Rick Perlstein prefaces his book “Nixonland” by noting that in 1964 Lyndon Johnson, the liberal Democrat, won one of the biggest landslides in American history. Eight years later, Richard Nixon, the conservative Republican, won a similar landslide. What had happened in the intervening years? Quite a bit, actually — and some of it is happening right now. Hillary Clinton, take note.
Perlstein begins with the Watts riots of 1965. This was hardly the nation’s first urban unrest, but it was the first major riot televised live. KTLA’s novel helicopter, the so-called “telecopter,” could go where the mobile units of other TV stations — turned back by rock-throwers — could not. The telecopter hovered over Watts, transmitting pictures that both transfixed and horrified the nation. Richard Nixon, the champion of law and order, was on his way.
The assassination of Martin Luther King in the spring of 1968 triggered even more riots — Washington, Baltimore, Chicago and so on. At the same time, the anti-Vietnam War movement was building. It, too, produced urban unrest. These were mostly peaceful demonstrations, but an unruly element seemed always to be present. Cars were burned. Stores looted. Cops stoned. As a reporter, I covered some of those riots and many of the anti-war demonstrations. To this day, I have an inordinate respect for tear gas.
I would be reckless to suggest that we are witnessing a repeat of that era. At least 34 people died in Watts, 26 in Newark (1967) and more in other cities. Swaths of the inner city were incinerated; the middle class of both races fled. Institutions and role models vanished. Some of the cities have recovered — some only partially — but as Christopher Caldwell pointed out in The Wall Street Journal, in places like Washington, recovery has meant gentrification — whites replacing blacks.
Still, this past year alone, riots have occurred in Ferguson, Mo., and now Baltimore. At the same time, supportive demonstrations have taken place in many cities — traffic snarled, stores closed and, in some instances, police officers attacked.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted just last week found that 96 percent of respondents said it’s likely there would be additional racial disturbances this summer. If there is indeed wisdom in crowds, we are in for a very hot summer.
Already, the sadly predictable racial polarization is setting in. The same poll found that while 60 percent of blacks said the disturbances reflected “long-standing frustrations about police mistreatment of African-Americans,” 58 percent of whites flat-out disagreed. They said the rioters were merely using police misconduct as an excuse to loot. As for the 32 percent of whites who agreed with most black respondents, I would guess they’re all largely left of center and the sort of voters who catapulted Bill de Blasio into New York’s city hall. His platform was distinctly anti-police.
But de Blasio is both ambitious and clever. Of late, he has been the police department’s staunchest supporter. When New York cops arrested 143 people marching to protest the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, the mayor backed the cops all the way. He knows that the one issue that can keep him from a second term is precisely what propelled Richard Nixon into the presidency — law and order.
If de Blasio is the bellwether, Hillary Clinton is the laggard. The Baltimore unrest caused her to make her first major policy speech of her campaign. She lamented America’s hideous incarceration rate, but she said nothing about the high incidence of criminality among young black men, surely a factor. The support she is seeking on the Democratic left would not have appreciated such intellectual honesty.
If real estate is about location, location, location, then politics is all timing, timing, timing. If Clinton had issued her statement a year ago, heads all around would have nodded. But she issued it as stores were being looted in Baltimore and just before yet another New York cop — the fifth this year — was shot. (He has since died.) What she had to say about excessive incarceration is right, but her timing may be wrong.
In contrast to Clinton, the battalion of GOP presidential hopefuls did not react to the events in Baltimore with anything like a major address. Some condemned Gray’s death but, more forcefully, the rioters. This, as either Yogi Berra or Karl Marx might have said, is history doing a deja vu all over again.
We might be heading back to Nixonland.
Richard Cohen is a nationally syndicated columnist.