In the November/December 2014 issue of the Washington Monthly, Ed Kilgore has a review of Rick Perlstein’s latest book: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.
The book is the third in a trilogy. Perlstein began his treatment of the Conservative Movement with his breakout 2001 book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. He followed that up, in 2008, with the well-researched and comprehensive Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
Despite approaching The Invisible Bridge with some trepidation, concerned that the main time period involved, the 1970s, would not be treated with the seriousness that it deserves as the progenitor of the world we live in today, Kilgore seems to have been relieved on that score. His review is broadly positive.
With all the effort that has gone into building up Ronald Reagan’s image as a heroic and transformative president, perhaps the most intriguing thing about his life during the 1970’s is to discover who he was and what he acted like prior to all the burnishings and embellishments of the Mighty Right-Wing Wurlitzer. One notable feature of Reagan in the 1970’s was his Lynyrd Skynyrd-like attitude to the Watergate scandal.
Again and again, Perlstein describes pundits and even friends and admirers shaking their heads in dismay at Reagan’s steady refusal to take Watergate—either the formal scandal or the broader set of Nixonian deceptions and schemes the term came to encompass—seriously. He had, they all thought, doomed himself as a national political figure.
There could be more than one reason to not particularly care about Nixon’s sins, apathy being one of the most obvious causes, overriding admiration for the man being another. For Kilgore, though, the explanation is more sinister.
One might admire the progressive (if highly opportunistic) impulses of the Nixon presidency, such as wage and price controls, the Clean Air and Water Acts, the opening to China, and détente with the Soviet Union, even while deploring his dark side. But Reagan seemed to embrace that dark side, which coincided with Nixon’s emotional connections with the conservative movement—the hippie and welfare baiting, the excoriation of liberal elites, and, most of all, the inflation of a jingoistic POW/MIA cult to whitewash the disastrous and tawdry end of the Vietnam War into “peace with honor.”
Perlstein sees a commonality between the humble upbringings of Nixon and Reagan that helps explain their adult personalities. What in Nixon expressed itself as ressentiment became something still dark but more optimistic in Reagan.
The Invisible Bridge argues that Reagan’s chaotic childhood, full of frustrations and fears, helped make him what Perlstein calls an “athlete of the imagination.” He could effortlessly invent stories of a perfect America because he had first reinvented his own life to fit the heroic models he found in sports and popular literature.
This ability to see America through rose-colored glasses was the key element that allowed Reagan to pick up Nixon’s banner and get the power to run with it.
Despite his disappointment that Perlstein did not speculate about how history would be different if the Republicans had nominated Reagan in 1976, Kilgore’s review will make you want to read the book.
In general, The Invisible Bridge is even more compulsively readable than the previous two volumes in the series; his account of the 1976 Republican National Convention—the last convention in which there was serious doubt about the outcome—is as good as his recounting in Nixonland of the more famous and lurid 1968 Democratic convention. Better yet, he accurately compares Reagan’s speech at the very end of the GOP convention to Martin Luther King Sr.’s powerful benediction at the Democratic event. King was symbolically healing the ancient wounds of southern Democrats, while Reagan was prophesying the future conquest of the GOP by the conservative movement. Both moments were riveting to anyone observing them at the time. Or perhaps you just had to be Rick Perlstein, obsessively reading and watching every moment of that year’s reporting and analysis, and rethinking what it all meant.
The history of the rise of the Conservative Movement is compelling in its own right, but it should be studied by progressives for more than just reading pleasure. We’re stuck with these people now, so we better make sure that we understand them.
While we’re at it, we might just pick up a few lessons on how to change a political party from within.