Earlier I posted the first paragraph of the book's preface. Here it is again:
In 1964, the Democratic presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson won practically the biggest landslide in American history, with 61.05 percent of the popular vote and 486 of 538 electoral college votes. In 1972, the Republican presidential candidate won a strikingly similar landslide--60.67 percent and 520 electoral college votes. In the eight years in between, the battle lines that define our culture and politics were forged in blood and fire. This is a book about how that happened, and why.
The "why" he traces to the period between that 1964 election and the subsequent one in 1968. Ronald Reagan is mentioned prominently, he won the Governor's race in California in 1966, but the book focuses on Richard Milhous Nixon (hence the title). Nixon's the one, Perlstein tells us, who identified the developing trend, rising out of the Civil Rights Movement and the ant-war protests, that middle America, whom Nixon would eventually refer to as The Silent Majority, did not like the direction in which the country was heading. There was a perception, Nixon felt, that the "liberals" and "elites" were leading in a direction that that Silent Majority weren't willing to follow. What they needed was someone to give voice to the resentments they were feeling.
Nixon was himself full of resentments: at the snobs who kept him out of the Universities he wanted to attend, at the big shots who wouldn't hire him to one of the top-tier Wall Street law firms, at the Kennedys, at the media, at the fat cat political donors who made him abase himself on national TV (the famous Checkers Speech). So he would show them all!
The second half of the 1960s was an easy time to find divides in America; Nixon exploited them expertly. And people like Abby Hoffman and Huey Newton stepped willingly up to personify everything Nixon told America it had to be afraid of. Bobby Seale exhorted African-Americans to buy "a gun a week," Jerry Rubin offered that it was the duty of the young to kill their parents. Peaceful protests gave way to violent confrontations, the Democratic Party was almost torn asunder; all of it played right into Dick Nixon's hands.
Nixon won in '68 but had to work with a Democratic-controlled Congress. Consequently a lot of progressive legislation passed over Nixon's signature and it can be argued that our 37th President did more for the environment than any predecessor or successor. He also signed into law the 26th amendment, granting 18 year olds the right to vote (though he privately feared that they would use it to defeat him).
Vietnam bedeviled him as it had LBJ before him. Nixon had actually used Vietnam as a club against Johnson, promising that his new policies would bring peace. Upon election, however, his new policies were to double down on the bombing while scaling back on ground forces in an act of political legerdemain. Not everyone was fooled by Nixon's "Vietnamization" policy and the war protests reached new heights, culminating in the Kent State Massacre. Nixon had done his work well and he actually gained in popularity as a result of Kent State. America had become an Us vs. Them nation.
Nixon's obsessions eventually led to his demise. Perlstein takes us through the whole menu of dirty tricks and presidential politicking that led to Nixon's crushing victory over McGovern and subsequent resignation in disgrace as the whole sordid story gradually was revealed. We read of Nixon's inability to enjoy his victory in '72, even on election night as it became evident that he was winning a historic landslide. He lamented not winning that 50th state (Massachusetts). He was miserable over not "coattailing" Republicans into majorities in Congress (in fact they lost two Senate seats.) And as always he was certain that the media were out to get him. In a way he was right.