I'm halfway through this book, and Perlstein's punchy and sweeping account (zeroing in on specific incidents, rack-focusing back out to a big picture) is a pleasure to read, let alone chockfull (hey--what is a "chock"? what does it look like half-empty?) of insights, disturbingly acute analytical asides, a smart-ass view of history that is also determinedly smart. And it reminds me why I think strong political journalism/history matters, and why political campaigns matter.
On the contentious thread under another review (by the very smart Brian) of another book (Wilentz's _Age of Reagan_), another smart commenter noted that he didn't think politicians matter--the system perpetuates itself, and the cults of personality around politicians covers up their complicity in that system. In short, we get distracted by the spectacle of a political campaign, and the ostensible conflict of our political process, in ways that dislocate us from any substantive political engagement or critique. I disagreed when I read it, the comment stuck in my craw. So I want to toss out two rebuttals here. (And, yes, they belong here, because Perlstein's excellent book is exemplary proof of both. But if you want a focused review of _Nixonland_, come back later or seek it elsewhere.)
One, I think our narratives about politics provide the foundations which inform and form our relationship to systems (capitalism, education), issues (civil rights, global warming), communities local and larger. The political process--the campaign--is indeed a largely-symbolic act, but its symbolics are not mere distraction but instead form the core social rituals which define (or reaffirm, or reframe, or rewrite) a sense of who "we" are.
Nixon matters (as do Obama, McCain, Clinton) because the presidential hopeful tries to steer through (or be perfectly, zeitgeistly steered by) the inchoate ideas which structure American consciousness. We vote for someone, in the booth, but what we're doing is looking in the mirror, and trying to vote for who we see (or, as often, who we want to see). NixonLAND is the title, and Perlstein nails it: we're drawn in not so much to the politician who changes the system but the politician who embodies some sense of "Self." The man--or, as now, and ever after?, the woman--on the ballot is the mirror of the masses; what a political campaign illustrates is the on-going conflict over competing symbolic visions of American identity. So, I think politics matters, because it's representative. Less about picking the person who will represent "us" as a leader than the person who represents what we want that "we" to be. Perlstein's book is a brilliant evocation of candidacies as crucibles for social identities.
His book is also a sterling example of how to write a narrative which is itself "inside" the meta-narrative struggles of such political processes. It's crucial that we see through the bullshit which passes for analysis in most mainstream political journalism. David Brooks recently noted an already-tired truism about Obama, that B.O. needs to break down his elitism, that he needs to hang out with people who eat at Applebee's. Eugene Robinson, hearing that, snapped back that he had trouble taking such sociology seriously from critics who themselves don't ever eat at Applebee's. Exactly. The echo chamber of most punditry and too much political journalism not to mention much political history is people ostensibly standing outside the fray, commenting on it; the goal is to fight the estrangement and alienation from such symbolic battles by forcing readers (viewers, listeners) into the fight. I try to seek out those writers (like Perlstein, like Hunter Thompson, like Richard Ben Cramer) who are revelatory in their ability to define the clash of narratives, to see the forest for the trees, to stay inside the narratives (and not to pretend to some objective outsider position "commenting on" the process)--to see the crowd as well as the candidate, to see the history informing a given moment's "big issue," to avoid cheap-seat sociology and remain on the floor of the convention. People who engage in, don't just comment on, the symbolics. Because such political journalism brings you into the political struggle--makes you care, makes you define your own stance in/against the narrative. (Say what you want about Limbaugh and the even more pernicious radio nuts--they GET it. And so do Jon Stewart and Colbert, whose explicitly ironic engagements do far more to engage the critical attention to such narratives than 1000 columns by Brooks.) Perlstein's got a point of view, but not an ax to grind--he recognizes that political symbolics become real and illuminating when engaged politically.
Avoid CNN, and Chris Matthews. Read the Perlstein. As a complement, go read Hunter Thompson's _[b:Fear and Loathing|7745|Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream|Hunter S. Thompson|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51J9D25ZMGL._SL75_.jpg|1309111] on the Campaign Trail '72_ and Robert Coover's infuriating and hilarious _Public Burning_.