Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can't Anybody Play This Game?

I read Rick Perlstein's Goldwater book a few years back with pleasure and profit.  I picked up a copy of Nixonland but it has been languishing on the shelf.  Seeing that he has another on the way, I figured it was time I played catchup.

Short take: I'm sorry I waited. It's superb.    Perlstein has Nixon's number.  Which is to say, he captures not only the subject;s own creepy-crawly self-pitying, vindictive, resentful self, but he puts him into the context of his times: Nixon with his base.   Perlstein shows--I wouldn't say exactly how Nixon and his base "created" each other, because they were both fully formed when they met. Perhaps better to say "discovered" each other and nurtured each other's grievances into a political revolution.

Perlstein tells me a lot of things I had forgotten, or perhaps never knew (and some I would be glad to forget) about Nixon and his history: how he was the only marquee Republican who actually campaigned for Goldwater in '64; how the CEO of Pepsi muscled Nixon into his interim job at (what had been) Mudge, Rose, Guthrie and Alexander that sort of thing. Re "the base" in particular:  The Reagan fanbase (to draw a contrast) is well remembered, partly because they're still with us, and they love to talk about it.  Nixon's--I think we may have forgotten that Nixon didn't do it on his own. He had his own cadres, playing out their own game--not perhaps with the Reaganite buoyancy but with a sullen kind of devotion that stayed with him to the end.

Perlstein is also first-rate in showing how skilfully Nixon wrong-footed his adversaries--not Kennedy, of course (whom Nixon seems in a way to have admired).   But the comfortable and (dare one say) clueless Democratic establishment who were just never able to get it straight in their mind what Nixon was, nor the depth of the currents that he excited.

I want to extend the point, but I need to go forward carefully. I want to say something about our own times, but I want not to be read as saying "it's all just the same."  It's not the same and to pretend that it is would be to sacrifice indispensable nuance.  But there are lots of echoes: we certainly have an army of the insulted and the injured--some really so, some in their mind's eye, some perhaps both. And we have--perhaps this is where I was heading--we still have that barrier of incomprehension. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, those legions of the serious and the well-intentioned who 
still can't get their mind round reality of the legions of the resentful.

So it is we've come up with that parade of appalling mediocrities who have carried the banner in so many Presidential campaigns.  Yes, yes, they too are serious and well-intentioned--Kerry, Gore, Mondale, Carter, the little guy in the tank and of course.the great Adlai himself, once the very cynosure of liberalism, yet now (for anybody under, say, 60) almost as forgotten as Alton B. Parker himself (oh, Google it).  [

It's a selective list.  I don't know quite what to do with Hubert H. Humphrey (but who he?).  Clinton is almost everybody's special case, but he did have the capacity to connect so lacking in almost all the others. Kennedy and Johnson--for all their differences, I'd say they held in common the kind of toughness and meanness so lacking in so many of the others.  Indeed I've often thought it was precisely because of this toughness and meanness that they almost get a bye from their Republican adversaries--the adversaries who hold so much of the rest of the list in such contempt.

Still at the risk of oversimplifying, it's a shame to see the old resentments still there in the baggage. And it's even more dismaying that we don't seem to have figured out any better way to respond to them.

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