I asked Henry Kissinger recently whether he had been to see the hit play Frost/Nixon. He told me that he made it a rule never to see plays that included characters he knew in real life, which I guess must mean that he hasn’t seen much post-war political theatre. He also said that he doubted whether any actor could capture the psychological complexity of Richard Nixon, the man whom he flew into the unknown with to talk to Mao Tse-tung and the man whom he had prayed side-by-side with on the night before the final resignation.
Kissinger poses but does not answer the question in his memoirs: ‘What would have happened had the Establishment about which he [Nixon] was so ambivalent shown him some love?’ Rick Perlstein’s new book chronicles in piercing detail the story of what happened because the Establishment didn’t. He takes his title Nixonland from the phrase coined by the Democratic candidate in the 1956 Presidential election and patron saint of American liberalism, Adlai Stevenson, to describe the world represented by the then Republican Vice- President. ‘The land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling’, said Stevenson, ‘the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.’ Although Stevenson lost the election, by 1964 it looked as if his prophecy had come true.
Liberal America had triumphed. Lyndon Johnson had trounced the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater at the polls. Within a year, he had introduced federal funding for education and medical insurance for the elderly under the banner of the Great Society and passed the Voting Rights Act — the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement. Richard Nixon himself looked as finished as Nixonland. The man who, but for Joe Kennedy’s wallet, would have won the White House had gone on to suffer a humiliating defeat in the California Governor’s race, and had with seething resentment told the media that ‘you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference’.