Measured by its length, and by the passions it stirred, Nixon’s Shadow stretches across our history more as a shaping event–say, the Civil War–than as an individual. To find something fresh to say about this figure may seem impossible. But David Greenberg, in his first book, pulls it off. By focusing not on what Nixon did, but on what he meant–to friends and foes, journalists and historians–Greenberg has done more than provide us with a new understanding of the 37th president. He has produced a work that consistently challenges much of the received wisdom about how politics works. Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of a book on politics as bracing and original as this one. Rather than administering yet another flogging to the image-based, focus-grouped, slickly packaged world of American politics, Greenberg takes as his central thesis a more nuanced notion:

“The pictures we hold of politicians are rarely just manufactured and foisted upon us. They emerge from a dialectical or collaborative process between politicians and their audiences. We filter the images that politicians project through our own political, cultural, intellectual, professional, and psychological lenses.

Armed with this insight, Greenberg takes us on an eye-opening flight across the varied terrain of Nixon’s images, as understood by a wide range of friends, foes, and observers. To his original California boosters, Nixon was more than a political commodity, even if advertising salesman Roy Day, one of the committee of 100 that set out to recruit a congressional candidate, proclaimed, “This man is salable merchandise!” To those California business folk, suspicious of both government bureaucracy and Eastern corporate-media powers, Nixon was the common-man persona of “conservative populism.”

“Nixon pioneered the use of populist language and imagery in the service of free-market economics long before the Reagan revolution, before the much celebrated backlash against the liberal indulgences of the 1960s,”Greenberg writes. Indeed, Bill Clinton’s 1992 acceptance speech, saluting the “forgotten middle-class,” was a clear echo of the theme Nixon hit decades earlier.

It will also come as a shock to those of us who remember Nixon as the hapless foil of the testosterone-rich JFK that Nixon was hailed as a charismatic politician, full of “fight and fire,”and that this famous debate loser blew away incumbent Democrat Jerry Voorhis in their joint encounters.

When Nixon got to Washington, it was liberals who projected their fears onto him, not because of his pursuit of Alger Hiss (liberals actually supported Nixon in the main on that count), but out of more pervasive fears about how politics was changing: “The horror of Nazism and the Holocaust, and their echoes in the Red Scare, fueled a fear of the mob and a distrust of ordinary people’s capacity for rationalism in the face of propaganda and demagoguery, especially when they were yoked to technology and the mass media,” Greenberg writes.

Thus, Nixon’s famous “Checkers’speech, scorned by his foes as a maudlin exercise in emotional manipulation, was actually the first great triumph of media politics. It also represented, Greenberg argues, an early sign of an impulse with huge political consequences: the increasing distrust liberals held for “middle America,”the first signs of what would come to be called “liberal elitism–a force that still provides grist for conservative mills.

Again and again, Greenberg demonstrates how Nixon’s image was refracted through the groups that came to judge him: To New Left radicals, utterly alienated from any faith in America, Nixon was the leader out to cancel the 1972 elections, the better to establish a neo-fascist state. To his beleaguered defenders, he was the victim of a press corps and an establishment that could not abide his values, and so set out to destroy him with a Watergate caper that may well have been fashioned by his enemies.

Later in life, the rightward drift of American politics convinced many historians, and some of his one-time adversaries such as New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, that Nixon had in fact conducted a liberal presidency in areas such as race and the environment. And just as Greenberg earlier warned the legion of psycho-biographers not to interpret political disagreement as proof of a psychological defect, he warns against any unified field theory of Nixon based simply on his policy stands.

“Understanding a President’s importance required reaching beyond policy to appreciate the feelings and reactions he inspired from the people he led. Those feelings and reactions are what invest a public figure with meaning, and meaning is what we historians are trying to find.”

Apart from his provocative–and, to my mind, largely convincing –thesis, Greenberg offers treats at almost every turn. In talking about the 1968 presidential campaign, famed for the media manipulation detailed by Joe McGinniss in his The Selling of the President, Greenberg notes that Nixon’s lead over Humphrey steadily diminished until it almost disappeared. So it is “just possible the conclusion to be drawn from [McGinniss’s book] was that Nixon’s image-making didn’t work.”And in his first year in office, Nixon’s press coverage was on the whole favorable.

It was, he writes, some of Nixon’s old hands–like one-time counsel Len Garment–who scorned his efforts at rehabilitation, arguing that Nixon as portrayed by acolyte Monica Crowley was Nixon “at his worst–craven, pompous, vain, vindictive, and often unforgivably silly.”

Because David Greenberg has pushed aside the obvious, because he has mined not just historical records but also books, films, TV sketches, and other artifacts of popular culture, he has produced a strikingly compelling portrait of one of American politics’ most fascinating figures. In the process, he has shaped a treasure trove of insights about how politics really works. This is not just the debut of a highly promising thinker, but also a work that has already fulfilled that promise.