For his new book, Chicago historian Perlstein (Before the Storm) borrows the term Adlai Stevenson used during the 1956 presidential campaign—“Nixonland”—to capture the fear-based political jockeying of his opponent’s running mate, Richard Milhous Nixon. Perlstein contends we’ve been living in Nixonland ever since as two politically polarized groups of voters are both convinced the other is “defined by its evil.”
Perlstein paints Nixon as a manipulative power monger who navigated his political career amid the rocky cultural scene. He starts with Nixon’s first, poker-financed congressional campaign and his Red Scare–based assault against then–U.S. State Department official Alger Hiss, a campaign-building strategy that inspired a studious senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. Perlstein illustrates Nixon’s rudderless-ship waffling during his presidential campaign and his desperate grasping from one vote-winning pledge du jour to the next. Finally, Perlstein turns to Nixon’s final, backfiring re-election strategy, a stunt that cast him into history as the first U.S. President forced to resign.
Not for your light summer reading list, this 748-page epic is split into four sections that nearly stand as their own books. A triumph of research, if not prose style, Perlstein ably illuminates the era’s zeitgeist with countless anecdotes that not only reverberate, but underpin our political battles today.