The Invisible Bridge, by Rick Perlstein
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
By Rick Perlstein
Simon & Schuster, 881 pages
It would not be fair to Rick Perlstein to call The Invisible Bridge a bad book. It is more like three bad books. The first is a numbing rehash of the national political scene from the Vietnam retreat of 1973 through the downfall of Richard Nixon and the political conventions of the summer of 1976. The second is a frequently fatuous and self-deceiving tour of 1970s culture. The third is a sneering, pettifogging biography of Ronald Reagan. Mistaking snark for wit, frivolousness for panache, sarcasm for satiric bite, and lack of focus for comprehensiveness, this tendentious and tedious doorstop combines the thickness of a spare tire with the intellectual heft of a bumper sticker.
One would think that, more than 2,500 pages into this multivolume project chronicling the rise of the New Right from the early 1960s onward, Perlstein would have gained some insight into why progressivism, while playing on its home field and being cheered on from the press box, blew its four-touchdown lead. But his only answer is that American voters must be idiots.
The central theme of The Invisible Bridge is that America missed the golden opportunity, presented by its failings in Vietnam and the disaster of Watergate, to become a more mature, less arrogant country, less chipper and serene, more pensive and self-reflective. It is a notion Perlstein rehearses at useless length in the first hundred pages, when relieved Americans waved flags at returning Vietnam vets in 1973, and again in the last hundred pages, when even more flags came out, for the nationwide Bicentennial celebration of 1976. “A blunt fact of the Bicentennial year,” Perlstein thunders, was “this bottomless supply of Americans for whom the basic institutions of society had failed so badly that they longed to become different people entirely.” Why would America throw itself a birthday party when it could have been miserable instead? “‘Birthday parties,’ after all, were for children,” he grumbles. Scare quotes around birthday parties! American patriotism is to Perlstein what garlic is to Dracula.
The author is perplexed that Vietnam ended without more outrage: “The self-evident lesson of the 1960s and the low, dishonest war that defined the decade [was] the imperative to question authority, unsettle ossified norms, and expose dissembling leaders—a new, higher patriotism for the 1970s.” That ordinary America wanted to furl the hippie freak flag rather than wave it leads him to lament the durability of the “other tribe, the one that found another lesson to be self-evident: Never break faith with God’s chosen nation, especially in time of war—truth be damned. That was Richard Nixon’s tribe. The one that, by Election Day 1980, would end up prevailing in the presidential election.”
Of all Ronald Reagan’s qualities, it’s the sunniness that irks Perlstein most. Following Reagan all the way back to his boyhood days in Illinois, Perlstein seeks not to capture the man but to destroy the myth, with amateur psychological analysis, tu quoque-isms, trivia (“what little primary evidence we have from his childhood suggests an obsession with meat”), and collateral attacks on, for instance, the 1970s misadventures of Reagan’s frequently estranged daughter Patti Davis. Did Reagan say that the Panama Canal Zone was “sovereign U.S. territory”? No, according to treaty, reports Perlstein breathlessly, the U.S. was merely designated “as if it were the sovereign of the territory.” That’s some gotcha.
No detail is too small or too speculative for Perlstein. Examining a photo of 10-year-old Reagan, Perlstein decrees, “He looks like the kind of boy he actually was: lonely and a little bit scared. The figure described by one writer on chaotic families as ‘the boy who disappears.’” Perlstein proceeds to keep calling him “the boy who disappears” as though repetition will make his curse stick.
Perlstein portrays Reagan as a hypocrite and a spendthrift due to the large budgetary increases in California on Reagan’s watch—but doesn’t challenge Reagan’s assertion that, in only five years, California pulled off the relative miracle of falling from the being second biggest spender in the United States (after the federal government) to fourth, behind New York State and even New York City. Meanwhile, averting his gaze from the abyss of liberalism into which New York City nearly sank in the 1970s, Perlstein makes a half-hearted case that the latter didn’t really have a spending problem. “For what it was worth, the pension of the average retiring New York City policeman—$9,000—was $3,000 less than a pension in Chicago,” Perlstein writes, in what he thinks is a brilliant rebuttal to conservative claims that spending in Gotham had become unsustainable, which was unquestionably the case.
Perlstein has great fun debunking the many speeches in which Reagan eschewed strict accuracy in favor of colorful storylines, and it is true that the man was a strangely inscrutable and distant figure: In 1963, speaking at a high-school commencement, he introduced himself to one student: “My name is Ronald Reagan. What’s yours?” The graduate removed his mortarboard and reminded his father that he was Mike Reagan.
But Garry Wills already made what was to be made of Reagan’s fabulism and detachment in Reagan’s America (1987), a much more evenhanded book. Perlstein’s trawl through the secondary sources doesn’t lead him to fresh insights, only sniping. Nor does he have the narrative chops to make history into drama.
Even Jimmy Carter (too moderate for the leftist author) comes in for a flogging. It’s refreshing to encounter the Saint of Plains recast as a conniving Machiavellian who spoke fluent double-talk. (A classic example began with Carter’s saying he was against amnesty for draft dodgers and then, after hundreds of oleaginous words, concluding by saying he was for something completely different: a mass pardon.) But no serious person believes Carter was a racist. Which is where Perlstein comes in. He hammers Carter’s attempt to stay on the good side of Alabama segregationist George Wallace and his clumsy use of the phrase “ethnic purity,” mentioned in the uncontroversial context of opposing the use of federal force to integrate neighborhoods. “He was on the record,” Perlstein shouts, “saying something that sounded like it had come from the mouth of a Klansman.” Perlstein, born in 1969, is of the generation of liberals for whom detecting racism everywhere is the perceived path to a spot high up on Mount Virtue among the “enlightened” (a tiresome word Perlstein evidently applies to himself).
Perlstein is blind to the similarity of Carter and Reagan and how both offered post-Watergate redemption. The crucial difference was that Carter was bound to disappoint because he framed himself as the redeemer: “I’ll never lie to you. I’ll never mislead you.” Perlstein finds Reagan a huckster but willfully fails to recognize the excellence of the product he was hawking: America herself, the antidote to American malaise. Free enterprise, military strength, individualism, bourgeois morality—Reagan didn’t claim to have discovered these things, but he knew how badly we yearned for their restoration.
Perlstein, who made his name as a journalist for Mother Jones, The Nation, and Rolling Stone as he embarked on his grand project (which included the previous books Before the Storm and Nixonland), is being sold to American readers as a judicious sort whom even conservatives can read with delight. This is a ludicrous case mostly being made by the kinds of liberals who reason that because they find Stephen Colbert hilarious, conservatives do, too—or ought to, if they know what’s good for them.
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Bridge to Nowhere
Must-Reads from Magazine
RIP Paulina Płaksej.
It’s only Monday evening, which means Americans face another full week of political and cultural squalor. For an antidote, consider Paulina Płaksej, who died Sunday, aged 93. Our former COMMENTARY colleague Daniella Greenbaum broke news of Płaksej’s death on Twitter, which alerted me (and many others) to her inspiring life and that of her family, Polish Catholics who fed, hid, and rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
Zachariasz and Bronisława Płaksej, Paulina’s parents, moved from Lviv, Ukraine, to Kałusz before the outbreak of the war. There, Zachariasz worked as an accountant at a local mine and developed warm relations with the area’s Jews. Toward the end of 1941, when the Nazis forced the Jews of Kałusz into a newly created ghetto with an eye toward their extermination, Zachariasz and his family “acted as couriers, smuggling notes in and out of the ghetto,” according to the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous. Soon, assisting persecuted Jews became the family’s main business.
It helped that they resided on the outskirts of town. As Paulina later recounted, “we lived in seclusion and not in the center of the town, so it was very convenient for us. We were surrounded by gardens, orchards, the river was flowing nearby, and there was a slaughterhouse not far away. The Germans rarely visited this place, so our life was peaceful…” Even before the creation of the ghetto, Jewish children would stop by the Płaksej home for a bowl of hot soup and a brief respite from the cruelty of daily life under occupation.
Her father, Paulina recalled, “was a very religious person, and he believed that you should always help a man, your fellow creature, as our religion has it. The Jewish victim was not simply a Jew, but your fellow, a human being, wasn’t he?”
The Płaksejs took extraordinary risks to that end, creating an underground pipeline from the Kałusz ghetto to safety for Jews targeted for liquidation:
The first family to escape [the ghetto] was Sara, Solomon, and their son, Imek. They temporarily hid at Paulina’s house. When it became too dangerous for them to stay there, Zacharias found a safer place for them to hide. He brought Sara, Solomon, and Imek to a trusted friend who was already hiding Jews in a bunker beneath his barn. Later, another Jewish woman, Rozia, escaped from the ghetto and sought out the Plaksej family. They also brought her to the farmer’s bunker. Paulina regularly brought whatever food and supplies were needed. Sara, Solomon, Imek, and Rozia, along with thirteen other Jews, stayed in this bunker for over a year. To this day, the identity of the farmer is not known.
In 1944 Miriam, another inhabitant of the ghetto, learned that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto and deport or murder the inhabitants. Miriam asked Zacharias to save her two-year-old daughter, Maja. Zacharias contacted Miriam’s former maid and arranged for her to come rescue Maja. The maid brought a horse and cart, and the Jewish police helped smuggle the little girl out of the ghetto. The maid told her neighbors that this little girl was her daughter who had just returned from living with her grandparents.
Miriam was in one of the last groups of Jews to be deported to Auschwitz. As her group was marched to the train, Miriam quickly took off her armband and joined the crowds in the street. She went straight to the Plaksej house asking for help. They hid her in their wardrobe for a number of months. Zacharias obtained forged papers for her and took her to another village where she would not be recognized as a Jew. There she was picked up as a Pole and sent to a German farm as a forced laborer. After the war, she returned to the maid’s house, picked up her daughter, and reunited with her husband. Due to the efforts of Paulina and her family, all of the Jews they helped survived the war.
The State of Israel in 1987 recognized Paulina and her parents as Righteous Among the Nations. May we never forget these stories, and may we all strive to follow in their footsteps, even and especially amid our contemporary squalor.
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Podcast: Kavanaugh and Rosenstein.
Can you take what we say about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seriously considering we’re conservatives and he’s a conservative? Are we defending him because we are genuinely discomfited by how insubstantial the allegations against him are, or are we doing so because we agree with him ideologically? We explore this on today’s podcast. Give a listen.
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.