social scientists in this field are partisans or liberals. To the contrary, I know many social scientists on both the political left and the right--more who are not political at all--who study authoritarianism, and all do so with remarkable detachment by relying on scientific methods.

My writing about authoritarian conservatives (and my mention of them in my prior post) draws from several years I spent reviewing five decades of empirical study identifying and testing these very clear personality types. Historians and political scientists have long recognized authoritarian conservatism, tracing it back to the French nobleman Joseph de Maistre. But social scientists have defined and developed sophisticated testing for both authoritarian leaders and followers. For example, the authoritarian leaders (who are few) are typically men, dominating personalities, they openly oppose equality, they desire power, and are usually amoral, exploitive, and vengeful--to mention only a few of the traits that recur in varying degrees. Authoritarian followers (the many and estimated to constitute about twenty-five percent of the American population) are submissive to authority, aggressive on behalf of the authority to which they submit, conventional, usually highly religious, often hypocritical and inconsistent in their beliefs--to name a few of the many traits that are revealed by testing. It is not a great leap in describing others who through their own words and deeds conspicuously fall within these defined types.

Since discovering this extensive body of work I have developed a far better understanding of conservatives and their behavior. To ignore this work, which has not been easily available for the general reader, is folly for these studies have much to teach us about ourselves and our politics – particularly conservatism. Rick's curt and critical dismissal of this field of study suggests a lack of knowledge about it, not to mention a conspicuous lack of understanding of my writing about this subject. For a quick (albeit incomplete) overview about the work by one of the leading social psychologists, I refer anyone interested to The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. (He wrote this book at my request, after I had completed my work, and placed it online for free; also he wrote it at my request in a manner that does not require a PhD to understand it.)

140397741001_mzzzzzzz_ Rick's vigorous reaction (if not overreaction) to my reference to David Frum prompted me to look at his Acknowledgements, where I found David Frum resides as one of his "brilliant friends" who assisted him when writing Nixonland. He seems to feel that I am stepping on toes calling anyone an authoritarian but I do not believe this term is pejorative (indeed, many of my friends are just that and they admit it), nor did I offer Frum's "axis of evil" handiwork as an example of authoritarianism (rather I believe it the product of it). I have read all of David's books, and occasionally his other writings, and that was the basis of my statement and conclusion that he is an authoritarian conservative. I should add--as a long-time "Goldwater conservative," which places me left of center today--that we must all wish that more conservatives were like David, for he appears to believe in civility and intellectual honesty at a time when too many conservatives have abandoned both.   

I regret we went off on this tangent but authoritarian conservatism is very real, and not only has it corrupted the conservative movement but it is in the process of destroying the Republican Party. Frankly, I was surprised Rick so easily dismisses (and belittles) a half-century of solid science. While a post structural historian might find this science "analytically suspect," I assure you I can take these fifty years of science to a jury, but Rick's history book would be inadmissible for it is pure hearsay, many times removed. Studies of authoritarianism are primary information, and I have made a point of being certain that I can show with clear and convincing evidence, if not prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that those I say are authoritarian conservatives fall within the definitions of these empirical findings. Lawyers, it strikes me, have a bit higher standard of admissibility and proof than historians.

As for Nixonland--res ipsa loquitur! I enjoyed this work not because I agree with everything Rick has written or because he uncovered any new information, rather I liked it for the same reason I like impressionistic artists and writers (fiction and nonfiction) who can bring a subject to life, and provide added if not new perspective. While the book has a few factual flaws I thought George Will was being petty in making issue of them (and because he picked the wrong factual flaws, he left himself open.) Nixonland is not a reference book, rather an entertaining and engaging historical account that reflects the author's point of view and understanding. Nixonland successfully brings to life a dreadful place worth viewing from afar, a place worth remembering but a place no one should want to live. Let me close by thanking Rick for his good work and suggest before he further trashes five decades of empirical study relating to authoritarianism, he understand it better. --John Dean

The "Authoritarianism" Temptation

I don't doubt that something like an "authoritarian personality" exists. But—and this is my college and graduate-student engagement with poststructuralist theory speaking here— it's not really something you can "discover," hanging "out there" in the world to be plucked forth and weighed upon a scale, independent of the instruments we use to measure it. In the case of the scholarly tradition from which John drew his critique in Conservatives Without Conscience, beginning with the German sociologist Theodor Adorno—a Marxist who, though generally soulful and humane, was also susceptible to the potentially authoritarian habits of mind talk of "dialectical inevitability" can engender—the analyst can only but judge the level of "authoritarian-ness" on a scale he himself has devised. With the ideological stakes so high—because calling someone "authoritarian" more a normative judgement than a descriptive one: we are scourging, not thinking—the sociologist becomes judge, jury, and executioner, too tempted to place his thumb on the empirical scale.

B. Mac gets at some of this in his comment, but goes too far; it simply is the laziest possible thinking that a "liberal" must be necessarily unreliable as an analyst of conservatism. We each of us possess critical faculties to evaluate arguments on their own terms, based on their evidence and logic. We each of us should never surrender our skepticism toward any argument we confront, whether it flatters our predilections or challenges them. John Hagee and Jerry Falwell are bad students of liberalism because their arguments are not based on evidence and logic—are not intellectual, indeed are anti-intellectual, and make no sense. I'm a liberal—damned proud of it—but I hope my arguments about conservatism make sense on their own terms, on terms the reader can judge for his or her own self. I've always been attracted to the Enlightenment concept of the "republic of letters"—the idea that you should struggle to judge every piece of writing as if a name wasn't attached to it, independent of the identity of the author, simply based on how well it's argued. This was the reason many of the Founding Fathers wrote their political tracts under pseudonyms: the Englightenment belief that it strengthens an argument to write as if you can't rely on the reader's respect for your inherent—to take another sense of the root word under question here—authority.

And labeling entire traditions of thought and populations of people with pejoratives like "authoritarians" is politically counterproductive even if it weren't analytically suspect. In a similar way, social scientists and historians attracted to Adorno's terms spoke of conservatives as motivated by an ineluctable "status anxiety," terrified of being left behind in a complex modern world. On the one hand the same scholars described conservatives as inherently fearsome ("authoritarian") monsters, and on the other—often in the same utterance—as quivering puddles of fear. Neither are politically useful beliefs for progressives. They impose political ennervation. If our opponents are authoritarian monsters, well, then, we feel helpless in the face of these giants, and. If they are merely pathetic neurotics, then we don't have to to fight them. We have to "cure" them; or wait for them to simply catch up with the modern world in due time; or simply patronize them to death (and indeed Richard Hofstadter, the historian most susceptible to letting such categories get the better of him, did the liberal cause serious damage when he said things like  that the Goldwateter campaign was useful recreational therapy for conservatives to keep them out of mental institutions.

Not helpful: not intellectually, not politically; not stylistically. Pathologizing language makes us lazy as writers; it short-circuits thought. Obviously, via the 9/11 justification our own government—but with our own complicity as citizens, and that's another problem with pathologizing political language; it gets us off the hook, lets us think of our own side as inherently innocent—has brought upon us awful things. But in no way can the war on terror be usefully described as "terroristic." We must be more precise in our language. After all, the fact that labeling something "terrorism" dulls our ability to think about it sensibly is surely one of the lessons of these awful past six and a half years.

For instance, I don't think David Frum is "authoritarian," at least in any analytically useful sense; certainly not on the evidence that he came up with a Madison Avenue shorthand to divide the geopolitical scene more handily into categories or good and evil. (Franklin Roosevelt did that, too—he labeled his ideological opponents "malefactors of great wealth"—and he wasn't authoritarian either.) David Frum is simply conservative deeply invested, psychically and intellectually, in a political disposition that privileges order over flux in the social sphere; and flux over order in the economic sphere (which is not a contradiction, but comes out of a deep-seated conservative intuition that traditional norms and institutions can anchor a laissez-faire economy in a way that keeps economic "freedom" from destabilizing society). I think this had led David Frum, and his fellow contemporary conservatives, to govern disastrously, but that's a battle that a battle to be fought out in the political realm—simultaneously respecting, if you're a liberal, the fact that the world will always include conservatives; and if you're a conservative, the fact that the world will always include liberals. The point is, within the bounds of the civic and civil institutions our blessed Constitution sets up, to defeat your ideological adversaries in elections, to take away their power to govern, at least until the tables turn and they're able to do the same thing to you. After all, as I try to make crystal clear in the book, "Nixonland" was a two-sided engagement: two irreconcilable sets of Americans pathologizing each other, in ways that hemmed in civility and civic health on every side. For example, in coining the term "Nixonland" to describe Richard Nixon's "slander and scare" tactics, Adlai Stevenson and his speechwriter John Kenneth Galbraith felt themselves licensed to engage in slander and scare—arguing, for instance, that if you re-elected old Dwight David Eisenhower, he'd promptly kick off of a heart attack and President Nixon would launch a nuclear war.

The point is not to be ideologically relevatist. I know which side I'm on. My life's work is to wrest governing power from the ideology of conservatism; while respecting the ideological and psychological and dispositional legitimacy of conservatives. (Dag nab it, we'll deliver conservatives quality, affordable, high-quality government-guaranteed healthcare like the rest of the advanced industrial world whether they like it or not!) That's what draws me to Nixonland, and that's the North Star that guides my journeys. And my literary guides? Two great late, great liberal journalists, Paul Cowan and J. Anthony Lukas—writers with both compassion and commitment, empathy and energy. Read more, in fact, about Paul here—it's something of my methodological manifesto. And please do buy his classic book Tribes of America on Amazon, which I managed to bring back into print this year as a labor of love, with the above-linked essay as its introduction.

The Shrinking Borders of Nixonland (Author One-on-One: John Dean)

Dean_john_300 Rick Perlstein should not be surprised by the reaction of many contemporary conservatives to Nixon (and Nixonland). In his post, he mentions David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter and Canadian champion of all things American and conservative. I discovered when doing my research for Conservatives Without Conscience the sort of reaction that Rick finds striking is, in fact, the nature of the authoritarian personalities who are now the core of the contemporary conservative movement. This is not a pejorative judgment on my part, rather it is fact; it has surfaced from a half-century of social science studies undertaken without a partisan agenda. Authoritarian conservatives have a wonderful facility for denial, justification and rationalization. David Frum is a prefect example of this conservative proclivity. Take David;s boastful pride in developing Bush's militant label for Iran, Iraq and North Korea--"the axis of evil"--as part of his justification for his terroristic war on terrorism. This is the way they think in Nixonland and it does not appear David is interested in traveling beyond its shores. I don't know Ross Douthat's work, who Rick also mentioned, but after eight years of Bush and Cheney, Nixon surely looks better to everyone.

140397741001_mzzzzzzz_ Are we still, as Rick states in his post, living in Nixonland? Since the protagonist of his historical travelogue is not Nixon, rather the warring partisan whom Nixon made his legacy--those who are now described by the news media as red states and blue states--clearly many Americans are still living there. But Nixonland is a state of mind, and as such, it is a shrinking. Republican (and conservative) ranks are dwindling. Ranks of those who call themselves "independents" (voters with no party affiliation) are growing, the conservative movement is fractured, so Nixonland is changing. While Rick's book describes where many Americans have lived, and too many still reside, I left Nixonland many years ago, and I do not miss it. Rick's work reminds why it is good to be away from this place, but for those unfamiliar with Nixonland, I urge you to explore its horrors so your can recognize them if they appear at all appealing from afar.

Speaking of exploring, I am hoping Rick (who is out book promoting) will share a bit about his voyage to Nixonland: What drew him to make the trip?  How did he find his way around? What did he find most striking in his travels? --John Dean

Closing the Parentheses: Author One-on-One—Rick Perlstein

Well and truly, consider my mind blown. John Dean is an American hero, and to read him defending my honor is like Christmas in May. Thanks so much, John. I like to say that if it hadn't been for his courage, Richard Nixon might still be president.

I don't want to dwell on George Will's review—I've been blessed with too many humblingly thoughtful rave reviews already to gainsay a little bit of criticism—but I would like to reflect on some of the conservative reaction I've been receiving generally, because it's actually pretty relevant to where we are in our current political moment.

Here's a curious phenomenon, one that I guess shouldn't have come as a surprise, but still catches me short. It is how many of my conservative readers seem eager to excuse or minimize Watergate. In this curious exchange, former Bush White House speechwriter David Frum wonders whether Nixon's venality was all that worse than, yes, JFK and FDR's. And in his exceptionally thoughtful Atlantic review, Ross Douthat ventures  a line of thinking  that even with Watergate and all, America could have done so much worse than Richard Nixon. Call me a hopemonger, but I don't think that argument is easy to sustain, as I did my best to explain in this podcast with Ross (conducted in the Watergate office complex!!!). You can't do worse than a man whose own chief of staff arranged for the military commanders to ignore any orders from the President unless countersigned by the Secretary of Defense, because they were terrified he would use the Army to hold on to power. That is the ne plu ultra of un-Americanism.

Conservatives cherish their myths; one of them is that Richard Nixon may not have been their cup of tea when it came to policy, but he was just right when it came to tactics. That he just did what he had to do in a time of social anarchy—he must have had the nation's best interests at heart; or that he didn't do anything that liberal presidents didn't do, only that he got caught. (The two notions, of course, are contradictions.) They can become quite discombobulated when their cherished myths are scrambled. Just this morning I got off the phone with two right-wing radio hosts in St. Louis. One said something like, "well, you can't deny that the Democrats surrendered in Vietnam." That's just a historical fact. (He hadn't read the book, he said.)

I asked him, "What about George Aiken?", and a radio no-no occurred: dead air.

I asked him, "What about Mark Hatfield?"—dead air again.

George Aiken was a hippie. I mean he was an ancient Republican senator from Vermont who said as early as 1966 that the best way to get out of the Vietnam mess just to "declare victory and go home." He said it again when Richard Nixon became president: "Common sense should tell us that we have now accomplished our purpose as far as South Vietnam is concerned." He was, in fact, the first senator to spoil Nixon's honeymoon by recommending "orderly withdrawal."

Mark Hatfield was a hippie. I mean he was a Republican senator from Oregon and a devout evangelical Christian (some evangelicals still revere him for his early pro-life advocacy). In the spring of 1970, he co-sponsored the amendment to the military procurement authorization bill to provide that without a Congressional declaration of war that all American troops must withdraw from Vietnam by June 30, 1971—lock, stock and barrel, no residual forces, no air cover, nothing.

At that, the host started ranting about how everyone knows it was all Ted Kennedy's fault.

It sounded a lot like a letter to Time from the fall of 1969 I excerpt in the book:

Sir: Ted Kennedy's overrighteous indignation at President Nixon's handling of the inherited Viet Nam war is short of ludicrous. How unfortunate that Teddy was so silent when his brother John ordered the first American combat troops of this war into action and is now so vitriolic against the President's honest attempts to reduce these forces. What irony that Teddy also insists that we now toss out the Thieu regime when it was, once again, his own brother who was directly responsible for the fall of Diem, leading to the rise of Thieu.

How tragic, too, Kennedy's professed concern with the loss of lives in Viet Nam when he was so negligent about saying the one young life over which he had direct control at Chappaquiddick.

(MRS.) G. M. GRACE Arlington, Va.

We are living in Nixonland still.

(P.S.: You can read that letter here. With Nixonland, I've done something I think might be unprecedented: an ongoing project—I'm up to chapter nine out of 34—to create a hypertext version of the endnotes, so that any source I refer to available online can be directly consulted, whether it's the 1966 Los Angeles Times article “50 Longhairs Protest Clipping Order" or audio of the blustering governor of Ohio screaming at a press conference— Hear it about 3/4 into the linked podcast—that his National Guard will shut down student demonstrations at Kent State by any means necessary. Head on over to RickPerlstein.org, click on "Books" up top, then just click on the Nixonland chapter for the open-source version of its notes. Write your own Nixonland! Point out my liberal distortions and lies!)

Nixonland, or an Empty Parenthesis?: Author One-on-One: John Dean

Dean_john_300 I like the sampling of bookshelves this site has collected. For a fleeting moment I thought about taking a picture of my bookshelf (actually three shelves in our den which my wife lets me use for my current reading crop for she too is a voracious reader and she correctly points out that I have more than monopolized the walls of our house and my office). But when I looked at my shelves and spotted several works by authors whose sagacity (nay, sanity) I truly doubt but whose books I read to understand their warped and weird political thinking, I feared the picture might suggest to others to consider these works. So no shelf picture and on with more important business.

The New York Times Book Review published George Will's cover review of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which I'll address shortly. But first I am wondering if others spotted the note in the "Up Front" section of the Times review, where "The Editors" discussed their exchange with George Will?  It seems they asked him how "Nixon fit into the larger story of modern conservatism?" Will answered: "He doesn't. His tenure was an empty parenthesis." 

If Nixon has no part in modern conservatism, why have conservatives embraced so many Nixonian governing techniques? Starting with the Reagan and Bush I administrations, and accelerating their efforts with the Bush II/Cheney administration, conservatives have revived and expanded everything from Nixon's imperial presidency (in the name of national security just like Nixon) to blatant abuses of constitutional limitations--not to mention countless statutes--that make Nixon look now like a piker. Nixon famously believed, of course, that if a president did it, that made it legal. Bush and Cheney, and their conservative cohorts, have proved Nixon's point yet gone way beyond it, for in his darkest moment I do not believe Nixon would ever have tortured enemies. 

140397741001_mzzzzzzz__2 Actually, when I read Will's review, I understood why he likes to think of Nixon's contribution to conservatism as an empty parenthesis. Nixon has about him a Pandora of evils that I suspect Will (and many conservatives) would rather that astute young historians like Perlstein keep boxed. This may explain why Will thinks that Perlstein has not lived up to his prior work in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. But I must differ with Will. For me, Nixonland is even better. Both Will and I, no doubt, are too close to Nixonland's years--albeit viewing them from very different vantage points--to fully appreciate how the fresh eyes of a young historian might see it. But suffice it to say I found the portrait Perlstein has painted both fascinating and revealing, and to my knowledge very accurate.

I was disappointed in Will's review not because he does not much like what emerged from Perlstein's efforts, rather because he seeks to discredit the author's works by selecting examples of purported errors.  For example, Will takes issue with Perlstein quoting a Military Policeman who thought B-52 co-pilots were carrying side arms to deal with a co-pilot "too chicken to follow orders and drop the big one." Will found the language adolescent, and said that "an Air Force historian laughed" at the notion. (In fact the language makes the point, and this historian's laugh is a non-denial denial, not to mention the fact that B-52 pilots were often armed.) Perlstein, however, did not quote the MP for his facts, rather his state of mind.

Will next says Perlstein was wrong to state that "before the Kent State violence, 'citizens were thrilled to see tanks and jeeps rumbling through town'" because there were no tanks. Yet a simple and quick Google search shows no less than four eyewitnesses reported tanks at the scene. Similarly, Will says Perlstein is wrong in writing (and citing) the story that "Hells Angels beat hippies to death with pool cues" at the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, California, yet countless stories produced by a Google search corroborate Perlstein. This snarky nit picking goes on until Will reaches his claim that the "cumulative effect of carelessness, solecism and rhetorical fireworks is to make Perlstein seem eager to portray the years and people about whom he is writing as even wilder and nastier than they were." [Emphasis added.]

In fact, Perlstein has not made them wilder or nastier than they were. (Based on his review, I am not sure George Will believes this either.) To the contrary. Perlstein has painted a careful, realistic, and vivid picture of the times and characters.

His assertion that Perlstein's work is "careless" is simply not true, as any careful reader (or inquiring mind) will discover, for there are almost 100 pages of documentation supporting the material in great detail. In fact, when I agreed to do this blog--after earlier reading the book in bound galleys and being impressed by the care and detail (and analysis) in undertaking what had to be a massive research job--I sent word I would like to talk about the author's research techniques in getting his head around, and into, this massive body of information. (A subject I will address with a subsequent blog for I am interested as both an author and reader.)

As for Will's charge of "solecism," I can find none in Perlstein's work although I cannot say the same for George Will's review in making false charges about Perlstein's facts. He should try Google occasionally.

Finally, as for Will's trouble with the "rhetorical fireworks," early in his review he found the work "rollicking," noting that "Perlstein's high-energy--sometimes too energetic--romp of a book also serves, inadvertently, a serious need: it corrects the cultural hypochondria to which many Americans, including Perlstein, are prone"--whatever "cultural hypochondria" involves. And Will closed his review by calling Perlstein's chronicle of the Nixon years "compulsively readable"--and on this I agree. Rick's occasional "rhetorical fireworks" are merely part of the show. --John Dean