I've had Richard Milhous Nixon on the brain lately, and that is no way to live. Between my dissertation and the research job I've taken for the summer, I see that jowly crook everywhere, which is why Kim McQuaid's The Anxious Years was such a pleasant surprise, being the fourth book concerning Watergate I've read in the last two weeks and a heck of a read at that.
Actually, McQuaid's book is about much more than Watergate. Starting with the Democratic Party's self-induced Vietnam meltdown and the string of assassinations of civil rights leaders and Kennedys in 1968, McQuaid shows how a combination of American hubris, institutional failure, and political fecklessness put the country in a mess that, the attentive reader will notice, has never really gone away. As the Vietnam War dragged on and the New Left imploded, McQuaid argues, Nixon and his cronies brought the lessons they learned in the foreign policy area into the domestic arena and voilà: guerrilla war becomes guerrilla politics.
(Seriously, read up on 1973. It will depress the hell out of you and feel shockingly familiar.)
While the academic in me would recommend the book for its trenchant analysis and thorough, yet concise, recounting of key events in the titular "anxious years," the reader (and rabble-rouser) in me has to mention the prose itself: McQuaid takes some deft and well-deserved potshots at American civil religion, which as often as not in recent years has been expressed as a peculiarly optimistic and aggressively xenophobic self-righteous nationalism. It's not quite a polemic, but McQuaid has some justifiable axe-grinding to do, and it makes for a fiery read. (Well, for a history professor it does.)
Consider, for instance, this passage regarding the prospect that (gasp!) we might not "win" Vietnam as easily and bloodlessly as we'd blithely assumed, relying on our technological might and American know-how and resolve to carry the day:
PS: Also, the term "ratf**king"? Coined at USC (Go Trojans!) by a couple of Young Republicans to refer to their dirty tricks and student election fraud. One of them later wrote the Canuck Letter. Charming. Better still, that led to Edmund Muskie's famed "crying speech," which helped lose him the election. Muskie, of course, is all over my dissertation by way of his participation in the Hurricane Camille Relief and Recovery Senate hearings. It's all connected!
"What did American leaders intend to do if fortune was not with them, if victory was not as easy or automatic as almost all presumed it would be?. . .Should contingency plans be formulated for such a disengagement? All this would follow the common sense maxim that one who plans only for victories and never for defeats is either a raving optimist or a fool.
"Raving optimism and foolishness, however, it was. The Best and the Brightest trapped themselves in a war they could not win - on any limited basis that had any meaning - but which they also could "not afford to lose." Official Washington's bland assurance of victory was followed, all too predictably, by lavish anxieties about possible defeat. Defeat- what to do next if things went badly - had never been conceived of as a possibility by the upper reaches of the foreign-policy elite. Here, truly, was a price tag for the Arrogance of Power.
"By early 1968...the widespread sense of social emergency and panic that flowed from these misperceptions and unasked questions was a feverish factor in America's domestic and international affairs. Americans faced a profound shock to their sense of identity and self-esteem, to their view of themselves as citizens of a uniquely favored land that "had never lost a war," and to their belief that they and their leaders had the know-how and know-when to apply U.S. principles quickly, concisely, and compellingly throughout the world."
What can I say? I'm a sucker for good history with a populist bent. McQuaid combines a willingness to call shenanigans when he sees it with astute cultural and political analysis to produce a book that I found not only enlightening but fairly rage-inducing, given that nobody seems to have learned a damn thing.