Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America
by Rick Perlstein
(Scribner, $37.50)

Polarizing people was Richard Nixon’s forte, says author Rick Perlstein. As a college undergraduate, the California-born grocer’s son won election as student body president by pitting the school’s social outsiders against its tightknit swells. As Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, he survived a minor scandal by delivering a nationally televised address in which he painted himself as a struggling wage-earner and family man under siege by fussy elites. In 1968, his talk of a “Silent Majority” cemented for the entire citizenry the idea that there are two kinds of Americans, and that the other side holds beliefs capable of destroying the nation. The cultural division Nixon created has been with us ever since.

Even if you don’t buy that argument, said Evan Thomas in Newsweek, Perlstein’s “sprawling, vivid” survey of Nixon-era America ranks as “the best book written about the 1960s” in more than a quarter-century. It opens with the first night of the Watts riots in Los Angeles, a four-day televised punch to the gut of a nation that had begun to be optimistic about its progress on race relations. It ends nine years later with Nixon’s 1974 resignation. In between, Perlstein “comes into full bloom” as one of popular history’s brightest talents, said Douglas Brinkley in The Austin American-Statesman. Jumping from topic to topic like “a mad blogger,” he applies “equal zeal” to conjuring Billy Graham’s crusades, The Planet of the Apes, McGovernism, and the Kent State killings. Most important, he illuminates how “white fear of black violence” became “the political currency” of the 1968 election. Nixon’s genius was in presenting himself as a barricade to anarchy.

Perlstein ultimately overestimates Nixon’s significance, said Ross Douthat in The Atlantic Monthly. It’s unfair to suggest that voters indulged their worst instincts in voting for Nixon because their only other choices by November 1968 were the segregationist George Wallace or an “exhausted” liberal establishment that had proved it “could no longer govern.” A “cynic in an age of zeal,” Nixon was “too small a man to threaten the republic.” His self-serving pragmatism in fact defused an explosive moment. As for the idea that we’re all still living in “Nixonland,” Perlstein’s dramatic descriptions of neighborhoods burning and hardhats slugging hippies indicate otherwise. “We have a culture war; they had a war.