StopSmiling

Buy + Browse Back Issues

ONLINE EXCLUSIVES

eMailing List

  • Name
  • Email
EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Rick Perlstein's NIXONLAND

The Stop Smiling Review

(Scribner)

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Sunday, December 14, 2008


Nixonland
By Rick Perlstein
(Scribner)

Reviewed by Gary McMahon

When it’s written well, with style and wit and invention, I prefer nonfiction to any other form of writing.

You won’t find those qualities on display in mainstream journalism. You have to look on the fringes or dig into the recent past: when Rolling Stone was printed like newspaper and committed to left-field literary journalism; back when Esquire featured some of the great writers of the century; when you could tell it like it is from the rooftops of Ramparts; back when a fearless monthly called Scanlan’s commissioned a writer called Hunter S. Thompson to team up with Ralph Steadman and write something — anything — whatever you want — about the Kentucky Derby; back when even the New York Times would give space to a dissenting voice.

Nearly 40 years later Nixonland looks back on a defining era. Rick Perlstein, journalist and political historian, holds a mirror up to America and makes depressing truths a joy to read. That’s the challenge of leftwing journalism. The news is bound to be bad: Every day’s injustices in this sick fiction of a democracy are too horrific to listen to. I sure don’t want to hear about it.

And the rightwing and the sleeping centrists don’t want to know either. But get this: Creative writing can make bad news brilliant to read! Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut showed us what words could do with the facts — and even conservative Tom Wolfe turned us onto nonfiction, because his style is mesmerizing.

New Journalism, parajournalism and Gonzo ditched the make-believe objectivity of orthodoxy, put reporters in their stories — in character, first-person, as Thompson did, or by implication in their unique voice, as Vonnegut and Wolfe did. New Journalists borrowed conventions that you normally find in novels: extended dialogue and descriptions, poetic turns of phrase, focalized character sketches, a storytelling narrative and a conversational tone. That’s how you make bad news feel good.

It was never going to catch on, because orthodox editors felt it posed a credibility gap for journalism: if it reads like a story, who will believe it? Yet for a while there literary heavyweights gave New Journalism kudos with astonishing virtuosity.

Nixonland revives some of these techniques to make contemporary history come alive. Take the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That’s the one that kicked off inside and outside the Convention hall.

The author invites the reader — you! — to identify with your Average Joe. Your Average Joe switches on his TV and sees media coverage of the convention floor, interrupted by reports of riot scenes in the street, Molotovs and billyclubs punctuated by TV commercials where Gulf Oil shows how happy it’s making America, punctuated by trips to the fridge to get another beer, punctuated by safe Democratic Convention speeches, punctuated by compelling Convention rebellions, punctuated by your Average Joe raiding the fridge for another beer and back to the TV to wonder what country he's in, and we'll be right back with more riot scenes after these words from our sponsor....

It's a mirror to America's state of mind.

It's a media collage of cultural chaos.

Political history meets Pop Art, all in text without a pixel of Lichtenstein, blam! waging Warhol on Republicans and watching the Democratic Party tear itself up like a William Burroughs newspaper. Political Pop: Pow!  Holy New Journalism revival!

Brave home truths call the public and the press to account: polls and crowd samplings and letters to the media reveal the prejudices, miscalculations and downright psychoses of your Average Joe. It’s rare that an author has the courage to do that. Brace yourself for the atrocity of My Lai, where American troops butchered women and old men who tried desperately to shield their infants — and then butchered the infants, as senior command looked on. One lieutenant was convicted but Nixon ordered him released…

“And a man convicted by fellow army officers of slaughtering twenty-two civilians was released on his own recognizance to the splendiferous bachelor pad he had rented with the proceeds of his defense fund, as featured in the November 1970 Esquire, complete with padded bar, groovy paintings, and comely girlfriend, who along with a personal secretary and a mechanical letter-opener helped him answer some two thousand fan letters a day.”

Perlstein knows the rhetorical power of a long sentence that stops dead, blam! on bombastic irony.

The research is exhaustive, recreating Nixon’s rise day by day like it’s still news. It’s a collage of anecdotes, national bulletins, interview fragments, TV flashes, polling figures, local bulletins, Bob Hope gags, Abbie Hoffman stunts, Jane Fonda’s activism, House debates, courtroom transcripts, alarums of the horrors of war and the poignant swan dive of the Great Society — all brought to life by a storytelling commentary. It’s harrowing at times, but the author always gauges how much of Bob Hope the reader can take.

And all the while, presentiments of Watergate burn a slow fuse. New Journalism waned as Hunter Thompson kept a deathwatch but found the Watergate minutiae too tedious for words, as he got sloshed at the bar in the Watergate building, in fact, even as Liddy’s burglary was going on upstairs; as Kurt Vonnegut prepared to retire from New Journalism and watch Watergate unravel on TV with everyone else; as investigative journalism came to the fore to rake over the details and call Nixon to account. Somewhere between the two, Perlstein has fun describing the sinister yet clownishly inept operations of Nixon’s fixers.

Martha Mitchell, the attorney general’s wife, a celebrated lush and loose cannon, is suppressed by order of her husband but sneaks a sensational call to the press condemning the skullduggery that was engulfing Mitchell — and is suddenly silenced. Perlstein takes us through a hysterical struggle as the journalist on the end of the phone would have heard it, until the line went dead:

“Mrs Mitchell’s bodyguard had ripped it out of the bungalow wall, like a scene in some Barbara Stanwyck noir.”

Personal intrigues cast a brooding indictment on a political system that makes such demands of men and rewards those personalities that fit the pathology:

“Nixon knew how much pressure it put on a man to lie consistently. He knew that Lyndon Johnson was given to towering rages.”

The Democratic convention ’72 was a chaotic experiment in representative and open politics that may leave you wondering whether politics is either too corrupt or too inept to ever give voice to any but the almighty.

“The New Politics reformers had fantasized a pure politics, a politics of unyielding principle — an antipolitics. But in the real world politics without equivocation or compromise is impossible.”

Since society seems hell bent on repeating every Nixon sin and gaff, this historical book is frontline. Nixonland: We’re still living the dream.



Gary McMahon is the author of Camp In Literature (2006, McFarland) and Kurt Vonnegut & the Centrifugal Force of Fate (2008, McFarland)

 

 

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

© 2010 Stop Smiling Media, LLC. All rights reserved.       // Site created by: FreshForm Interactive