While watching the acclaimed film Frost/Nixon on video, I was struck by how little of those historic events I recalled, even though I had lived through them. I had no memory of the famous interviews; certainly didn’t watch them on television at the time. (“The kids were little,” my wife suggested. “We were too busy changing diapers.”) I decided to remedy my memory lapse by picking up Rick Perlstein’s recent book, Nixonland (Simon & Schuster), and suddenly I was asail on a sea of nostalgia.
The 1960s reappeared in all their confusion (I am tempted to say “like an acid flashback,” but of course I never inhaled): the peace marches, the assassinations, the riots, the show trials. And, central to it all, that ghastly man Nixon. Then I understood why I did not remember his conversations with Frost. By the time they aired on television, in 1977, I had turned away in disgust from the world of U.S. politics and was doing my best not to pay attention. While Nixonland is full of incident, the reader must wade through a lot of bad prose to find it.
Perlstein, a contributor to Newsweek magazine, suffers from a malady common to many journalists who write books: he thinks that telling a story is just a matter of lining up the facts in chronological order. As a result, he is a reliable chronicler of the era, but a hopeless guide. His book feels like he has just emptied his notebooks onto the blank page. My attempt to stay interested in spite of this implacable “one damn thing after another” finally failed round about 1970. But Nixonland will remain on the shelf as a useful reference to the period and a reminder, if I need one, of just how crazy America went in the ’60s.
As a general rule I avoid reading political pamphlets, but Michael Ignatieff, the leader of Canada’s Liberal Party and our would-be prime minister, claims that his latest book, True Patriot Love (Viking Canada), is nothing of the sort and I thought I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. I shouldn’t have. Ignatieff is an elegant writer who has produced several admirable books, but this time his background as scholar and intellectual is overcome by his obvious desire to ingratiate himself with the voting public. The title recalls—inadvertently, I assume—Samuel Johnson’s observation that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Ignatieff is no scoundrel, but he does seem to be someone who is trying too hard to be liked.
A mixture of superficial family history and trite homilies about Canada, True Patriot Love feels like it began life as a serious project that was subverted by the author’s need to establish his bona fides as a caring Canadian. “I may have spent most of my adult life living outside the country,” he seems to be saying, “but with such an impressive family tree how can I be anything else but 100 percent Canuck?” It is an unusual approach to politics: if you can’t vote for me, vote for my relatives.
The most entertaining part of the book is watching Ignatieff turn inside out trying to distance himself from his curmudgeonly Uncle George, a.k.a. George Grant, author of the classic Lament for a Nation. Grant’s fatalistic views about the death of a distinct Canadian identity are no longer fashionable, at least in the precincts of the Liberal Party, and so Ignatieff must disown them. Grant was wrong, his nephew writes. And who has proved him wrong? Why, the Liberal Party, of course, whose wise policies (bilingualism, the flag, multiculturalism, Expo 67, to name just a few) rescued Canada from doomsayers like his uncle. Eventually the voters will decide for themselves whether they agree with Ignatieff’s version of history, or whether, as the Tories would prefer, they resent being preached at by someone whose adult life until recently was spent in the service of other goals in other places.
Meanwhile, I can’t think that his latest book will win him many converts.