When I was a cub scout back in 1971, our pack got a call from the regional headquarters. Big news. The biggest. President Nixon was due to come through town in his motorcade and dedicate the new veteran's memorial up on the Post Road. We would be part of the official honor guard, turned out in our blue uniforms and bearing the colors. It was a die-hard Republican town, and I remember quite vividly the massive turn-out for Nixon. I'd like to say I also recall how the people who waved their flags that day hated the war protests and the counter-culture movement, but that would be stretching a point: my nine-year-old powers of observation weren't so socially acute. What I saw was a great surging, adoring crowd that almost ran down a bunch of scouts in their zest to get closer to President Nixon.
And I remember is his gray, unsmiling face as he rose through the roof of his limousine - and how some hidden switch seemed to turns on the broad grin and raise both hands puppet-like in a that characteristic double V-for-victory pose. Then we were merely trampled underfoot.
Recalling Nixon through the rear-view mirror with Watergate stamped into the chrome, we tend to remember the defeated Final Days President, the broken man and his comeback on David Frost. But the Nixon I saw for that brief moment - and the Nixon portrayed in Rick Perlstein's terrific Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, was a vibrant politician at the pinnacle who connected with the masses, carving an electorally successful path between the feuding liberal Democrats and their crippling war and the growing right wing class anger of Goldwater and Reagan. That's the Nixon you see on the cover of Nixonland.
I'm about five chapters into Perlstein's satisfying reader, and he brings back all that feeling of Nixon's utter dominance of the political landscape from LBJ's sad sunset to his own long and dramatic tragedy. And along the way, the characters are dreamily compelling to this child (literally) of the 60s - and amazingly current as well. You'll find traces of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and John McCain in Nixonland, and you'll discover bits of this presidential race as well. The set pieces remain so very much the same on the stage of our cultural landscape - it's almost scary how little we've changed.