I finished Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. In this post, I will discuss three items from the book. In my post tomorrow, I will offer an overall reflection about My Year (or More) of Nixon.
1. On pages 343-344, Perlstein tells an inspiring story about Edmund Muskie, who ran for the Democratic nomination for President in 1968 and 1972.
Muskie in 1968 was speaking before a crowd in Pennsylvania, and some long-haired college students were trying to disrupt his speech with chants to end the Vietnam War. Such disruptions occurred at the speeches of other candidates, too, such as Vice-President and Democratic Presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey. Rather than attempting to outshout the demonstrators, Muskie pursued another approach: he would allow the demonstrators to pick a spokesperson who would speak for ten minutes, on the condition that the demonstrators would listen to what Muskie had to say afterwards. The demonstrators picked a spokesman, a nervous college kid, who would learn what it was like to try to speak when people were heckling! But the spokesman’s essential message was that people should not vote in the Presidential election, for candidates George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Hubert Humphrey were “no answer” (his words).
Muskie then spoke. Perlstein states: “He reviewed his modest upbringing. He described what the price of political apathy had been for the poor Maine region he came from: the special interests ran things and made the people poorer. But once the people became engaged and started electing Democrats, things started getting better.” Both hippie students and George Wallace supporters liked Muskie’s speech, and they began mingling with one another. The Washington Post said that this event was “one of the spectacular performances of the 1968 political campaign” (its words).
I like this story for three reasons. First, the sentimentalist in me appreciates the themes of different people coming together and listening to what each other has to say. Second, the story makes me think about the issue of participation in the political process. Is government too corrupt to be reformed, or should people at least try to reform it? I’m not for utter naivety about the political system and the politicians within it, but I also don’t believe that sitting out of the political system is the way to make a difference. When we participate, the politicians are more accountable to us than if we do not participate. Third, the story came to my mind as I read other parts of Perlstein’s book, which discussed what happened when a number of New Left activists started to participate in the political process rather than shouting at it from the outside. Nixon encouraged this in supporting the extension of voting rights to eighteen-year-olds, out of the alleged hope that this would divide the Democratic Party. And it did, as young New Left activists were at odds with Democratic power-brokers and machines.
That makes me wonder: Do I prefer governance by mainstream politicians, or by outside-of-the-mainstream people? My hope is that outside-of-the-mainstream people can challenge the powers-that-be and bring about reforms that previously were not even on the table. The thing is, though, that the Tea Partiers were outside-of-the-mainstream, and their contribution was bringing the government to a screeching halt just because they were not getting their own way. Standard, mainstream powers-that-be don’t act that way! Maybe I would prefer the outside-of-the-mainstream left over the outside-of-the-mainstream right, but then I wonder if they themselves would stir the pot in disastrous directions! Should I stick with establishment politicians and all of the problems that accompany them? Is the devil you know better than the devil you don’t know?
2. On page 660, Perlstein narrates the following about Arthur Bremer, the man who shot George Wallace:
“Bremer was an unemployed busboy whose only extended conversation with another friendly human in months was with a girl in a massage parlor whom he was disappointed to learn wasn’t a prostitute. He had a plan, however, to get noticed: he would shoot the president of the United States and go down in a blaze of glory.”
Charles Colson of the Nixon Administration would try to portray Bremer as a leftist, but Perlstein was saying that the truth was different: Bremer was a lonely man who wanted attention.
This passage made me think about how many friendly extended conversations I have had with people. I have often felt my share of loneliness and disconnection with others, but I cannot say that I was totally alone for any extended period of time. I would go to church or support groups, or I would talk with people online, or I could talk with my family. Imagine not having anybody. That very thought scares me.
3. On page 740, Perlstein quotes 1972 Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern saying: “We don’t have John Connally with us. He’s with his rich oil-baron friends. But we don’t need John Connally and the oil barons. We’d rather have the oil workers.”
This passage stood out to me because it showed McGovern playing the anti-elitism card. The point of Perlstein’s book, however, is that Nixon was a politician who often played the anti-elitism card: he appealed to the white middle class, many of whom felt alienated from the establishment and the educated elites. The thing is, though, many have argued that Nixon himself was entrenched with elites, particularly big business. Democrats have frequently made this charge about Republicans—-that Democrats are the party of the little guy, whereas Republicans are for the rich and well-to-do. I guess that both sides play the anti-elitism card, because both sides have their share of elites, and thus one side can attack the elites of the other side.