Boston Review August 1, 2014
Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, 2014).
Our political era, as most of us understand it, starts in 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan is the opening shot, the first of the three massive conservative backlashes (1994 and 2010 are the others) that have irretrievably shaped our sense of political possibility.
That is not how we see our economic history, though: there it is the middle years of the 1970s that mark the turning point when median wages stopped their steady postwar rise, Keynesian solutions failed, productivity stalled, and the gains of the wealthy began to take off. Culturally, too, an hour listening to any classic rock radio station or watching a cable rerun network is a reminder that the mid-’70s are very much part of our own world.
The “invisible bridge” in the title of Rick Perlstein’s new book reconnects the politics of the early and mid 1970s to the Reagan era, and thereby to the present. The tawdry end of Richard Nixon and the emergence of Reagan on the national stage only seem like wholly different phenomena—because Nixon was hardly a movement conservative, except when that pose was useful to him; because Reagan challenged Nixon’s successor and pardoner; and because their personalities seemed so wildly at variance, with one deeply engaged in dark conspiracies, the other nodding affably.
But Perlstein, among other achievements, draws a straight line from the “Final Days” to morning in America, demonstrating that Reagan was as unflinching a defender of Nixon as was an oddball like Rabbi Baruch Korff. The manipulation of patriotic imagery and cultural division that we associate with Reagan (placing “heroes” in the audience at the State of the Union address, for example) was merely an evolution on a political theme developed by Nixon and extended by Ford. For instance, Perlstein’s brilliant opening chapter reveals in deep detail the fabrication underlying the dramatic return of American prisoners of war from Vietnam and the creation of the category of the “Missing in Action,” even though there was no evidence that American soldiers were still alive in Vietnam after the end of the war. Both the POW return and the MIA fiction were contrived mostly as a distraction from the far more shocking conditions in South Vietnamese prison camps, a delusion that remained prevalent until a commission led by Senators John McCain and John Kerry finally brought it to an end in 1993. The election of 1980 was a restoration, not a revolution.
Although each of his three books is structured around an individual politician, Perlstein’s subject is always political movements and political culture. “Biography doesn’t much interest me,” Perlstein wrote in The Baffler in 2012. “Powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.” His first book, Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, became an important point of reference for liberals when it appeared in 2001, and it remains so. In those uncertain moments after the end of the chaotic, timid Clinton administration, and as the tragedy of the Bush years was coming into sight, Before the Storm taught us that winning elections is not always the main goal and that a campaign that ends in a historic loss, but builds the foundations of a coherent and passionate ideological movement, can achieve lasting change, visible only years later. The “fighting Dem” bloggers of the Bush years read Storm as a call to action, but it was also a brilliant, tight history of the early figures in the conservative movement and the Republican establishment’s clumsy struggle to hold them at bay.
Where Goldwater hung in the background of Storm, Perlstein put his protagonist at the center of Nixonland (2008), casting American politics during the upheavals of the late 1960s through the lens of Nixon’s own psychological torments, rooted in his collegiate resentment of the “Franklins”—the smug, elite student society at Whittier College—and his own club, the square and aspiring “Orthogonians.” It is not so much that Nixon imposed his view of the world on the nation; rather, he provided an explanation that connected perfectly to the breakdown of the late 1960s, and resonated particularly with a resentful white working class.
The Invisible Bridge is a more complex book than either of its predecessors. Perlstein describes it as an account of the events that led to Reagan coming within a hair’s breadth of toppling Ford at the Republican convention in 1976, a victory-in-defeat that is surely as consequential to the modern conservative ascendancy as Goldwater’s campaign. But the first glimmers of a draft-Reagan campaign don’t appear until almost the 500th page of this 800-page book.
Along the way to the showdown in Kansas City—the last nominating convention, of either major party, whose result was not certain on the first day—is a political history of the middle years of the 1970s, focusing on the Watergate investigations, the subsequent exposés of the CIA, and the many other collapses of trust that opened the door to outsiders such as Jimmy Carter and Reagan. Perlstein provides a rough and cluttered cultural history of the period, featuring phenomena such as Wacky Packages (trading cards and stickers with punning names of consumer products) that will make older Gen X-ers want to rummage through the boxes in their parents’ attics.
Woven through an otherwise chronological narrative of 1973–1976 is a serviceable but unnecessary biography of Reagan, surely the least interesting of the last thirteen men elected to the presidency. Perlstein draws out less well-known aspects of Reagan’s background, particularly the role of Lemuel Boulware, who as General Electric’s vice president of labor and community relations enlisted Reagan to make speeches for the company espousing the particular brand of free-market and anti-labor ideology, with a thin patina of social conservatism, that is still the dominant strain in official conservatism. Reagan’s flip, in his mid-forties, from modest anti-Communist liberalism to the far right was made possible by Boulwarism, Perlstein says, “a right-wing politics that imagined no necessity for class conflict at all” because business would take care of workers’ needs. That matched Reagan’s sense of himself—a man at once above conflict and gleefully sowing it.
Following the model he employed in Nixonland, Perlstein half-heartedly uses a fragment of the Reagan biography as the interpretive lens for the entire half-decade: when he was a high school lifeguard, Reagan apparently overstated his life-saving feats, and as an adult, Perlstein says, he adopted the posture of the “rescuer” in the face of Watergate, the CIA revelations, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and all the other confusion, chaos, and distrust.
Eh, maybe. Not only is this a banal interpretation of both the era and of Reagan, but it also rests too much agency in Reagan, the individual, when the whole point of the Perlstein project is to trace the lines of the conservative counterrevolution, undistracted by the charms and psychodrama of its front men.
The book works best when it does exactly that, just as the 1976 Reagan campaign took off when it, too, stopped focusing on the man at the top of the ticket. Reagan had been losing in the early primaries, during which the wily but not-quite-conservative campaign manager John Sears had been trying to sell him as an experienced governor and non-scary potential president. Heading into the North Carolina primary, Senator Jesse Helms and his lieutenant Tom Ellis, using the army of direct-mail donors and activists assembled by Helms’s National Congressional Club, picked up the campaign and encouraged Reagan to talk solely about hot-button conservative issues of the moment, such as the threat of détente with the Soviet Union and the proposed Panama Canal treaties. Victory in North Carolina re-launched the conservative ascendancy. In a sense the movement—in the form of its issues and its direct-mail operations—was more successful than the man.
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A more interesting interpretation of the mid-’70s and their relevance emerges from the less Reagan-centric narrative, from the “demand side” of politics, and from the torrent of anecdotes, quotes, movie summaries, and clips that make up the bulk of the book. But this interpretation is never stated as explicitly as the Reagan-as-rescuer trope. It goes something like this: a large segment of the white population of the United States, something like Nixon’s “silent majority,” was deeply unsettled by the social and political changes of the late 1960s and ’70s, and “felt ignored, patronized . . . by arrogant liberalism,” as Perlstein puts it. He is largely respectful toward these people, who include the first wave of school textbook activists—led by a Texas couple who asked reporters to call them only by the husband’s name, “the Mel Gablers”—bussing foes in Boston, and grassroots opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Panama Canal treaties. That respect does not extend to Reagan or to elite conservative activists, particularly figures who occupy both the Nixon and Reagan machines, such as Pat Buchanan, who rather than creating a politics that could hear and address those anxieties, exploited them and deepened the divide—for power and often just for money.
Almost complicit in the rise of the right—and this is where Perlstein’s grand theory of politics gets interesting—are Democrats and liberals, particularly the reformist generation of the “Class of ’74” congressional Democrats and the 1976 Democratic presidential candidates, who get a surprising amount of attention in a book ostensibly about the Republican contest. Perlstein twice quotes Gary Hart, elected to the Senate in 1974, declaring, “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” But Humphrey himself, the former vice president then back in the Senate and leading the push for a full-employment act, appears only fleetingly, as an undeclared 1976 candidate. Most of the other 1976 contenders—particularly the duplicitous Jimmy Carter; sanctimonious, shallow Frank Church; and quasi-conservative bullshit artist Jerry Brown—are regarded much as Perlstein sees Barack Obama: too naïve about the right, uninterested in economic justice, too eager to compromise and to distance themselves from the historical legacy of FDR-LBJ-Humphrey liberalism. As Perlstein sees it, the angry white working class is as poorly served by posers and spinners such as Hart as by the professional dividers on the right.
This is a cold dismissal of a moment that is as central to the history of liberalism as of conservatism. Perlstein regards the Class of ’74 Democrats as merely arrogant, high-minded reformers who kicked out old populists such as House Banking Committee chairman Wright Patman. No doubt ’70s reformist liberalism—a tradition that can be traced forward to the Obama administration—had profound blind spots, particularly to the role of political machines in building support and community for working-class families. But its effort to open up Congress had a deep history, going back to the 1950s. Immovable committee chairs such as Patman (though he was far from the worst) were progressive on a few dimensions, but on others—especially civil rights, the only issue that mattered—had posed barriers for decades. Opening up Congress ultimately led to a period of legislative entrepreneurship that included many of the foundations of modern government: environmental and workplace safety regulations, huge expansion of health coverage culminating in the Affordable Care Act, even passage of Humphrey’s Full Employment Act, none of which would have been possible had the old Southern lions remained on their thrones.
Perlstein skips over this context, in this and other instances, simply because, with the exceptions of the Reagan biography and the opening set piece on the POW-MIA scam, his tale relies entirely on the immediacy of the press. If there were a soundtrack to this book, it would be the spins and clicks of an old microfilm machine, zipping, slowing, and pausing through archives of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentineland other mid-sized newspapers, picking up quotes, images, long-forgotten anecdotes, ads for wig shops or “golden age” pornographic movies.
Indeed, you come away from the book feeling the way you would after a long afternoon in the library reading those microfilms—you might find what you were looking for, but much more as well, and you’ll get a little fuzzy-headed in the process. None of Perlstein’s material is uninteresting; there is just too much of it. There is a great book within The Invisible Bridge, but it would be about 500 pages long, the length of Before the Storm. It is about the structure and strength of the conservative movement, the continuities between Nixon’s politics and Reagan’s, the failure of liberals and Democrats (and organized labor, whose disintegration during the decade goes mostly unmentioned) to speak to the economic and cultural panic of the decade. The Invisible Bridge is too difficult to get through, making it unlikely to achieve the audience or influence of its predecessor.
It is Perlstein’s misfortune that he doesn’t appear to have had the kind of editor who could not only cut the scrapbook clutter, but also keep the story governed by Perlstein’s own maxim: “Biography doesn’t much interest me.” The “demand-side” of politics is the story here, and it is up to the patient reader to find it.
Mark Schmitt is Director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation and former executive editor of The American Prospect.