The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I was introduced to the concept of "ratfucking" by a friend of mine at USC, who enlightened me to the fact that my old employer in downtown LA served as the venue for the apprenticeships of some of the most illustrious political operators of the 20th century. "Ratfucking" was the term of art used by USC Young Republicans for the dirty tricks they used in student elections, and that they then brought to the eager attention of President Nixon. Donald Segretti, HR Haldeman, Ron Ziegler, and others attended USC and explored some very clever means of undermining their opponents. And "ratfucking" is the core of the final section of Rick Perlstein's recent book NIXONLAND, a book that I received for Christmas (thanks, Brad and Sandy!) and just finished.

As I've mentioned before, I think I've become so accustomed to academic histories that I get impatient with popular history, even very expansive ones like Perlstein's. (Odd to get impatient with popular writin and not with academic writing, which is often so tedious as to be a parody of itself.) I don't quite understand Perlstein's project. It traces Nixon's rise from the Hiss case to just after the 1972 election, when the Watergate investigation began to close in on the White House, but as Perlstein makes clear this is less a biography of Nixon (and he is very snotty in several instances towards Nixon's psychobiographers) than it is a discussion of the rise of "Nixonland," the self-described oppressed Silent Majority, that, Perlstein's thesis seems to be, Nixon created and gave life to as a voting bloc. Perlstein's basic conceit here is that Nixon's world fell into two categories: Franklins and Orthogonians. These terms came from Nixon's time at Whittier College, where the "Franklins" were a club of social strivers, the intellectuals and privileged ones--the club Nixon couldn't join. In response, Nixon formed the "Orthogonians," a club for the ordinaries like himself, middle-class and working-class folks who felt snubbed by the Franklins. Perlstein stretches this metaphor out throughout the book: Nixon's constituency were always Orthogonians, and his enemies--Alger Hiss, Adlai Stevenson, the media, Jews, Hollywood celebrities, etc.--were Franklins. Orthogonians had always been around, but Perlstein argues that Nixon gave them a voice: resentment. This was not NATIONAL REVIEW, Buckleyite conservatism, this was the roots of right-wing talk radio: duplicitous, anti-intellectual, both fawning of and resentful of power, and forever enshrining a mythical Past when Things Were Better in its rhetoric. Oddly enough, the death of this Orthogonian cycle in our history (lasting from 1968 to 2008) was the ultimate Franklin, George W. Bush.

It's not a sociological study because Perlstein's research isn't really grounded in much empirical fact about the changing feelings about these groups, or even who these groups were. It's not a biography of Nixon, and it's not a history of America 1948-1972 because so much is left out. Instead, I see this book as in many ways (and perhaps unknowingly) influenced by one of the dominant strains in literary study: reception theory. Much of what Perlstein does that is so effective is to transport the reader back into those times and to recount particularly what reading the newspapers of the day was like. He's spent a great deal of time at the Museum of TV and Radio watching the broadcasts of the 1968 and 1972 conventions and the important speeches, and shows how even the commercials of the time reflected the growing Franklin-Orthogonian conflict. But Perlstein skims over the surface of history far too much for my comfort. Nowhere does he go particularly deeply into any single event or episode; most of the time he describes how a typical American, getting news from the papers and TV, would have understood the event, and then perhaps he adds a few tidbits about the central figures involved. I contrast this to the absolutely brilliant popular histories written by J. Anthony Lukas (a writer that Perlstein credits several times, and who I suspect is one of Perlstein's heroes). In COMMON GROUND in particular, Lukas deals with the Boston busing controversy in intricate detail, from the point of view of almost a dozen participants. I wonder what Lukas would have done with Perlstein's project--I suspect he would have chosen one particular incident (Chicago 1968, I suspect) to use as his lens through which to examine the growth of Nixonland.

Perlstein's writing is also a bit precious for me. I've just been reading Carlyle's FRENCH REVOLUTION and Perlstein's "writerly" prose isn't as obnoxious as that, but he does have a tendency to use sentence fragments. Which are used intentionally but not well. He also likes to string sentence fragments together in a kind of list-crescendo. That irritates the reader by the way they call attention to themselves. That make me wish that Perlstein's editor had told him that he sounds like he's utterly persuaded of his own importance. And that give this generally balanced and credible study a touch of histrionic rhetoric that I could do without.


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