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nixonland.jpgI know it’s a cliché, but the older I get, the more interested I become in history. I have no romantic view of the past, though — I read history mostly as painfully slow progress punctuated by awful mistakes which cast very long shadows through the decades. And so I was fascinated by Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Rick Perlstein’s 896-page political history. The eponymous “Nixonland” is the America that created Nixon and that he, better than anyone (except possibly Ronald Reagan), was able to exploit: a country with two visions that are both sincere, deeply held — and utterly incompatible. However, the Nixonland divide isn’t strictly between liberal and conservative, but between the privileged insider “Franklins” and striving outsider “Orthogonions”. The names are from two cultural clubs at Wittier College. When the former rejected Nixon for his poverty and working-class manners, he started the second.

The book is divided into four sections, roughly covering the election cycles of 1966, 1968, 1970, and 1972. Though the bitter and amoral genius Nixon is at the centre of the book, it’s Nixonland itself that the book spends most of its time in. Perlstein does a terrific job of letting us into the minds of the hippies and radicals and concerned middle-class parents and resentful blue-collar workers that live there. The author is, himself, a post-Boomer, and he argues persuasively that the country he grew up in is still Nixonland. Watching George Bush (and Sarah Palin), it’s hard to disagree.

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