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.