Friday, November 20, 2009

Picking Up the Thread


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:

May

June

Between April 4 and June 8 was 65 days. For purposes of comparison, 65 days ago from this writing was September 17. A glimpse at newspaper archives shows that 65 days ago we were taking umbrage at the stupid ACORN video and hating on "czars." This headline appeared in the Chicago Tribune: "Obama: Don't rush call on Afghan troop levels." So yeah, imagine opening your paper in the summer of '68 during those 65 days between the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations. An exercise in horror. Much, much more would follow: the disastrous Democratic Convention in Chicago, the Tlatelolco Massacre, the Cultural Revolution in China, and, of course, Nixon's election.

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.

16 comments:

Tom said...

Wow - I , the infrequent interlocutor on this fine blog, am the first to make a comment. I got six years on ya mate, enough to have had just a tiny bit more context, such as having my morning cartoons interrupted on 11-24-63 by a news broadcast during which I witnessed the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald live on the TV.

I've always known that viewing the accounting every night on the news of the tens of thousands of dead in Vietnam shaped my very anti-Nixonian point of view and cemented it for life. But oddly, I remember feeling more detached from it in my younger days than I possibly could imagine feeling now. I chuckled at the "why change Dicks in the middle of a screw - Vote for Nixon in 72" anti-slogan, and smirked at his awkward resignation speech, sort of like watching your high school principal admit to driving drunk.

Now, of course, none of it seems funny or trivial at all, especially given the consequences that Darth Cheny and crew perpetuated into the horrors of this past decade. That is a fine book, and a frightening insight into how one man's psychosis can become a nation's albatross. But, like you, I'm trying to take our recent election as a sign that we may not be diving headlong into the world of Idiocracy (or maybe not quite as fast as I thought).

Sluggo said...

I have 4 and a half years on you - and I heartily agree that the nightly news in '68 had a bit more urgency and panic than what we see these days. It seems today as if we are sleepwalking into a future that we all know will be grim, too chagrined or in denial to man up and make some tough decisions.

Watched (with my 16 yo daughter) the Moyers show last night on the private discussions LBJ had with his cabinet and former Senate colleagues as he fell against his instincts into escalation. He knew he couldn't win against "3 Vietcong slashing us up" even with all the bombs and missiles and young men we could throw at the 'cong, but he knew as well that Americans have been conditioned not to tolerate a loser or a quitter, so that the only sane course was the only course not practically, seriously considered. plus ca change...

Recantly came across a framed Certificate of Achievement presented to my Dad on 30 Sep 1970, from Major General John L. Klingenhagen, United States Army, Aviation Systems Command in St. Louis.

"Mr. D.E. Loveland, during the period November 1960 to September 1970... provided a highly responsive and dedicated communication channel between AVSCOM and one of it most important suppliers, the Lycoming Division of Avco Corporation... his availability for assistance regardless of the hour contributed significantly to the success of the Army aviation program... "

that explains a lot about my childhood right there. I'll try to find the New Year's Eve 1968 (or '69) Bop the Beetle game with more than two hands-worth-of-stars generals on the floor at our place in Florissant. I believe alcohol was involved.

I wish he had told me more about his being in Saigon during Tet, troubleshooting the Huey engines. There are many parts of the thread I missed as well, and having kids sorta help to shine a distant light on some of the early strands.

1970 is 39 years ago now - 39 years ago in 1970 reached all the way back to 1931. That is unsettling.

reincheque said...

Sluggo has unwittingly defined what I describe as the "Janus syndrome" - we all have an idea where we were 39 years ago. Where will we all be 39 years from now?

I started my working life 29 years ago. In 29 years time I will be 75 years old, which is 4 years older than my father was when he died. Will I be here in 29 years time? I'll be lucky, I'd say.

Still, cheer up me buckoes...:-)

Regards,


djp

Linkmeister said...

I'm 10 years older than you, Neddie, so I have vivid memories of Nov. 22, 1963 and subsequent events. The family moved to Guam from NoVa in June 1968, 3 days after Bobby was killed. I got back to the mainland that September for my freshman year of college, and one of the guys I met during fraternity rush at the U of Arizona had been in Prague just before the tanks arrived.

We are all Forrest Gumps to some degree or another.

Your metaphor of picking up the thread is a very good one.

Rick Perlstein said...

Thanks for this post. Very rewarding for me to read.

RP

Neddie said...

Woah....

Decatur Dem said...

I look forward to reading Nixonland; lots of context to be had therein. I have vivid memories from 1968, when I was a college student doing my best to oppose the war and avoid conscription. Long, long time ago. And yet, here we are again in an (imperfectly) analogous situation.

By the way, Happy Birthday Neddie!

giggles said...

DUDE!!!!!!!!! REALLY??????

(I must now go get this book....)

Neddie's got his groove back!!!!!!!!

(You go guy!!!!! Welcome back AND Happy Birthday...soon... damn. I'm older....)

Bill said...

It has always seemed to me that Nixon is the context that most Post-WWII requires if it is to be properly understood. He is at the heart of current American racial and class politics, and is the soul of the culture wars. On the right they talk about Ronald Reagan as their patron saint, but Reagan is more like St. Peter-- a follower who institutionalized the peculiar fusion of affluence and alienation of the Republican Party. Nixon is the Jesus of this strain of our society.

CrayolaThief said...

Now that's a potent image, Oswald's rifle as a starter pistol for the turmoil of the sixties and beyond. Symmetrically speaking, I suppose the first half of the century had a mirror image in the weapon leveled at the Archduke Ferdinand.

Good to have you back in full form, Herr Jingo.

JC said...

Neddie:

I have yet to purchase "Nixonland," but I am sure to read it soon. If you liked "Nixonland," you must read Perlstein's "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus." Perlstein, who is a bit younger that we are, published this about 9 years ago, shortly after W was elected. "Before the Storm" explains how someone like W came to be president, by showing the social, cultural, and intellectual roots of the conservative movement. The book contains fascinating anecdotes about the John Birch Society, and Knott's Berry Farm that I did not know about until I read the book.
Unfortunately, "Nixonland" didn't have tht impact with the reading public that it might have had because the NYT Book Review picked George Will to review it. Yes, that George Will. Of course, he gave the book a not very favorable review. You see, that's how the NYT shows it doesn't have a liberal bias. It selects movement conservatives to review books about the the history of American conservatism. The other way the NYT tries to establish its objectivity is by having movement consevatives review books about the history of American liberalism. You get the picture.

Casey said...

I'm a whippersnapper born at the very end of the 60s; my mother's obstetrician missed my birth because the moon rock exhibit was in town that day.

I'll have to add Nixonland to my reading list. I just finished The Family by Jeff Sharlet. He briefly touches on Nixon, in the context of fundamentalist creep. The more I read, the more I want to know exactly what the hell happened before I got here.

Dave said...

...and the next book you will have to read, to see how all the threads are interwoven from Martin Luther King back to Martin Luther, is "Searching For God in the Sixties," a real weaving the seemingly disjointed threads into the tapestry of life and history.

Mike said...

It's so good to have you back. I hope you and your family are doing well, and warmest birthday greetings.

The word Greetings has a whole different connotation to those of us born in the mid-50's and before, as it was the salutation on the draft notice one received in the mail. As in Greetings, your ass belongs to us now.

I was thinking about a post of yours a few months ago in which you identified that first chord of A Hard Day's Night as the beginning of the sixties. I was thinking at the time that it must also have been that first isolated drum beat prior to Al Kooper's organ coming in too soon in Like A Rolling Stone. But also, it must have been 11/22/63.

I was in the 2nd grade. We were watching an afternoon reading or math or something program on an NET station, the precursor to PBS. Some guy who had probably never before had to make a live announcement told us the President was dead. My teacher started crying, and told me (why me, I don't know) to go get the principal. It was late in the school day anyway, but he made an announcement over the PA, and dismissed school and we all went home and i spent the weekend glued to the TV through the funeral on Monday.

Life goes on, and somewhere around '64 I got a little transistor radio, with probably all of a dozen transistors, (compare that to the box I'm typing this on, wow), and me and my little radio had heard everything from She Loves You to With a Little Help from my Friends, and one day I turned it on as soon as I woke up, but instead of music coming from the local AM station or WLS in Chicago or CKLW in Detroit was the news from middle of the night California. And i ran into the hallway shouting, "Mom, Dad, Bobby Kennedy's been shot!"

Then later that summer our family took a road trip across country that I hated, being cooped up in the car with my parents for days at a time. We drove from Michigan out to Colorado, spent a couple weeks there, and were driving back the southern route through Kansas. We spent a night in the Ramada Inn in Manhattan, Kansas, my father and I in one room, and my mother and sister in an adjoining room. I remember watching the police riots in Chicago on this little motel room TV. My father became incensed and was egging on the cops. It was at that moment, in my 12th year, that I realized what he was. And what I was.

Often in the coming years I wondered if, when that letter with Greetings at the top arrived, what decision I would have to make. Canada? Living in Michigan at the time, that seemed like the choice, I had heard of people crossing every day, living in Windsor, working in Detroit and vice-versa. Or should I cut my hair and go to some lonely outpost in the winter, like Sault Ste. Marie?

Fortunately, I didn't have to make that decision, as those who were a year older than me were the last group to go through the lottery and draft. But those days certainly defined who I am to this day.

Oh, and that summer of 1973 with the Watergate hearings and old Sam Ervin, glued to the set again. I also knew what Nixon was.

Speaking of what Nixon was, Neddie, were you in Chile at the time of the coup?

Mike in Seattle

Decatur Dem said...

Thanks for reminding me about this book. I'm up to page 150, and it's a great read. So much I had forgotten in 40 years!

mac said...

Hey Neddie.
Glad you're back.
I was born in 64. Everything about Nixon and the Vietnam War I learned from the book “The Doonesbury Chronicles” a cool aunt gave me on my 9th or 10th birthday. It was a pretty good primer. I can't wait to get a copy of NixonLand,