We're all born trying to pick up the thread.
That is to say, an unimaginably enormous series of events happened before each of us was born, events that shape the moment in history we happen to inhabit at the moment of our birth. It's our job, if we choose to accept it, to figure out the plot, to understand, to the best of our ability, the whys and wherefores of the little slice of history we inhabit and why people act and think as they do. Some of us, I think, do a better job of it than others -- which fact, I believe, explains a great deal about why we are in the place we're in.
I was born in 1960. President Kennedy was assassinated on my third birthday -- one of my earliest concrete memories. My parents, literate, urbane folks, had newspapers and magazines around the house as a matter of course, and I can remember looking at the pictures even when I couldn't read. When I did acquire some rudimentary literacy (about 1965, if memory serves), there was much that I didn't comprehend because I had yet to pick up the thread. I had no way of understanding that the moment in history I was occupying was a rather hideously anomalous time. I believe I formed the impression that student uprisings, permanent war in Southeast Asia, presidential assassinations, race riots and general ideological civil war were normal things, had always been with us, and would forever be.
I don't believe that this was an unreasonable conclusion to arrive at. Of course, looking back, Oswald's rifle shots were a sort of starting gun that set off a race to utter madness that really hasn't ended yet. The madness waxes and wanes depending on the decade, but its root causes stay with us. I cherish the thought that the election to the presidency of a calm, educated, urbane mixed-race gentleman of centrist tendencies might be the beginning of the end of the Sixties madness that still roils, and in my most optimistic moments I see signs that this might be so. However, there's still plenty of crazy out there, and new, post-election Sarah Palin bumperstickers appear on too many cars for me to take much comfort in the idea.
There were jokes back then that I just didn't get, too, jokes that had their roots in issues that arose before I began my own efforts to pick up the thread. What were these references to Pat Nixon's "Republican cloth coat" supposed to mean? Why did people constantly refer to "the New Nixon" and "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more" while laughing up their sleeves?
And why did my parents harbor such a special loathing for the man? To me, an innocent child with implicit trust in grownups of every political stripe, he seemed pretty normal. He didn't particularly exude evil to an eight-year-old, my age when he was inaugurated. By now, of course, I have come to understand why so many detested him -- but only long after Watergate exposed the depth of his repulsiveness -- but it was an effort that took decades.
Now comes Rick Perlstein's magnificent Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of a Nation, a history-cum-biography of Nixon's life through the 1972 election.
Boy, oh boy, does this book pick up some threads! Of course I remember very nearly all of the events of Nixon's administration, but many things that mystified me at the time are elucidated and, above all, given context that I, not yet having picked up the thread, could not have understood at the time.
I did not know, for example, the circumstances of Nixon's childhood, which knowledge might have hinted to me about the resentment seething in him that would lead him to a political philosophy that would exploit the same resentment in others. I didn't know that at Whittier College, like most schools a place where elites (jocks, rich kids, at Whittier known as "Franklins") look down with contempt at the non-elites (nerds, strivers, geeks), Nixon organized a fraternity of non-elites called the Orthogonians to give the non-elites a home. Perlstein deploys this duality throughout the story -- liberals and intellectuals as Franklins, the "Silent Majority" as Orthogonians -- as Nixon dives deeper and deeper into the bitterness and paranoia that would eventually lose him the presidency he spent his entire adult life pursuing.
You can see we're still living with those polarities, right? The explosion of indignation over Obama's "guns and religion" gaffe during the '08 election? The toxicity of the word "elite"? The audience at which yack radio is aimed, versus, say, the core PBS audience?
Thanks, Tricky Dick! Thanks a whole bunch!
One of the most useful graphic devices I've ever seen was a timeline in the back of Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head, his masterly survey of the Beatles and their music. It is a timeline that shows the Fabs' career month by month, while showing contemporaneous events in the arts and politics. It was through this tool, for instance, that I learned that within ten days of the release of the White Album, Elvis Presley had his Comeback Special on TV. Two and a half weeks earlier, Nixon had defeated Humphrey and Wallace.
This kind of context really helps. And Nixonland provides it in spades. The reader, picking up the thread, begins to understand how John Lennon, reading his newspaper day after day, would have been inspired in the summer of 1968, to write "Revolution," and how Joe Sixpack in Poughkeepsie might conclude that the world has gone mad and pull the lever for Nixon. Look at this sequence of events, culled from Wikipedia, from the late spring and early summer of 1968. In January, the Prague Spring began (to be crushed six months later by Soviet tanks), the battle of Khe Sanh was fought and the Tet Offensive had begun:
- April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr. is shot dead at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupt in major American cities for several days afterward.
- April 6 – A shootout between Black Panthers and Oakland police results in several arrests and deaths, including 16-year-old Panther Bobby Hutton.
- April 11 – Josef Bachmann tries to assassinate Rudi Dutschke, leader of the left-wing movement (APO) in Germany, and tries to commit suicide afterwards, failing in both, although Dutschke dies of his brain injuries 11 years later.
- April 11 – German left-wing students blockade the Springer Press HQ in Berlin and many are arrested (one of them Ulrike Meinhof).
- April 11 – U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
- April 20 – English politician Enoch Powell makes his controversial Rivers of Blood Speech.
- April 23–30 – Vietnam War: Student protesters at Columbia University in New York City take over administration buildings and shut down the university (see main article Columbia University protests of 1968).
- April 29 – The musical Hair officially opens on Broadway. [Naked hippies!]
- May of '68 is a symbol of the resistance of that generation. Agitations and strikes in Paris lead many youth to believe that a revolution is starting. Student and worker strikes, sometimes referred to as the French May, nearly bring down the French government.
- May 17 – The Catonsville Nine enter the Selective Service offices in Catonsville, Maryland, take dozens of selective service draft records, and burn them with napalm as a protest against the Vietnam War.
- June 3 – Radical feminist Valerie Solanas shoots Andy Warhol as he enters his studio, wounding him.
- June 5 – U.S. presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy is shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California by Sirhan Sirhan. Kennedy dies from his injuries the next day.
- June 8 – James Earl Ray is arrested for the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.
Workadaddy Sixpack would have noticed that all those punk kids tearing up Columbia University were, well, very unlikely themselves to ever become Workadaddy Sixpacks. The sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers -- Franklins, in Perlstein's terms -- were ripping up one of the nation's most prestigious universities for what seemed to him -- Orthogonian to the core -- utterly frivolous reasons. This would be the resentment exploited by Nixon in the election, and really by every right-wing politician since then. (Sarah Palin, anyone?)
You owe yourself this book -- especially if, like me, you're still picking up the thread of a mystifying childhood.