We’re all still living in “Nixonland,” 50 years on

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble concentrating as 2020 rumbles and trudges its way to the grim season finale. As a dual citizen of the US and New Zealand, I’ve got not one but TWO national elections I’m voting in this year, so everything feels soaked in political arguments and campaign slogans. My brain feels perpetually overstimulated and understaffed.

It’s hard to write about comics and music and movies and such when everything seems swamped by politics. This ain’t a political blog, but like everyone else, I’m sucked in by the tenor of the times. In search of answers for the current craziness, I’ve gone back in time more than 50 years, re-reading Rick Perlstein’s masterpiece “Nixonland,” a deep dive into American politics between 1965 to 1972. The groundwork for Trumpland begins here. 

“Nixonland” is the second of a series of four massive tomes Perlstein has written examining the world of American conservatism from Goldwater to Reagan. Packed with detail, yet in crisp and clear prose, the books form a definitive examination of the duelling forces in American life that continue clashing to this day. Lots of talking heads bang on about how America has never been more polarised than today, but that’s not exactly true. Read about the clashes at the Democratic Convention of ’68, the riots and protests in Watts and Newark, and you see a pattern that just keeps repeating in America. Nothing is all that new, it turns out – it’s just the stage dressing that changes. 

There was more than a fair bit of turbulence in the America of the late 1960s, between Vietnam, the civil rights struggle, the rise of feminism and generation gaps. You can’t point for point compare then to now – instead of a war everyone’s arguing over, we’ve got a virus that’s turned bizarrely political – but the fundamentals of a nation that’s always been torn between liberty and conformity, “freedom” and authoritarianism, are there. For most of the last 60 years, America has been a conservative nation with brief spasms of progressiveness. How it winds up in 2020, nobody knows. 

“It was coming to this – insurgents and patriots paying good money to watch the other side silenced and humiliated,” reads a passage in “Nixonland.” Sound like social media, anybody? The biggest difference between 1970 and 2020 is that an entire industry of compliant, biased media and social media silos have created a perpetually self-congratulatory echo chamber that ensures you can pick your own reality. Previously a President could have his approval rating drop down into the 20s, but these days, the echo chamber ensures that even the worst of Presidents won’t drop below a certain level of approval.

What “Nixonland” shows us so inexorably is how America keeps wrestling with the same demons over and over again. This is nothing new – as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century ago, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

Life is objectively better for many people than it was 100 years ago in America, of course. America inches forward – and a little too often, also stumbles backward in the same motion.

America is still living in Nixonland, 25 years after his death. Hopefully one day it can fully break free of it. It’s gonna take a lot more than one election to do that, though. 

I voted for Elizabeth Warren. I’m not mad.

I voted for Elizabeth Warren on Super Tuesday, absentee from California as I’ve done for most elections the past 14 years or so. 

I don’t feel like I wasted my vote, really, although Warren finished fourth in the state and her campaign seems to be coming for a close. While I think she was the best of the Democratic candidates, the voters didn’t really agree, and she hasn’t won a state yet or finished particularly well in any of them. I’m annoyed that a candidate as good on paper as she is didn’t do better, but when it comes down to it, the voters make the call, and the endless parade of talking heads who’ve filled up mountains of space in the past year don’t always know what’s going to happen.

Who knows the heart of the American voter? I’ve lived abroad long enough that it’s harder and harder sometimes to figure what’s going on back home, but then again, I’m the guy that was dead sure Trump would never become President. I think it was a mix of sexism/Clinton hangover, an overcrowded field, and just some fundamental failure to connect on Warren’s part. It’s a bummer. 

But I’m used to lost causes. The first Presidential campaign I was really engaged in was 1988, where Michael Dukakis was thoroughly stomped by George H.W. Bush. I liked Dukakis, but it didn’t matter. I’ve picked some winners, and some losers, in the past 30 years or so of voting in American elections. I’ve been really depressed by some of them, and pleasantly surprised by some. But I never stopped voting.

I think both Biden and Sanders have good points, and frankly, I would vote for anybody with a reliable pulse and a fairly sane agenda to get the current occupant as far out of the White House as possible. Everyone gets really heated up when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and sometimes people lose sight of the bigger goal than just “I WANT MY TEAM TO WIN” mentality. 

One of the great curiosities of US politics for me the last few years is how easily one side of the political divide seems to have bent and compromised principles left and right just to back the winning team, accepting flaws and obvious corruption they never would’ve a few years back, while the other side is often consumed by the search for mythical perfection, for the glittering flawless candidate that doesn’t exist. 

I’ll vote in November, and even if my guy (sadly, this year, it’s apparently gonna be a guy) isn’t perfect, I’m still gonna show up. I’m not going to throw a sulk and sit it out, and I’m gonna hope this year is one of those where I’ve backed a winner. The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.

Robert A. Caro and digging into the American Dream with LBJ

mag-15Caro-t_CA0-jumboI’m a sucker for a good presidential biography, even as I loathe the orange troll currently occupying the White House. There’s something about the life sagas of America’s leaders that fascinates me, from the legends like Lincoln or Roosevelt to the sad sacks like James Buchanan. 

I’ve read dozens of ‘em, but if I had to pick the best, I’d single out Robert A. Caro’s sprawling four-volume (so far) life of Lyndon B. Johnson. I’m re-reading the first book, The Path To Power, for the first time in years. 

Caro is having a moment right now, with a short memoir (“Working”) just out as he labours away on the fifth and final book of LBJ’s life and times, a monument in prose he’s been working on for an astonishing 45 years or so now. At 83, Caro is in his autumn, but many a fan like me hopes he makes it to the finish line on what is one of the finest examinations of a leader and his times ever written. Forget Game of Thrones, this is the saga I want to see finished off.

170px-Lyndon_B._Johnson_-_15-13-2_-_ca._1915As a researcher and a journalist, Caro has few peers. The man is a human vacuum cleaner, sucking up every single factoid possible to craft fully rounded tales – he famously moved to the Hill Country of Texas with his wife to research LBJ’s boyhood years, and The Path To Power shows the painstaking time he took in its vibrant invocation of a long-gone era of hardened farmers and struggling families in a hostile land. 

Re-reading The Path To Power, I’m struck by Caro’s digressions and how they never feel like digressions. In most biographies a straight line is drawn from “A” (brief sketches of parents and family history, birth of subject) to “B” (subject’s life and career begins). But Caro lingers in the telling details, making us understand the infertile dirt which birthed LBJ, such as a short chapter about what life pre-electricity really felt like for the Hill Country farmers and wives – and that’s where his work comes most alive. Thirteen pages painstakingly detailing the work Hill Country women would do to wash and iron clothes without electricity is riveting:

More than once, and more than twice, a stooped and bent Hill Country farm wife says, “You see how round-shouldered I am? Well, that’s from hauling the water.” And, she will often add, “I was round-shouldered like this well before my time, when I was still a young woman. My back got bent from hauling the water, and it got bent when I was still young.” 

0cd909cfbc5bacfb7fd48e2a43a493eaCaro takes the time to get it right, and while 5 volumes and 5000 or so pages about one man’s life may seem excessive, other, shorter biographies I’ve read about LBJ seem like Cliff’s notes skimming over the surface compared to the richness of this work. 

You don’t have to be a fan of LBJ to admire Caro’s work, which frequently points out Johnson’s selfish, ambitious and often cruel narcissism – but always counterpoints it with his knack for the common touch, or how the haunting memory of his poverty in the Hill Country never, ever left the man, even when he became President of the United States. The first book of the four so far only takes us to 1941, but in its 700+ pages is the story of an entire cosmos. 

I’m dying for Caro’s final volume because it will at long last tackle the Vietnam years, an era which scuttled forevermore much of LBJ’s achievements and blotted out his remarkable civil rights work with blood in the jungle. There’s something Shakespearean about the lives of most of our presidents, but never more so than with LBJ – a poor boy from Texas who always wanted to be President, who got there in the worst way possible, and who lost everything over his intransigence on a war on the other side of the world.

Caro is our guide through a life that evokes everything good and bad about the American dream, and it’s a pleasure to dive again into his works. 

President George H.W. Bush and me

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One of my weird hobbies is a US presidential history fixation. I keep it separate from my politics, which like most things seems a lot harder to do in 2018 than it once was. What I’m interested in is the personalities, the stories and the things that drove the men (so far) who’ve lived in the White House. 

So the death of a President for a prez-nerd like me is a kinda big deal. George H.W. Bush wasn’t my favourite President, nor my least favourite, but he seemed significant to me. 

He’s the first President I ever voted against, and his 1992 and 1988 campaigns were the first ones I really paid attention to. I turned 18 a year too late to vote in the 1988 election, but I was an unashamed Dukakis fan who was set up for the first of many electoral heartbreaks. My high school friends and I were what the kids today might’ve called “woke” and actually cared about the election; I remember some organising a day for everyone to wear black after Bush, the uncool candidate, won the ’88 race easily. #Occupymyhighschool!

BUSH DUKAKIS DEBATE 1988

In ’92, I voted for President for the first time, with Bush, Clinton and wayfaring stranger from another planet Ross Perot battling it out. On Election Night a dozen or so friends gathered at my apartment to watch the results, pretty evenly divided between Bush, Clinton and Perot supporters, a combination of partisan friends which seems harder to imagine happening today. 

It’s been 12 years since a President died and America went through all its elaborate mourning rituals. I remember clearly where I was when each President in my lifetime died – Richard Nixon, in 1994, I was in New Orleans visiting the family of a short-lived girlfriend. In a bizarre cosmic coincidence I met Hunter S. Thompson there the day after his nemesis Nixon had died. 

In 2004 I was working the weekend shift running a newspaper in Oregon and splashed Ronald Reagan’s death on the front page; in 2006 when Gerald Ford died I was at our beach house and didn’t find out about it for days. When George H.W. Bush died I’d spent the rainy Saturday watching Spielberg’s Lincoln movie with my son and also reading some of the massive history of President Ulysses S Grant I’ve been working on for weeks now. It was a very Presidential day. 

For a brief four years or so, the fumbling Bush dominated the culture, much like Trump does today. Dana Carvey mocked him on SNL, he beat up Homer Simpson, his wife wrote a book about their dog and apparently people actually bought it. I rather like Maureen Dowd’s reminiscences about Bush in The New York Times, which captures something of the man’s goofy embarrassing uncle vibe and the kernel of compassion which kept me from ever truly hating him. bush-56a9b7835f9b58b7d0fe5472

I didn’t love him and he made a lot of mistakes – being in a gung-ho conservative Southern college when the Gulf War broke out in 1990 and having people in my dorm cheer about “killing rag heads” in “Bush’s war” was one of those moments when I realised what side in life I wanted to be on. But I didn’t loathe him quite like I’ve come to loathe some who’ve followed him (as the writer Peter David puts it, “every president who passes away from this point on will have to face one question: Was he better than Trump?”). I sneered at Bush a lot in his life, but yet, I wouldn’t have balked at shaking his hand. 

There’s something strange and evocative to me about when a President dies. It pulls a firm curtain on whatever era they stood for, reminds us that no matter how big a deal someone gets to be they all face the same end. A lot of people are talking about how Bush was the last President who wasn’t loathed by a massive percentage of Americans, the last Cold War president, last World War II veteran president and maybe the last of what he called a “kinder, gentler nation” too. 

I may not have voted for President Bush, but he was a part of history for better or worse, and it’s worth taking a moment to think about what all that meant.