Book Reviews

A Bridge Too Far

Rick Perlstein’s account of Ronald Reagan’s rise acknowledges his popularity, but doesn’t take the reasons behind it seriously enough.

By Jacob Weisberg

Tagged conservatism

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan By Rick Perlstein • Simon & Schuster • 2014 • 810 pages • $37.50

As the Watergate scandal metastasized through the summer of 1973, California’s Republican governor stood by his President. Ronald Reagan described the Ervin Committee hearings as a “lynching” and a “witch hunt.” When The Washington Post reported that Reagan had been among those secretly bugged in the Oval Office, he joked that any recordings surely “made me sound pretty good.” He charged the “Eastern press establishment” with bias and accused Democrats of playing politics. He interpreted John Dean’s incriminating remarks on the Watergate tapes as exonerating Nixon instead. At the eleventh hour, Reagan suggested that the President be given a chance to go before Congress and explain himself. When the resignation finally came, Reagan called it a “tragedy for America,” said Nixon had already been punished enough, and predicted that his Administration would one day be seen in a far more favorable light.

In other words, Reagan had nothing of any interest or value to say about Watergate. He followed a safe political course, hanging back as far as possible, staying loyal to his party, paying minimal attention to the details of the investigation, and filtering the news through his own positive prism. We recognize in this Reagan’s familiar attitude toward unpleasant developments, including his own Iran-Contra scandal 13 years later. Faced with a steady stream of bad news, he remained largely disengaged from what was happening, resisted even the manifestly obvious negative conclusions, and—when that ceased to be possible—proposed that the nation immediately forgive and forget. Reagan’s comments about Watergate were those of someone who knows where he stands, sticks by his team, and simply fails to process information that makes his position more complicated.

Rick Perlstein offers a further interpretation of Reagan’s anodyne comments about Watergate. He contends there was a deeper motive in Reagan’s evasion of the crisis: that by declining to show concern, he was rejecting a self-critical view of the United States and affirming an uncritical one. In Perlstein’s view, Reagan’s refusal to look into the dark side of American life—to feel bad about Watergate, to regret Vietnam, or to apologize for the soon-to-be-exposed crimes of the CIA—was at the very heart of his popular appeal and eventual rise to power. Reagan succeeded, Perlstein contends, because he let Americans evade the social reckoning that began in the 1960s and was fully underway in the 1970s. As the chickens were coming home to roost, Reagan was the one politician who could get away with saying, “What chickens?”

This is the “invisible bridge” Perlstein posits to connect the two big things that were happening in Republican politics between 1973 and 1976: the downfall of Richard Nixon and the rise of Ronald Reagan. For the political historian, there is a major question embedded in this Republican shift, and providing an answer to it is at the heart of the longer-term chronicle of modern American conservatism that Perlstein began with his first book, Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater, and continued in his second, Nixonland. How did Republicans go from the bottom in 1964 to the top in 1980? In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the GOP succeeded only where it accepted the fundamental premises of New Deal liberalism. Goldwater’s 1964 disaster underscored this political reality, as did Nixon’s accommodation of the Great Society. But Reagan’s 1980 victory upended the political landscape, ushering in a conservative era that rejected basic liberal premises and lasted for the next 28 years.

Most historians view the Nixon-Reagan transition as a break in the ideological continuum, a shift from an era in which Republicans made peace with the growing welfare and regulatory state to one in which a newly energized conservative movement effectively challenged it. Perlstein, by contrast, sees the move from Nixon to Reagan as continuity: Both men tried to reverse what the 1960s were doing to the country. But where Nixon failed in his rearguard action, Reagan succeeded, replacing qualms about America’s history and role in the world with a renewed assertiveness at home and abroad. This is a political success Perlstein greatly laments.

Reagan supplanted a self-critical form of patriotism with a cruder, more atavistic kind. In doing so, Perlstein argues with some validity that Reagan codified a form of American exceptionalism that has since made it impossible for politicians of either party to deliver a truthful moral appraisal of the country’s behavior. It was Gerald Ford, not Jimmy Carter, who declared in a State of the Union address, “The State of the Union is not good.” In the post-Reagan world, it would take an alien invasion for a President to utter such a sentence.

This is a provocative thesis, but the reader finishes Perlstein’s very long book with the unsatisfying feeling that the author has not only failed to prove it, but also never quite developed it. His method is not political history head-on, but a sort of cultural chronicle, which exhaustively recounts the news on an almost day-by-day basis. Perlstein covers a very specific time frame, from January 23, 1973, when Richard Nixon went on television to announce the agreement to end the war in Vietnam, until August 19, 1976, the last day of the Republican convention in Kansas City.

One can see why Perlstein finds the view through this window so fascinating. Politically, the Ford years were the least discernible phase of a multistage interregnum between the long liberal era and the long conservative one. And what a weird, bell-bottomed interregnum it was. The 1970s were an unglued period in American life, when the forces unleashed during the 1960s made themselves felt throughout society. The Seventies, not the Sixties, were the decade when ordinary Americans experienced the consequences of the civil rights movement, feminism, the sexual revolution, and drug culture. It was the decade of divorce, legal abortion, domestic terrorism, assassination attempts, skyjacking, cults, conspiracies, inflation, and industrial decline. Patty Hearst, EST, Evel Knievel, streaking—to look back at the Seventies is to be reminded of a time when the United States seemed to be going crazy.

But rather than present a case about how social unraveling led to Reagan’s rise, Perlstein indulges the newsmagazine writer’s habit of substituting glib narrative for coherent argument. Like his subject the fortieth President, he has a tendency to return to his favorite stories, such as the bit of imagined dialogue from Reagan’s high-school yearbook mocking his heroism as a lifeguard:

Drowning youth—Don’t rescue me. I want to die.
Dutch Reagan—Well, you’ll have to postpone that: I want a medal.

More irksome is Perlstein’s penchant for punctuating his narrative with portentous headings and asides like “Governing in a World Gone Mad” (a rash of Puerto Rican nationalist terrorism) and “What Times. What a Country” (the killer bee scare). As a cultural archeologist, he does have an eye for detail, such as his recounting of the meat-price spike of 1973, when he notes that Nixon’s consumer-affairs adviser, Virginia Knauer, suggested that Americans economize by serving liver, brains, and kidneys, which could be turned into gourmet meals with longer cooking times and “proper seasoning.” But for long stretches, reading this book feels like leafing through a lot of old newspapers, something Perlstein has evidently done, but without digesting them sufficiently on the reader’s behalf.
Here, every best-seller, fad, and popular movie represents the deepest feelings of a troubled nation. Perlstein offers detailed plot summaries of films like The Exorcist, The Parallax View, and Robert Altman’s Nashville. Frequently, he summarizes what the newsmagazines themselves had to say about various fads and phenomena. By page 688, when he offers his précis of The Bad News Bears—noting that it vaunts immoral behavior for children in a way that wouldn’t have gone down in the 1950s—we’ve got the point. And as long-winded as this book is, covering a mere 44 months in 810 pages, it offers a curiously selective kind of cultural history. Perlstein pays a lot of attention to cinema, but little to TV, still less to pop music, and none at all to literature. How can one write a cultural history of the 1970s without delving into “All in the Family,” Born to Run, or John Updike? In evoking the mood of the period, Perlstein applies a wheelbarrow to a task Joan Didion accomplished far more effectively with a teaspoon.

At times, a more compelling narrative does break out, as with Perlstein’s concluding telling of the 1976 Republican convention in Kansas City, the last plausibly contested one we have had. It finished with Gerald Ford summoning a reluctant Ronald Reagan from the mezzanine to deliver a powerful, ostensibly spontaneous address to the delegates and the nation. Reagan talked about being asked to write something for a time capsule to be opened 100 years in the future. The people reading it would know, Reagan said, “whether those missiles were fired,” “whether we met our challenges,” whether we preserved our freedom. In fact, as Perlstein notes, the spontaneity was a subterfuge. The Ford forces had choreographed Reagan’s return to the stage several days earlier. What was unplanned was the widespread feeling among the delegates that the man who gave that speech would have been a stronger candidate than the one the GOP nominated, leaving Reagan as a kind of loser-winner. Perlstein doesn’t have much respect or affection for Reagan, but even he seems to be rooting for the underdog at the convention.

As a political history, The Invisible Bridge suffers from more serious deficiencies: a lack of interest in character, and a failure to engage seriously with ideas. Both Nixon and Reagan appear here as flat figures, for whom the author musters no human sympathy and about whom he offers no fresh understanding. At various points Perlstein calls Reagan a “divider” and accuses him of telling lies. Every politician surely divides and misleads to some extent, but these loaded terms fit his subject badly. They jar because they’re in conflict with Reagan’s fogginess, his lack of cynicism, and with what he accomplished politically, which was to unify divided strands in his party, win over an entire class of Democratic voters, and achieve more bipartisan consensus in Congress than any politician has in the 34 years since he was first elected. The lack of any apparent inner life, about which Edmund Morris expressed his frustration in his Reagan biography, Dutch, makes the fortieth President a confounding biographical subject. But unlike Morris, Perlstein doesn’t wonder about what made Reagan tick. He doesn’t find him an enigmatic figure at all.

The second, more serious problem is the author’s tendency to pathologize conservative views rather than reckon with them. Perlstein builds his Nixon-Reagan bridge not out of Reagan’s policies, domestic or international, but out of the nostalgia-clouded vision of American life he embodied. He believes Reagan triumphed not because he proposed reining in government but because he told Americans they were fundamentally good and decent and didn’t have to face up to their collective misdeeds. Perlstein writes almost as if Reagan had won the general election in 1976, instead of losing the nomination to Ford. The seeds of Reagan’s appeal may have been planted during his losing campaign. But there was a lot more of the 1970s ahead—four more years of energy shocks and disco infernos—before Reagan triumphed by challenging an incumbent President who told Americans that they weren’t perfect and that they would have to accept limits. Reagan’s broad vision of renewed national possibility made for a powerful contrast with Jimmy Carter, to be sure, but he won in 1980 running on a nationalistic, anti-government platform that was more popular than his opponent’s.

If he were willing to look more critically at the left, the way he does at the right, Perlstein might give more weight to the visible bridge of Reagan’s stated views. By the mid-1970s, the failures of Great Society liberalism were evident: Despite some popular and meaningful accomplishments like Medicaid, the poorly thought-out War on Poverty was arguably doing more harm than good. Broken welfare and public housing systems were not liberating the urban poor, but trapping a new underclass in a new kind of poverty. Crime, bad schools, and the threat of busing were driving the middle class away from America’s cities. With a top marginal rate of 70 percent kicking in at just over $100,000 for individuals (or around $275,000 in adjusted terms), income taxes were both too high and, with as many as 25 brackets, gratuitously complex. Few people paid 70 percent, of course, but the pursuit of shelters and loopholes was creating pervasive distortion in economic behavior. Delegated regulatory authority empowered unaccountable bureaucrats not only to ignore the economic cost of greater safety, but to set prices for everything from airline tickets to long-distance phone calls. Liberal government had arrived at an impasse that an interest-group-dominated Democratic Party was unable to address.

In the international sphere, similarly, Reagan’s critique of Henry Kissinger’s amoral realpolitik and detente with the Soviet Union was far from preposterous or the worldview of a simpleton. The anger of both conservatives and anti-Communist liberals over Ford’s refusal to meet with Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the summer of 1975 was fully justified—even if they were ultimately proven wrong in their negative view of the Helsinki Accords. Perlstein’s understanding of Reagan is constrained by his tendency to see conservatives as either frightening wackos or cynical manipulators. The one thing he doesn’t do in his new book, infuriatingly, is take conservative political ideas—and, by extension, the people who voted for them—seriously.

An alternative thesis is the one Perlstein seemed to be framing up with his first, shorter, and better book: that the crucial bridge in modern Republican politics was the one leading from Barry Goldwater to Reagan. Nixon was the last important President of the New Deal Era, in the same way that Bill Clinton is best subsumed under the rubric of the Reagan Era. Constraining the federal government was not a significant component of Nixon’s political rhetoric, and he left it bigger, more expensive, and more powerful than he found it. Reagan did not ultimately reduce the size of the federal government in any meaningful sense, but he did diminish its scope and ambitions in ways that continue to resonate and define contemporary Republican politics.

In his attack on government, Reagan drew very little from Nixon, and a great deal from Goldwater. Reagan’s political career began with his stunningly good 1964 television address on behalf of Goldwater’s foundering presidential campaign—which, like Reagan’s 1976 Kansas City convention speech, made a lot of viewers wonder why the GOP hadn’t picked him instead of the other guy as its candidate. In the 16 years following that Republican nadir, two things were going on simultaneously: A lot of voters were becoming more skeptical about the federal government’s ability to do the right thing, and Ronald Reagan was refining Goldwater’s pitch, shedding the warmongering, the pessimism, and the anti-New Deal extremism. Reagan’s views were not simply Goldwater’s views; they were Goldwater’s views purged of their excesses and abstraction, grounded in the country’s lived experience, and given a hopeful cast. That’s the bridge Reagan walked across and the one I wish Perlstein had tried to sell us.

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Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and the author of The Bush Tragedy. He is currently working on a biography of Ronald Reagan.

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