Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Nixonland

By Rick Perlstein
He contained his raging ambition in the discipline of debate. That Was his father’s influence; the surest way to Frank’s heart (though there was never really any sure way) was through skill at argumentation. Frank loved to argue, sometimes to the point of driving customers from the store. The son received his first opportunity to argue competitively 1n the fifth grade, and his father, the sixth-grade dropout, did the research, obsessed with seeing his son whip others with words. When Dick joined the high school debate team Frank attended every meet. Dick won often. The coach bemoaned his ‘ability to kind of slide around an argument instead of meeting it head on. ”Sometimes he broke the rules outright.

As a schoolboy he hadn’t a single close friend, preferring to Cloister him. self up in the former church’s bell tower, reading, hating to ride the school bus because he thought the other children smelled bad. At Whittier, a hoe Quaker college of regional reputation unknown anywhere else, he embarked Upon what might have been his most humiliating job of all: learning to be a backslapping hail-fellow-well-met. (“I had the impression he would even practice his inflection when he said ‘hello,”’ a reporter later observed.) The seventeen year-old blossomed when he realized himself no longer alone in his outsiderdom: the student body was run, socially, by a circle of swells who called themselves the Franklins, and the remainder of the student body, a historian noted, “seemed resigned to its exclusion.” So this most unfraternal of youth organized the remnant into a fraternity of his own. Franklins were well-rounded, graceful, moved smoothly, talked slickly. Nixon’s new club, the Orthogonians, was for the strivers, those not to the manner born, the commuter students like him. He persuaded his fellows that reveling in one’s unpolish was a nobility of its own. Franklins were never photographed save in black tie. Orthogonians wore shirtsleeves. “Beans, brains, and brawn” was their motto. He told them orthogonion -basically, “at right angles” --meant “upright,” “straight shooter.” Also, their enemies might have added, all elbows.

The Orthogonians’ base was among Whittier’s athletes. On the surface. jocks seem natural Franklins, the Big Men on Campus. But Nixon always had a gift for looking under social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath. It was an eminently Nixonian insight? that on every sports team there are only a couple of stars, and that if you want to win the loyalty of the team for yourself, the surest, if least glamorous, strategy is to concentrate on the nonspeetacular-silent~majority The ones who labor quietly, sometimes resentfully, in the quarterback's shadow: the linemen, the guards, the punter. Nixon himself was exemplarily nonspectacular: the ISO-pounder was the team’s tackle dummy, kept on squad by a loving, tough, and fatherly coach who appreciated Nixon’s unceasing grit and team spirit, nursing hurt players, cheering on the listless, even organizing his own team dinners, entertaining the guests on the piano, perhaps favoring them with the Orthogonian theme song. It was his own composition.

Nixon beat a Franklin for student body president. Looking back later, acquaintances marveled at the feat of this awkward, skinny kid the yearbook called “a rather quiet chap about campus,” dour and brooding, who couldn’t even win a girlfriend, who attracted enemies, who seemed, a schoolmate recalled, “the man least likely to succeed in politics.” They hadn’t learned what Nixon was learning. Being hated by the right people was no impediment to political success. The unpolished, after all, were everywhere in the majority.

Ever-expanding circles of Orthogonians, encompassing all those who ever felt their pride wounded by the Franklins of the world, were already his constituency. Richard Nixon at their center, yet apart, as their leader. The circle could be made to expand, Richard Nixon might have realized even then. Though via a paradox: the greater their power, the more they felt oppressed. When the people who felt like losers united around their shared psychological sense of grievance, their enemies felt somehow more overwhelming, not less; even if the Franklins weren’t always really so powerful at all, Franklin “power” often being merely a self-perpetuating effect of an Orthogonian sense of victimization. Martyrs who were not martyrs, oppressors who were not really oppressors: a class politics for the white middle class. The keynote of the new, Nixonian politics.

and

Nixon marked it well: in the fever swamps of the Red Scare, fears of sexual and political irregularity were deeply intertwined. Hints of sexualized threat suffused his Senate campaign. He promised chivalry: “I am confronted with an unusual situation. My opponent is a woman. . . . There will be no name-calling, no smears, no misrepresentations in this campaign” (which he was apparently admitting were par for the course in campaigns involving men). Then he promptly broke his pledge. Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas’s Franklin credentials, Hollywood chapter, came partly through her husband, the handsome, mustachioed leading man Melvyn Douglas. Though from the sound of Nixon’s campaign you would think she was married to Alger Hiss. “Pink right down to her underwear,” he called her, as if she were Elizabeth Bentley. That was hard to forget. So were the five hundred thou1 sand flyers Nixon sent out that tied Douglas to Representative Vito Marcantonio, a backbencher who represented an East Harlem district that was one of the poorest in the nation. The mailer, sent out on pink paper, dubbed him “the notorious Communist party-line Congressman from New York” and said Helen Gahagan Douglas “voted the same as Marcantonio 354 times.”

Nixon himself had voted “exactly as” Marcantonio had in the triple digits himself. Douglas tried to point this out. It didn’t matter. The explanations were complicated. The smear was simple. The more Douglas tried to wriggle free, the more she sounded like-Alger Hiss. Just as she was supposed to. On the stump, Nixon intimated the stakes: the Russians were on the verge of attacking the West Coast through Alaska, aided and abetted by a domestic fifth column, ordered by Moscow to start “a reign of terror if we ever cross swords with Russia”--power-plant sabotage, food contamination, seizing arsenals. Maybe, just maybe, he hinted, this graceful and well-spoken Helen Gahagan Douglas had something to do with that fifth column. This was not the time for nuance.

Soon enough, she wounded herself by her own hand. “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness,” ran the headline of her full-page response ad. She thought she was playing good cards. She was actually handing another pot to Nixon. Now he could play his favorite role: the wounded innocent. Helen Gahagan Douglas had voted 354 times with Vito Marcantonio. And here she was citing Scripture to call him a liar-just like that Dean Acheson.

It was the thinnest of gruel. But deciding to pull one lever in a voting booth instead of another is not necessarily a thick decision. Richard Nixon repeated his calumnies and repeated them and repeated them until they stuck: “Don’t Vote the Red Ticket, Vote the Red, White, and Blue Ticket.”

and

The people who knew it was a hustle-Ambassador Harriman’s people‘

were flummoxed. A nickname was coined right around this time to describe these sorts of folks, afflxed specifically to the man who was taken as their greatest tribune, Adlai Stevenson: eggheads. There weren’t all that many telee visions in America then, though the number of sets was growing exponen~ tially, as part and parcel of America’s postwar economic boom. These were the types who took pride in themselves, already, for not owning them. They knew enough to realize that the television commercials that exploited the cuteness of puppies were the most fiendishly effective ones. A Nixon asso~ ciate would later characterize them as an effete corps of impudent snobs. They did not View themselves thus. They saw themselves as the guardians of American decency. Liberals now hated Richard Nixon. He had hit them where it hurt. “Dick Nixon,” as one especially astute columnist observed of the Checkers Speech in its immediate wake, “has suddenly placed the bur~ den of old-style Republican aloofness on the Democrats.” A Stevensonian liberal could be defined as someone who quailed at that very thought-and even more, who panicked to the point of neurosis at the possibility that it was shared by 99.6 percent of Richard Nixon’s audience. The whole business enraged them. It also helped define them: right then and there, hating Richard Nixon became a central part of the liberal creed.

“The man who the people of the sovereign state of California believed was actually representing them,” the Sacramento Bee editorialized, was actually “the pet and protégé of rich Southern Californians . . . their subsidized front man, if not their lobbyist.” This “kept man,” chimed in the N ew Republic, was bamboozling people who were not rich into believing that he was their tribune. The pundit Walter Lippmann called it “the most demeaning experience my country has ever had to bear. . . . With all the magnification of modern electronics, simply mob law.” The in-house hLimorist of Stevensonian liberalism, Mort Sahl, suggested a sequel. Nixon could read the Constitution aloud to his two daughters. Pat, his devoted

helpmeet, could sit within camera View, gazing lovingly upon him while

knitting an American flag. Liberal intellectuals were betraying themselves in a moment of crisis for

liberal ideology. They saw themselves as tribunes of the people, Republicans

as the people’s traducers. Liberals had written the New Deal social and labor

legislation that let ordinary Americans win back a measure of economic secu

rity. Then liberals helped lead a war against fascism, a war conservatives opposed, and then worked to create, in the postwar reconversion, the consumer economy that built the middle class, a prosperity for ordinary laborers unprecedented in the history of the world. Liberalism had done that. Now history had caught them in a bind: with the boom they had helped build, ordinary laborers were becoming ever less reliably downtrodden, vul~ nerable to appeal from the Republicans. The pollster Samuel Lubell was the

‘rxt to rewogni e it: “The inner dynamics of the Roosevelt coalition have s iftexl from those of getting to those of keeping.“

Their liberal champions developed a distaste for them. One of the Ways it manifested itself was in matters of style. The liberal capitalism that had created this mass middle class created. in its wake, a mass culture of consumption. And the liberals whose New Deal created this mass middle class were more and more turning their attention to critiquing the degraded mass culture of cheap sensation and plastic gadgets and politicians who seemed to cater to this lowest common denominator-public-relations-driven politicians who catered to only the basest and most sentimental emotions in men. Who resembled in certain formal respect...the fascists who’d won power most effectively with. as Adolf Hitler bragged, a radio microphone. Now came the boob tube, “a vast wasteland,” as Adlai Stevenson’s administrative assistant Newton Minow would later say, when he became FCC chair. A working class that was no longer poor, but seemed so much poorer in spirit. And its tribunes: men like . . . Richard Nixon.

That a new American common man was emerging who, thanks to men like Nixon, thought he could be a Republican-to liberals this idea that the “comfortable” class associated with Richard Nixon was a class of victims was enraging. “We do not detect any desperate impoverishment in a man who has bought two homes, even if his Oldsmobile is two years old,” huffed the New York Post.

(Oldsmobile: here was a word to linger on. Not a stylish car. Kind of tacky even if it was expensive-maybe even tackier because it was expensive. Kind of common. Though not in an Aaron Copland, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” sort of way. A Richard Nixon kind of car.)

In 1950 Nixon’s campaign took out ads promising “Electric clocks, Silex coffeemakers with heating units-General Electric automatic toasters-silver salt and pepper shakers, sugar and creamer sets, candy and butter dishes, etc., etc.,” to everyone who answered “Win with Nixon!” when his or her phone rang. Richard Nixon was now the poster child for this deranged new politics of mass consumption. It felt divorced from any mature and reasoned and logical analysis of who really ran things in society, who were the real economic beneficiaries, how power really worked, elite liberals thought. This was a new style of political demagoguery, a kind of right-wing populism, almost. This hucksterism. Hadn’t Richard Nixon worked as a carnival barker as a boy in Prescott, Arizona? Hadn’t the organizer of the Committee of 100, an advertising executive, proclaimed, upon discovering Richard Nixon in 1946, “This is salable merchandise! ”P They would laugh at Nixon’s line from the so-called Kitchen Debate with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in 19593 “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us, for example, in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer’ space; there may be some instances in which we are ahead of you-in color television.

After Checkers, to the cosmopolitan liberals, hating Richard Nixon, congratulating yourself for seeing through Richard Nixon and the elaborate Political poker bluffs with which he hooked the sentimental rubes, was becoming part and parcel of a political identity.

And to a new suburban mass middle class that was tempting itself into Republicanism, admiring Richard Nixon was becoming part and parcel of a political identity based on seeing through the pretensions of the cosmopolitan liberals who claimed to know so much better than you (and Richard Nixon) what was best for your country. This side saw everything that was most genuine in Nixon, everything that was most brave-who saw the Checkers Speech for what it also actually was, not just a hustle but also an act of existential heroism: a brave refusal to let haughty “betters” have their way with him. They were no less self-congratulatory than the liberals.

Call the America they shared-the America over whose direction they struggled for the next fifty years, whose meaning they continue to contest even as this book goes to press, even as you hold it in your hands-by this name: Nixonland.

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