Due to the Olympic Games, illness, and a generally scrotty state of mind brought about by the latter, I just haven't felt much like writing book reviews this month. Now that I'm mostly better (kids, don't EVER have an allergic reaction to a drug, because it can take weeks to get over it), I still don't feel much like writing book reviews.
Or at least good book reviews involving sustained, semi-critical thought and analysis. This week is dedicated to catching up, so first up: Nixonland
When I was in junior high, and giddy with my new-found love for Janis Joplin and tie-dyed t-shirts, I asked my mother to tell me what the 60s were like. I expected some tales involving Volkswagen buses and fighting the power, but all she said was, "It was an ugly, ugly time."
At the time, I thought, "Gee, you must have been a total no-fun-having square" (although she did tell me a pretty good story about sneaking into Easy Rider underage). But after reading Nixonland, I now understand that my mother's response to the 1960s is the only appropriate one.
Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America is kind of like taking a nature hike that turns into a forced march. Though it only covers the years between 1965 and 1972 -- starting with the Watts Riot and Johnson's sweeping civil rights and domestic policy legislation, and ending with Nixon's landslide defeat of McGovern and the beginnings of the Watergate investigation -- it feels like too much for one book.
Perlstein's a thoughtful and engaging writer, though perhaps a bit too enthusiastic a researcher. The book is at its best when it's focused on the dirty shenanigans of its titular namesake, and it's also very good when discussing the rise of the "Silent Majority" and the nasty backlash of whites nationwide against the civil rights movement.
It's amazing to realize how inaccurate the popular narrative of the civil rights movement is -- you'd think the whole thing ended in 1964, and that segregation and racial discrimination only happened in the South. And by the time Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate," many whites and most of the conservative establishment regarded him as a riot-starter, a Communist, and a terrorist.
Ugly times, indeed.
However, on Vietnam and the anti-war movement, and the political shake-ups during those years, Perlstein's account sometimes gets bogged down by the sheer messiness of everything that transpired.
I haven't even gotten to Nixon himself, but let's just say that this book is directly responsible for two nightmares I had in the past week involving the jowly old crook and his cronies.
And also, I've realized one major difference between the Nixon administration and our current one, which are in all other significant ways, identical. One got caught and was punished. The other got caught and didn't suffer a whit.
So, ugly as that era in American history might have been, they'll always have that on us.
Nixonland is interesting, horrifying, entirely worthy of your time; however, a) Nixon nightmares, b) super depressing, and c) forced march. Don't say I didn't warn you.