Getting to like Richard Nixon?

Posted by HC in Books / TV / US politics on 8 July 2008

If you liked Donald Draper in Madmen, maybe you should like poor old Richard Nixon. After all, a big bit of that brilliant show was to do with Don’s work for Nixon in the 1960 election which saw John F Kennedy elected. Don seemed to feel that whatever you felt about Nixon, his was a classic American poor-boy story of the kind voters ought to be able to identify with. Not so JFK, with his silver spoon. In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein fleshes out this picture.

The subtitle says it all: The rise of a President and the fracturing of America. Perlstein’s case is that in the 1960s two Americas emerged. Between the Lyndon B Johnson landslide of 1964 and the Nixon 1972 election lay the period when, says Perlstein, ”the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire”.

The important messages from that period are not all that obvious. The 1960s were not a period when all society in the UK and US changed. Rather, one lot become viscerally liberal and another lot became viscerally reactionary. So what happened was not a revolution but a schism.

As has been remarked, Don Draper was bemused by his country’s love affair with John F Kennedy. The whole show is about Don’s “straight” view of the world as it brushed up against the emerging beat and hippie worlds. As the show proceeds to its next series, we may well see Mr Perlstein’s thesis borne-out.  

It is, by the way, a rather splendid book. It’s huge, racy. It’s rangy. It unfolds like a movie. I don’t know that one would want to read it from cover to cover. But as a bedside book, for dipping, it’s a treat. 

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