Exchange: 'Nixonland' or 'The Age of Reagan'? (Part Two)

by The New Republic, The New Republic | June 23, 2008

In this TNR debate, two powerhouse political historians--<?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />Sean Wilentz, the author of The Age Of Reagan and contributing editor for The New Republic, and Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland--try to figure out which president continues to have the stronger hold over our political culture. You can read Wilentz's first dispatch here.  

From: Rick Perlstein

To: Sean Wilentz<?xml:namespace prefix = o />

Dear Sean,

I've been wielding my Nixon hammer for so long now--I signed the book contract for Nixonland in November of 2001--that sometimes the whole world starts to look like Nixon-shaped nails. Ask my friends: I've got a Nixon story for every occasion. And I mean every occasion: You call my book "sassy," and that reminds me of a story about Alger Hiss's car. ...

And your opening thoughts get to that issue of hammers and nails: Do I see Nixonland everywhere, to the exclusion of Reaganville? How much influence should Nixon be granted as midwife of our present political moment, and how much Reagan? It's a question I'm not entirely comfortable with, because I never intended to write a book with direct relevance to our present political moment.

My book originally ended this way: Richard Nixon, the greatest Electoral College victory in hand since James Monroe in 1820, is brooding angrily about the Republican Party's failure to capture the Senate. He's berating the press ("that's how they'll piss on it"), and he's getting ready to reward his cabinet by firing them all. My editor Colin Harrison, whose judgment is superlative, sent me back to the drawing board. My readers had come this far (746 pages!), and they wouldn't be satisfied with a mere reflection on the mood of Richard Nixon because the main character of the book was actually "the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least on that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason." I needed, my editor said, to explain what happened to that voter. And so I gave Colin and Nixonland two more pages--one thousand words to explain what the previous 325,000 had been "about." I'm proud of what I wrote, and stand by my words. But it's left me in the position of having to talk more about the snappy conclusion than the messy book--which means defining what it means to say that we're still living in Nixonland.

Sean, with your usual severe intelligence, you argue that Nixonism was a "hiccup" and that the last 25 or so years of American history tie more directly back to Reagan. Because, on the one hand, Reagan sanded the edges off Nixon-style Republican tactics, and on the other, he sharpened the edges of Nixon's ideology. 

I'm not sure if that's entirely true, though. For my next book, which will cover the years from 1973 to 1980, with Reagan's ascent to the presidency as its frame, I'll be testing my hypothesis that the differences between the two presidents are overstated. "Reagan could be callous and demagogic on the stump," Sean allows. But Nixon, conversely, also partook of what Sean ascribes solely to Reagan: "blending futurism and nostalgia ... putting a warm, even sensuous face on right-wing Republican politics." About half of Nixon's speeches, I hope Nixonland establishes, at least attempted to sound in exactly that register--"the lift of a driving dream"; "Clean the air! Clean the sky! Wash the wind!"--and if they didn't do so as sonorously as Reagan's, by the same token, my hunch is that a closer examination of Reagan's rhetoric in his years before running for president yield plenty more nastiness than we tend to recall.

I've been keeping a file, for instance, on what Reagan said about Vietnam: stuff like, "It's silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas." It could have been that the nastiness tailed off as a strategic calculation. Perhaps Reagan mouthed cruel apothegms when the political moment demanded it, in the 1960s ("Make love, not war?" he said, reading off a hippie's sign. "You don't look like you could do either"), then turned on the sunshine in the 1980s when that rhetoric worked better on the stump. Or it could be that we're systematically forgetting that Reagan's martial barks about the "evil empire" were not that exceptional. I don't know; I have to do the research. There's a more complicated story here than mere dispositional sunniness, I suspect.

You also write that "Nixon, unlike Reagan, played political hardball in a paranoid way that turned into lawlessness. (There was no Donald Segretti or G. Gordon Liddy in Reagan's entourage; and while Reagan had his Oliver North--certainly a polarizing figure--North did not emerge out of Reagan's quest for the presidency, or for re-election.)" Was that so? One research thread I'm pursuing--and again, it's very preliminary--is how many of the figures and institutions we associated with "Reaganite" Republicanism achieved critical mass within the matrix of Watergate, and in the public relations struggle to defend Nixon against the "liberal" Watergate investigation. I'm specifically looking at figures like Kenneth Rietz, who, while director of the Campaign to Re-elect the President's Youth Division, spied on Democrats and was fired from his position with the Republican National Committee (he was about to take over the RNC's 1974 congressional campaigning) after his name came up in the Watergate hearings--before finding himself comfortably ensconced as chief California organizer for Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign. I'm also looking at Roger Stone, who, as Jeffrey Toobin recently noted, enjoyed an almost identical trajectory from Watergate ratfucker to 1976 Reagan campaign aide. And if Reagan was so "sunny," how did he manage to attract so many nasty, rageful characters--Ed Meese, Richard Perle, James Watt, William Bradford Reynolds, whom Sean very usefully focuses on in his book--to his White House? Was it on accident, or had Nixon put his stamp on the Republican Party in a way that resonated with Ronald Reagan?

Another continuity between Reaganism and Nixonism was suggested to me by your book, specifically your masterful chapter on Iran-Contra, which made me wonder how Reagan avoided having to resign in disgrace like Richard Nixon. The Age of Reagan suggests an answer. Nixon tried to wriggle out of Watergate by manipulating the press, distracting the public with Cold War pieties, playing the naïve innocent, and sometimes lying outright--but he failed. You show Reagan deploying all these tactics, too, but with far greater skill than Richard Nixon.

Finally, on policy. I find a lot of fallacy-mongering in trying to argue what a president truly "was" ideologically by totting up the legislation passed or not passed during his presidency, or even the proposals offered or not offered during his presidency. Context is crucial; you can't order up policies from a catalogue, at least not if you want to win the presidency and stay popular. You surf the waves, and only glancingly, slowly, and at the margins, do you get to determine the wave's shape. What would Nixon have attempted in a second term, had he been more politically unencumbered? What did John Mitchell, his attorney general (and, later, campaign manager), mean when he once said, while drunk at a party, "This country is going so far to the right you are not even going to recognize it"? What did it mean that Nixon raged about liberal bureaucrats and bureaucracies on the tapes with a vituperation that easily matched Ronald "Government Is the Problem" Reagan? What does it mean that the signer of the nation's most liberal abortion law and its biggest state tax hike--Governor Reagan--anointed liberal Republican Richard Schweiker to share his ticket in 1976? Today's conservatives are horrified by the notion than Nixon could be called a conservative, and they are deeply invested in the notion that Regan was only and essentially a conservative. That's the way things look to us now. But a lot of what they proposed as policy seems contingent on the context they faced at the time.

Reaganville, Nixonland: I don't have nearly as many answers as I pretend to. I'm hard at work; I'm still searching. Catch me in five years for better answers, or, perhaps, more ambiguous questions. 


By Rick Perlstein and Sean Wilentz

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