Book Reviews -- the Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon: The Media's Effect on Collective Memory by Thomas J. Johnson

Article excerpt

Johnson, Thomas J. The Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon: The Media's Effect on Collective Memory. New York: Garland, 1995. 249 pp. $68.

Are generational attitudes predictable phenomena? Do those who grew up in the Depression hold different values from those who matured during the turbulent 1960s? Do voters who formed the Roosevelt coalition tend to vote Democratic even today? Was the New Deal a product of a generation of idealistic young people who reached adulthood during the Progressive era, but who matured later? These questions have been addressed qualitatively by historians with mixed results.

Now comes Thomas J. Johnson, who assisted Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang of the University of Washington in their 1986 ground-breaking analysis of the Nixon years. In this latest book, Johnson used statistical analysis from a selected audience sample to examine whether the media had any effect on the Nixon comeback in popularity in his later years and whether collective memory has had an impact upon Nixon's reputation.

Johnson concludes that Nixon was remembered more as a conniver than a tough statesman by all generations; memory of events in Nixon's early years before Watergate was a weak predictor of how he was viewed later; those who watched Watergate unfold on television judged Nixon more harshly; experiencing events directly through the media was a predictor as to whether Nixon would be closely associated with Watergate in memory; and finally, and most telling, political ideology, not memory or media, was the strongest predictor as to how Nixon was remembered.

This is a new and interesting approach to the Nixon years. Watergate analyses will be prevalent in the next decade because of the one-generation-after time frame when the most useful history is written. The implications are immense. If Johnson were able to show a distinct difference in attitude between the baby-boomers and other generations toward Watergate and Nixon, this would help to explain the cynicism that has come to dominate politics today as the baby-boomers rule the world. Unfortunately, his findings are not that definitive, but they begin to address an important question.

Johnson is a disciplined researcher. His book is heavily weighted with charts, tables, endnotes, and an exhaustive bibliography. …