And yet one doesn’t have to excuse Nixon’s many sins to wonder whether his mix of ruthlessness, self-interest, and low cunning might have been preferable to some of the alternatives on offer. Perlstein depicts a country on the edge of a civil war—a nation in which columnists openly speculated that America might embrace a de Gaulle–style man on horseback, or find a “President Verwoerd” (the architect of South African apartheid) to install in the Oval Office. It was a political moment when the old order could no longer govern, and the new order wasn’t ready. The kids who screamed for Goldwater and McGovern would grow up to be responsible Reaganites and Clintonians, but back then they had only idealism, not experience, and Nixonland is an 800-page testament to the dangers of idealism run amok.
In this climate, the voters didn’t choose Nixon over some neoconservative or neoliberal FDR; no such figure was available. They chose Nixon over an exhausted establishment on the one hand—nobody seems more hapless in Nixonland than figures like Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller—and the fantasy politics of left and right on the other. They chose Nixon over the abyss.
more from The Atlantic Monthly here.