Obama at AIPAC, in the Capital of Nixonland

Gershom Gorenberg

I’ve just finished reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland , an impressive depressing portrait of my native country in the years just before I decided to move to South Jerusalem.

Perlstein’s portrayal of the relation between Nixon’s inner furies and the political furies of the 1960s and early ’70s bear out a thesis I’ve argued in the past : Some leaders succeed because their “…personal struggles resonated powerfully and subliminally with a wide public. It was the crippled Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, who could tell a crippled America there was nothing to fear.” Sometimes a leader can uplift for this reason; sometimes he or she can release a bitter flood. Menachem Begin saw himself as unjustly ostracized and excluded from power. His resentment was pitch perfect for those Israelis who felt the country’s elite had denied them respect. His politics deepened all the divisions in Israel, and we suffer for it till today.

Perlstein descibes Nixon in similar terms: Someone who from boyhood onward felt that the elite looked down on him, that he was out of fashion through no fault of his own, and who managed to fuse the anger of all the others who felt left out into a political movement. That was the emotional basis for Nixon’s ability to unite everyone who felt excluded by the exuberance and anger and hope of the ’60s, who felt assaulted and threatened by the changes. To that ability, of course, Nixon added a sociopathic disregard for truthfulness and legality that would make Ariel Sharon look like an honest man.

I hope to write more about the book later. For now I’ll note that while Nixon used a stunning arsenal of trickery to manipulate the 1972 campaign and ensure that the weakest Democrat would be his opponent, he wasn’t the only the only one ready to lie blatantly. Perlstein describes one of the desperate measures that Hubert Humphrey used to try to win the California primary that year: Pamphlets circulated that were signed by Jewish actor Lorne Greene:

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