The Tie That Binds

How Ronald Reagan, the sunniest president in recent memory, cemented the Republican Party to the dark vision of Richard Nixon.

It’s central to the nature of “contemporary” (as defined by “in living memory”) history that reactions to it will vary according to one’s personal experiences. So I approached writer Rick Perlstein’s third volume in his history of the American conservative movement, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, with curiosity not unmixed with some trepidation. As someone who came of age during the period Perlstein writes about (undergrad, law school), from 1973 through 1976, I never bought into the conventional wisdom that the 1970s were a formless slough between the happenin’ ’60s and ’80s. Now along comes Perlstein (born, I might add, in 1969), and he confirms that the ’70s were years of social, cultural, and political chaos that in many respects formed the world in which we live today.

Nov14-Perlstein-Books
The Invisible Bridge
by Rick Perlstein
Simon Schuster, 880 pp.

The Invisible Bridge, like its predecessor Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, addresses a great puzzle of political history. How was it, the earlier book asks, that the apparent liberal consensus reflected in Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 landslide victory ended so very quickly? The Invisible Bridge similarly explores why Richard Nixon’s forced resignation, followed by the “Watergate Election” of 1974, gave way to an era dominated by Nixon’s most obdurate defender, Ronald Reagan. And even as Nixonland suggested that the 1964 “consensus” disguised powerful fault lines in the New Deal/Great Society coalition that Nixon so skillfully exploited, this latest volume suggests that Reagan, even more skillfully, encouraged Americans to deny the evidence of their own eyes and ears and reimagine their country as the “shining city on the hill”—a vision threatened only by self-doubt and excessive domestic government.

There’s another important parallel between the two books. Nixonland recounted its protagonist’s searing college experience as part of an outsider group that Perlstein sees as crucial to his determination to mobilize a “silent majority” against “liberal elites.” To Nixon these elites were contemptuous of bourgeois values (including patriotism) and were in cahoots with a minority underclass constituency dependent on government. 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. Interestingly, Perlstein describes Reagan’s Hollywood career as less a formative experience than a largely disappointing intermediate period between his rise from obscurity to a Des Moines sportscasting gig and his later roles as a corporate and then political pitchman. Like Nixon, Reagan had spent a lifetime preparing for whatever destiny would place in his path.

Much of The Invisible Bridge is devoted to the advent of that destiny in the mid-1970s. 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. 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.” Reagan’s political genius was to convert Nixon’s saturnine and ultimately self-defeating vision of an America divided into a compelling (if no less divisive) narrative. It was a narrative that inspired reactionaries who were unwilling to accept Nixon’s or America’s sins, and seduced a bored mainstream media looking for a new story line. Though Perlstein never quite puts it this way, it seems that Reagan accomplished the “positive polarization” that Spiro Agnew had announced as his goal shortly before he was caught taking cash payoffs from Maryland highway contractors in brown paper bags in the White House. That Agnew and then Nixon had turned out, after all, to be crooks left millions of political orphans, and at nearly the perfect time along came Ronald Reagan to adopt them.

There is one shortcoming of the book—which I hope Perlstein will address in the fourth and final volume, which is supposed to carry the story through to Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. What would have happened had Republicans nominated Reagan in 1976, as they very nearly did? It’s hard to imagine Reagan defeating Jimmy Carter that year, given Carter’s powerful southern and evangelical base, which would have trumped Reagan’s natural area of strength. Gerald Ford came close to upsetting Carter in no small part by battening on liberal and secular doubts about the Democratic nominee (he ran ahead of Nixon ’72 in some Yankee territory); Reagan would not likely have duplicated that feat. Republican elites would have decisively written off Reagan in 1980 in those circumstances, and movement conservatives might have moved on as well, to Phil Crane or John Connally or Bob Dole or even George H. W. Bush, who was running as a born-again conservative. In any event, Carter’s exceptionally poor public standing in 1980 would have likely rewarded just about any credible Republican nominee with a general election victory, and the political Myth of Ronald Reagan, which exerts so powerful an effect on Republicans even today, would have never developed.

One of the reasons the first book in this series, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was such an instant hit is that it appeared on bookshelves in 2001, just after Republicans had won the ugly street fight that was the 2000 election. It appealed to progressive readers who longed for a Democratic Party that was as aggressive and as “principled” as the Goldwater movement. In Nixonland, Perlstein was more direct in criticizing the New Politics strain of liberalism associated with George McGovern as an abandonment of the New Deal coalition. And though few observers think of McGovern and Bill Clinton as being similar (though the latter worked in the former’s presidential campaign), Perlstein regards both as unnecessarily surrendering crucial ground to the GOP on economic policy and the role of government. It may be why Perlstein seems ready to do another installment of political history books—an alternative history of the Democratic Party.

In The Invisible Bridge, the author connects these dots by focusing on the heterodox economic and fiscal policies of the Watergate Class of 1974, pols like Gary Hart and Jerry Brown who are usually remembered as left-bent “reformers” but whom Perlstein regards as co-conspirators with the conservative movement in sowing contempt for government and the New Deal, and as progenitors of the Clintonian New Democrats.

Perhaps the key to Perlstein’s revisionist impulses is the fact that he is by profession a journalist, not an academic historian. And so he naturally views contemporary history through the eyes of contemporary journalists and cannot help noting how often they have proved to be grievously, even hilariously, wrong. Significant segments of The Invisible Bridge are devoted to forgotten elements of the ’70s edition of the New Right, especially textbook rebels in West Virginia and anti-busing activists in South Boston, mostly, it appears, to mock the dismissive attitudes of the liberal media of the time. And the book ends with a quote from the New York Times suggesting that Reagan would be too old to run for president again in 1980.

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.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.