Rick Perlstein’s new book "Nixonland" does a masterful job of describing the extent to which shamelessness gives a skillful politician a major advantage over ordinary humans.
In the mid-1960s Richard Nixon seemed an extremely improbable candidate to ever become president: He had lost two major elections in the previous five years; he had no real ideological commitments, and hence no base of support among movement conservatives; he looked terrible on TV; he had no discernable charisma; and he was widely considered a joke by the media who, just a couple years earlier, he swore would no longer have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.
Yet somehow he won anyway. What he had going for him were intelligence, ruthlessness, bottomless ambition, and no capacity for shame. He was perfectly capable of arguing A on Monday and Z on Friday regarding every issue imaginable, if it suited his political purposes to do so, and he took full advantage of this talent.
He was also, as Perlstein says, "a serial collector of resentments." Indeed Nixon created and refined a whole politics of resentment, which both took advantage of and helped exacerbate the cultural civil war often referred to as "the Sixties."
Nixonland, according to the evil genius of modern American politics, was a country divided in two. On the one side were real Americans — the "silent majority" as Nixon dubbed them.
Real Americans, in Nixonland, were (and are) largely defined by what they were not. They weren’t loud-mouthed war protesters, or riot-prone inner city blacks, or pointy-headed intellectuals, or drug-addled hippies, or bra-burning feminists.
They weren’t welfare cheats, or sex-crazed libertines. Real American men didn’t, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an up and coming Hollywood actor-turned California politician, "dress like Tarzan, have hair like Jane, and smell like Cheetah." (Perlstein notes Nixon watched Reagan’s meteoric ascent carefully, and learned from it.)
Most of all, real Americans were patriots. Unlike the war protesters and the civil rights agitators, and the subversive college professors, and the man-hating feminists, and the sex-and-drug-and-rock-and-roll-crazed hippies, real Americans loved their country.
Nixon, who got his start as a Red-baiting California congressman, ended up extending the logic of McCarthyism — the idea that there were traitors in our midst — to all his political opponents.
This was a remarkable achievement, given that his political opponents often made up more than half the country.
And that achievement lives on. As Perlstein concludes, we’re all still living in Nixonland.
Consider a small but telling incident from a McCain campaign rally this weekend in Colorado Springs. Dan Caplis, a Denver attorney and radio host, warmed up the crowd by announcing that the campaign was passing out miniature American flags he claimed had been "rescued" from the Democratic convention in Denver.
According to Caplis, the flags had been found in garbage bags and were going to be thrown away or burned — a charge denied strenuously by the Democratic National Committee, which said the flags were being packed away for use at other events, and were "snatched" by McCain campaign operatives for the purposes of a cheap propaganda stunt.
What’s interesting about this incident is how it’s straight out of the most devious pages of Richard Nixon’s political playbook: Don’t merely accuse your opponents of being misinformed, or wrongheaded, or even cowardly — instead, impugn their patriotism in as brazen a manner as you think you can get away with.
It’s a despicable tactic, but, as the last 40 years of American political history illustrate, an often-effective one.
Note that all this took place less than 48 hours after John McCain, in his speech accepting the GOP nomination, vowed to end "constant partisan rancor" in Washington.
Somewhere Richard Nixon is laughing.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)