Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Why Democrats May Still Blow it: Some Timeless Truths

George Will was the author of this great review in the NYT Sunday Book Review section on Nixonland---but I started reading the review without noting the critic & toward the end inside on page 10, I thought to myself, this piece is much deeper and broader in perspective than the usual attitudinal and often sophomoric apercus most books on politics rate in the NYT.

Nixon's greatest crime in the eyes of the left was the shattering of "The Solid South" whose Democrat conservatism anchored the Dems from their Marxist demons in Academicide, some Unions, and the electronic & print media. Without the anchor, 1972 occurred and the loons were nominating Chairman Mao & Archie Bunker at the Dem convention. But Nixon's inner demons matched the Dems' spectacular outer demons and the Watergate expurgation began---aided by a media fueled with Nixon-hatred [which I heartily shared in at the time].

The author of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein, did write a very good book on Barry Goldwater in 2001 He eviscerates and excoriates the preening elitism of the liberal ascendancy at the Goldwater debacle, with clowns like Richard Hofstadter & James Reston getting their insides examined like the entrails of a Roman goat sacrifice. Someone forgot to tell the American people that the liberal hegemony would lead to the "end of ideology" prophesied by Daniel Bell. [Of course, that "end" would be the petrified, ossified nostrums of the ultra-lib left encased in the National Archives.] And so Nixon came in '68 while the Dems spun apart like Roman candles in the sky in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey betrayed by his protege Gene McCarthy was just one of the many back-stabbings in the party, while outside the Dems, bomb-makers and throwers like Bill Ayers & Diana Oughton were killing others and themselves. But Perlstein's book is a boomer book, as Will so eloquently notes:
Do we need another waist-deep wallow in the 1960s, ensconcing us cheek by jowl with Frank Rizzo and Eldridge Cleaver, Sam Yorty and Mark Rudd, Lester Maddox and Herbert Marcuse and other long-forgotten bit players in a period drama? Do we need to be reminded of that era’s gaseous juvenophilia, like Time magazine’s celebration of Americans 25 or younger as 1967’s “Man of the Year”: “This is not just a new generation, but a new kind of generation. ... In the omphalocentric process of self-construction and discovery,” today’s youth “stalks love like a wary hunter, but has no time or target — not even the mellowing Communists — for hate.”

Even back then, the Time "Man of the Year" was an exercise in narcissism---just as the one of '06 was a mirror on the cover. Indeed, though Perlstein is "a man of the left," he unconsciously exposes [and often consciously subjects] his father's generation to the scorn it deserves. But he makes the same mistake that most leftie libs do with their southpaw brains:
Perlstein repeatedly explains Nixon’s or other people’s behavior as arising from an Orthogonian resentment of Franklins, including establishment figures as different as Alger Hiss and Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon “co-opted the liberals’ populism, channeling it into a white middle-class rage at the sophisticates, the well-born, the ‘best circles.’” By stressing the importance of Nixon’s character in shaping events, and the centrality of resentments in shaping Nixon’s character, Perlstein treads a dead-end path blazed by Hofstadter, who seemed not to understand that condescension is not an argument. Postulating a link between “status anxiety” and a “paranoid style” in American politics — especially conservative politics — Hofstadter dismissed the conservative movement’s positions as mere attitudes that did not merit refutation. Perlstein, too, gives these ideas short shrift.

As the pollster Samuel Lubell had already noted before the 1952 election, “the inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have shifted from those of getting to those of keeping.” Perlstein keenly sees that some liberals “developed a distaste” for the social elements they had championed, now that those elements were “less reliably downtrodden” and less content to be passively led by liberal elite

Hence, the Silent Majority actually came into existence as a backlash against the constant "toryhood of change" that Kevin Phillips coined as the chief conceit of liberalism---we know better and those poor backwards folks "bitter & clinging to religion & guns" must be put in their place---confined to a media limbo or black hole where no energy is emitted. But now I'm cruising into the '60s hyperbole that Will accuses Perlstein of partaking. Here's a few examples of why the Silent Majority, which still exists though the media does not admit it does, came into being:
The masses bought television sets and enjoyed what they watched. But Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (and formerly Adlai Stevenson’s administrative assistant) declared television a “vast wasteland,” thereby implicitly scolding viewers who enjoyed it. When New York was becoming a lawless dystopia, with crime, drugs and homelessness spoiling public spaces, August Heckscher, the patrician commissioner of parks under Mayor John Lindsay, sniffily declared that people clamoring for law and order were “scared by the abundance of life.”

A Newsweek cover story on Louise Day Hicks, who led opposition to forced busing of school children in Boston, described her supporters as “a comic-strip gallery of tipplers and brawlers and their tinseled overdressed dolls ... the men queued up to give Louise their best, unscrewing cigar butts from their chins to buss her noisily on the cheek, or pumping her arm as if it were a jack handle under a truck.” Perlstein deftly deploys such judgments to illustrate what the resentful resented.

Then Will goes on a two-page rant on the dozens of mistakes, misquotes, misunderstandings and poor writing techniques that Perlstein employs, though we all know about George's fussy side. Will does his best work on demolishing the substance of Perlstein's thesis, thus and so:
he has a gift for penetrating judgments, for example, that Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California because he provided “a political outlet for the outrages that, until he came along to articulate them, hadn’t seemed like voting issues at all.”

Perlstein’s thesis is that America became Nixonland because of “the rise of two American identities” in the 1960s — actually between 1964, when Johnson won 61.1 percent of the vote, and 1968, when the combined votes for Nixon and George Wallace were 56.9 percent. Perlstein says Nixon’s legacy is the “notion that there are two kinds of Americans.” On one side of the barricades are “values voters” and other conservatives who are infuriated by the disdain of amoral elites conservatives consider (in the brilliantly ironic phrase that Perlstein appropriated from Kevin Phillips) a “toryhood of change” determined to supervise their lives. On the other side are Hofstadterian liberals who feel threatened by these nincompoops who have been made paranoid by their status anxieties.

“How did Nixonland end?” Perlstein asks in the book’s last line. “It has not ended yet.” But almost every page of Perlstein’s book illustrates the sharp contrast rather than a continuity with America today. It almost seems as though Perlstein, who was born in 1969, is reluctant to let go of the excitement he has experienced secondhand through the archives he has ransacked to such riveting effect.

1968 was the most exciting year of my own particular life, and it appears that Perlstein has a Don DeLillo gene that makes me want to buy his book [I have a dozen already on the '68 election, when I was six months on Gene McCarthy's National Staff in 10 states---plus at the Hilton during the Chicago Convention, when I shower fish and ashtrays in a tear-gas stupor fueled by Dewar's, onto the Chicago Police 15 floors below, an episode recounted on pp.307-309 in THWhite's The Making of the President, 1968. Tom Brokaw's bland pablum-prose gives a corporate journalist recitation of events---Perlstein sounds like an antidote to such time-clock punching history.

And yet George Will is correct. Since at least Gerry Ford & probably back to Nixon himself, who adopted Keynsian economics and price controls, the middle has been the refuge of both parties. And all the fireworks now are rhetorical---nobody is getting killed by bombs in Greenwich Village basements, stickups of Brink's Vans in Nyack, or bullets into MLKJr & RFK.

The past recollected in tranquillity, as Wordsworth notes and Will would agree with, gives us lessons. History never repeats itself, but usually rhymes.

2008 is exciting, but there will never be another 1968.

1 comment :

Rick Perlstein said...

Interesting thoughts, Dave. I look forward to your take on the book itself.