This book review is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
By Rick Perlstein
880 pp. Simon & Schuster $37.50
In 1959, as the Cold War heated up and the economy cooled down, President Dwight Eisenhower received a letter from World War II veteran Robert J. Biggs. Tired of hearing the president explain the complexities of the modern world, Biggs begged Eisenhower to lead the nation with firm assertions rather than “hedging” and “uncertainty.” The former general responded that such guidance by authority was imperative in a military operation but fatal in a democracy. Self-government demanded that men reject easy answers and instead carefully weigh the often contradictory facts about great issues facing the nation.
Just as Eisenhower did, Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, illuminates the deadly attraction of certainty in an era of insecurity. Taking more than 800 pages to cover only three years, Perlstein produces an exhaustive and kaleidoscopic picture of what it felt like to be an American from early 1973 when the prisoners of war began coming home from Vietnam to Ronald Reagan’s failed effort to capture the Republican presidential nomination in August 1976.
What emerges from these pages is a society convulsed. The book begins as POWs who have dreamed of their traditional families return to wives who believe in free love. One development after another undermined the sense of stability: inflation that busted budgets so badly the government recommended eating cow brains; the kidnapping of beloved heiress Patty Hearst and her resurrection as a terrorist named Tania; and the oil embargo that drove gas prices high enough to sour Americans’ love affair with big cars. Spellbound moviegoers watched The Exorcist and Jaws, films that inspired terror through the swift and deadly strike of the unknown. And, of course, there was Watergate, destroying faith in the government and dividing the country as Nixon tried to defend himself by pushing Americans apart, building support by creating common enemies, emphasizing differences rather than similarities.
Presidential candidate Reagan campaigning in 1976.
With Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford assumed the leadership of Americans primed to distrust the government and each other. Perlstein recounts the strife of that era, from Boston, where the crisis over busing children to integrated schools pitted working-class whites against African Americans and Boston’s elite, to West Virginia, where rural Christians fought against the textbooks that brought secular values and multiculturalism into their traditional culture. Inflation and interest rates were at record highs; unemployment rose, while the housing and stock markets stagnated. As Americans watched traditional certainties dissolve, Perlstein argues, “conservative-minded citizens everywhere felt ignored, patronized, dispossessed of the authority that was rightfully theirs.” The middle-of-the-road competence and matter-of-fact secularism of President Ford, Perlstein claims, alienated them further.
Into this chaos stepped Ronald Reagan, a man whose childhood had taught him to overwrite disorder with fantasy. His father Jack was a heavy-drinking shoe salesman; his mother Nelle a religious paragon who was so dedicated to rescuing needy souls that she ignored her own children. The family moved constantly, its boundaries shifting as Nelle tried to make ends meet by taking in boarders. Ronald, the shy younger brother in a dysfunctional family, coped with neglect, hunger, and violence by avoiding attention and immersing himself in the boys’ adventure books of his era. These formulaic books centered on a fatherless boy reared in humble circumstances, a youngster marked for a greatness revealed at the book’s end when all the trials of the boy’s childhood became steps to a triumphant destiny. Inspired to reshape his own world into one like that of an adventure story, young “Dutch,” as he was nicknamed, created his own version of reality. In his world, melodramatic traumas turned into glorious triumphs just in the nick of time; everything always worked out in the end so long as the hero kept faith. Dutch, Perlstein explains, told stories.
Reagan used his sunny optimism first to invent himself as a heroic lifeguard who saved an astonishing number of lives (although no one seemed to have trouble in the water when the other lifeguards were on duty), then to save the day on the football field. He went on to an acting career in 1937, then to the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, and finally to become a spokesman for General Electric. In each of his incarnations, he performed as if he were acting out a simple melodrama with a happy ending. Always there were heroes and villains; always the story line was simple and the proper outcome clear.
Reagan turned his talent for storytelling to politics during his years working for GE. Backed by a corporation obsessed with its public image, he sold the idea that business leaders advanced civilization. In Reagan’s telling, bolstered with statistics and anecdotes he made up on the spot, the heroes were corporate leaders standing firm against grasping workers who were trying to impose communism on America. In the 1950s, business regulation and spending on public social programs—housing, education, rural electrification—were popular. But Reagan saw them as wealth redistribution, and if that redistribution didn’t stop, people would wake up one day to find they had destroyed the capitalism that was the genius of America. Reagan had begun his adult life as a Democrat, but by 1960 he was firmly on the far right.
In 1964, Reagan cast his lot with archconservative Barry Goldwater, launching his own political career with a televised speech urging voters to choose the reactionary candidate who offered a clear view of a world divided between good guys and communists. Although Americans resoundingly rejected Goldwater, Reagan’s message resonated in California, and to the astonishment of pundits who had dismissed him, voters there elected Reagan governor in 1966.
Reagan’s governance was practical—he raised taxes and spending repeatedly and compromised as necessary—but he continued to tell voters a clear-cut story of villains to be thwarted and heroes who would win in the end. He harped on the idea that grasping government bureaucrats wanted to raise taxes to steal the money of hard-working Americans and redistribute it to welfare moochers. When his own administration increased the budget or approved the nation’s most liberal abortion law, he spun the facts to serve his story line: Entrenched interests had forced him into positions he opposed.
Perlstein explains how Reagan’s power grew as he took his talent for fantasy into the Watergate era, blithely refusing to acknowledge that Nixon might have done anything wrong. Repeatedly, he dismissed the mounting evidence as an unfounded rumor about a minor affair “blown out of proportion.” Pundits and members of his own entourage thought Reagan was out of touch, only to watch in astonishment as crowds cheered wildly for his storybook plotlines in which American leaders were good, and good always triumphed over evil. In 1976, the man who simply refused to acknowledge the reality of Watergate, the gravest constitutional crisis of the 20th century, was a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination, and his star was on the rise.
That Reagan made up his own reality is well established; Perlstein’s contribution is to tie Reagan’s fantastic tales to the larger story of the modern American conservative movement. He began this exploration in his 2001 Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, which traced the rise of a divisive conservatism to the 1964 Goldwater campaign. While an electoral debacle, that campaign gave political voice and organizational tools to an activist minority that hated the post–World War II consensus. Americans in that era generally believed that government activism promoted widespread economic success, but conservatives, backed by businessmen who loathed government regulation and taxes, undertook to destroy that accord. Perlstein recounted the growing power of this minority in his 2008 Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Nixon, he argued, won power by dividing a previously united American society into Us and Them, turning the inchoate anger of conservatives into a political platform. The Invisible Bridge carries the story of American conservatism forward to the rise of Reagan in the years from Watergate to the 1976 Republican convention.
This is a rip-roaring chronicle, but it engages more than informs. It promises to show how Americans redefined patriotism in the 1970s as those willing to reflect critically on American power and use it responsibly lost control of the nation to those who refused to question authority and backed American leaders in a tautological belief that they must be right because they were American leaders. But Perlstein’s argument fails to provide an adequate explanation; why this change occurred is unclear. Equally unclear is why Americans chose Reagan’s fallacies over facts; Perlstein simply chronicles that they did. His painstaking portrait of the troubles of the era suggests that it was chaos that spurred voters to choose Reagan’s simplistic fantasy. But the 1970s were not the only tumultuous period in American history. The 1890s and the 1930s were at least as troubled, and each produced a population that recoiled from political storytelling and instead demanded fact-based politics.
Why did Americans gravitate toward a politician who made his own reality? Perlstein took the title of The Invisible Bridge from advice that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave to Richard Nixon. “If the people believe there is an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river out there,” Khrushchev told Nixon. “You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Eisenhower resisted replacing a complicated reality with easy certainties. The Invisible Bridge tells how less honorable men, nursing their own psychological wounds and eager for power, turned Eisenhower’s warning, that easy answers were dangerously attractive, into a prescription for political triumph.