The first thing a reader will learn from the final installment of Rick Perlstein’s epic four-volume narrative on the rise of the right from 1964 to 1980 is that Simon & Schuster, one of the world’s premier trade imprints, apparently no longer employs copy editors, fact-checkers, or proofreaders. Reaganland, coming in at more than 1,000 pages, is riddled with so many typos, misspellings, factual errors, repetitions, and overindulgences of the author’s sarcasm that it distracts from the worthy content of the narrative, which is uneven in any case.
North Carolina’s Senator Sam Ervin is transmuted into Sam Erving. The book says the GOP hadn’t controlled the House of Representatives since the Hoover administration when it did so in 1947–48 and 1953–54. It says that New York had 21 electoral votes in 1976 when it had 41. It misidentifies ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds by placing him at NBC, where he never worked. It claims that the Liberty Fund was a creation of Charles Koch; it wasn’t. It says George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Oregon primary 58.3 percent to 54 percent, which would be a neat trick of overvoting. Beyond these embarrassments are the gross misstatements and mischaracterizations of many particulars, from the 1965 Moynihan Report on the black family to the landmark Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision in 1976. This is merely a sample of what could be a very long list.
What to make of this sloppiness in a doorstop of a book whose effect is based on being a granular account of details typically omitted from most contemporary histories? One clue comes from the fact that Perlstein has announced that his grand project of chronicling the right starting with Barry Goldwater has come to an end with this volume, at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, just when the story of the right reaches a key inflection point. At 51, Perlstein is relatively young; why stop here?
The pervasive errors taken together with many of the peculiarities of the narrative lead one to wonder whether both Perlstein and Simon & Schuster have simply lost heart for the enterprise. The four-volume arc of Perlstein’s project to chronicle the rise of the right (whose second and third 800-page volumes, Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge, take us from 1964 to 1976) could be a case study in the decline of liberal historical writing.
The first book in his series, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, came in at a comparatively compact 671 pages and was well received, even by conservatives. The friendly reception they gave Before the Storm seemed to have unnerved Perlstein, whose own political commitments skew far to the left. Writing a book that conservatives liked was a mistake he would not make again. He knows that a narrative history is supposed to eschew open partisanship, but his attempts at taking down the right by indirection are betrayed by his peculiar obsessions and inability to resist gratuitous snark. By the end of Reaganland, most readers, and not just conservatives, will pine for the elegance of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s narratives, whose partisanship was at least rooted in a capaciousness unknown to Perlstein.
Perlstein’s main target is Reagan, though he understands that Reagan can’t be understood in isolation from the disabilities of liberalism that emerged in the 1960s and grew critical under Jimmy Carter, and the gathering strength of the right as the 1970s progressed. Three strands provide Perlstein with his villains. They include the “boardroom Jacobins” of the business community who organized to oppose government regulation and mismanagement of the economy; the neoconservatives who emerged out of the 1960s left, and the aborning religious right. The latter is Perlstein’s dominant obsession, with the narrative returning again and again to long accounts of key figures, organizational formation, crucial meetings, and the strange (to Perlstein) political and cultural fixations of religious folk.
There is nothing novel about liberal disdain for the religious right and its once-prominent leaders—Jerry Falwell, Howard Phillips, Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyrich, Bob Jones, and many other key activists who are largely forgotten. Yet Perlstein seems to think it a revelation that the entry of the religious right into electoral politics depended on “organizing discontent,” as though Saul Alinsky never existed or Henry Adams hadn’t described politics as “the systematic organization of hatreds”—or that religiously minded Americans had anything to be discontented about in the 1970s. These passages bring out Perlstein’s penchant for ventriloquist journalism, as he delights in quoting unflattering descriptions of his villains culled from contemporary news archives. Paul Weyrich, according to a reporter he quotes, had the mien of “a formal, slightly constipated owl.” Perlstein borrows another reporter’s description of Howard Phillips as “a man who always looks as if he could use a trip to the cleaners.” This method may not leave latent fingerprints, but the DNA of the technique is abundant.
Now to the “boardroom Jacobins.” The argument is familiar: Business began moving in a determined way to capture the government in order to capture a greater share of wealth. Here again we are offered little data or any kind of baseline to judge what changes were afoot. Perlstein prefers character sketches and dramatic scenes with heroes and antiheroes. Hence we are offered an idiosyncratic choice of a counter-hero to the mostly nameless boardroom Jacobins: the largely forgotten Michael Pertschuk, Jimmy Carter’s choice as chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. In Perlstein’s telling, the crusading Pertschuk, a protégé of Ralph Nader’s, was the tragic victim of the boardroom Jacobins, as his valiant attempts to protect American consumers from predatory capitalism came undone by the growing anti-regulatory attack.
Perlstein almost stumbles across an important story with his passing remarks that the FTC was “a notoriously toothless regulatory body,” a “onetime backwater” that “sparked to life under President Nixon.” The real question is why this agency, formed with a broad mandate to regulate “unfair competition” under Woodrow Wilson, would suddenly “spark to life” under Nixon after decades as a backwater. Perlstein echoes the standard liberal history that the FTC had been neutered by pro-business Republicans back in the 1920s, but the fact that it never achieved real importance during the New Deal or after World War II ought to suggest that the old narrative is inaccurate. Perlstein shows no awareness of the regulatory revolution—the use of federal mandates to impose new practices on private industry—that really accelerated in the late 1960s and triggered the response he reviles so much. And he is incurious about an important fact he reports—that many congressional Democrats, never mind Republicans, were not happy with Pertschuk’s quixotic crusades. Instead we get a Manichean melodrama missing only the business lobbyists twirling their handlebar mustaches in the shadows of smoke-filled committee hearings.
His handling of other aspects of the economic controversies of the time show this similar pattern of near misses and skewed perceptions. The book gives a lot of attention to the political concern over inflation but offers few data points and even less clarity about this dominant problem of the late 1970s. Perlstein is not a fan of Paul Volcker, the person Jimmy Carter belatedly picked to run the Federal Reserve Board to get serious about inflation. And no wonder. In his acknowledgments, Perlstein records that “important sources [for Volcker and the Federal Reserve] include Mark Blyth, the late William Greider, Edward McClelland, the late Judith Stein, and Matt Stoller”—all leftist ideologues. His sole source for background on Milton Friedman is Soren Brandes, an obscure European. It was too much trouble, apparently, to read Friedman himself. This leads to monumental howlers such as this one: “As Ronald Reagan put it in 1975, [inflation] hits ‘those hardest who can least afford it.’ But this is not so. Inflation taxes investors: If a bond matures when inflation is high, the bondholder’s profit is diminished.”
The same is true about the sourcing he cites on supply-side economics: “Jonathan Chait, Robert Kuttner, and Molly Michaelmore”; and for neoconservatism, “Sidney Blumenthal and Peter Steinfels.” This is a little like saying your primary source for information on Nancy Pelosi is Sean Hannity. And it’s only one aspect of the missed opportunity this book represents. A new or revisionist history that reckoned with the travails of late New Deal liberalism in its dying throes under Jimmy Carter could contribute insight into our present moment. But Perlstein displays little curiosity or discernment about, for example, Carter’s terrible relations with congressional Democrats, arguably the worst any president has ever had with his own party. Carter enjoyed large majorities in both houses of Congress, but Democrats struggled to pass any significant legislation, and most of Carter’s initiatives, such as his energy bill, were ground to dust before passing without much enthusiasm. Other Carter proposals, for tax and welfare reform and health care, got nowhere. Observers then and now attributed it to Carter’s stubbornness and parochial arrogance, but this is to miss deeper changes sweeping over Democrats in the 1970s. What did pass with considerable Democratic support was a large capital-gains tax cut, the first milestone in the supply-side revolution, while the executive branch launched several significant initiatives to deregulate large sectors of the economy in transportation, energy, and finance. Perlstein barely notices this surprising part of the story.
Reaganland’s trail lays down a lot of bread crumbs Perlstein doesn’t follow, including some interesting details about Joe Biden, a “centrist bellwether” who supported the capital-gains tax cut and voted against the watered-down Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act. Humphrey, Biden complained, wasn’t “cognizant of the limited, finite ability government has to deal with people’s problems.” The Joe Biden of 1978, Perlstein reports, actually received the endorsement of Howard Jarvis, the impresario of California’s Proposition 13 who put the tax revolt into high gear, for reelection to the Senate. Perlstein no doubt included these forgotten tidbits about Biden because he surely favored Bernie Sanders in 2020. All great fun, but Perlstein and other contemporary historians continue to concentrate on the growing strength of conservatism in the 1970s while they still miss the simmering civil war inside the Democratic Party that was a key element of the era. Biden resisted the Democrats’ own Jacobins, such as the radical insurgent congressional delegation elected in 1974, and that resistance played an interesting role in his success in 2020.
IF PERLSTEIN’S narrative fails to come to grips with the agony of 1970s liberalism or make a serious case that the rise of the right set up the country for supposed disaster upon Reagan’s ultimate electoral victory, the fault lies in Perlstein’s tacit premise that the country was already pretty rotten. He betrays this premise in the strange fixation with serial killers that appears throughout the book. Ted Bundy, as a former young Republican (albeit a Rockefeller Republican), is an easy target for partisan asides, but John Wayne Gacy, David (“Son of Sam”) Berkowitz, and Kenneth Bianchi (L.A.’s “Hillside Strangler”) also get mentions. Perlstein says Bianchi proved that “a psychopath could be living next door to you, too” and manages to transform Gacy, who buried his teen victims under the floorboards of his suburban Chicago house, into “one more parable about all the rot hiding underneath of the floorboards of a nation that liked to think of itself as innocent.” At another point, Perlstein asks: “Just how sick was Norman Rockwell’s nation, that it kept raising up monsters like these?”
Then there are Perlstein’s occasional references to pop culture, which are equally uneven and bizarre. Star Wars, we’re told, “was not a Jimmy Carter sort of film. . . . Star Wars was a Ronald Reagan kind of film.” Maybe so, though this will come as news to the decidedly left-leaning George Lucas, who conceived the movie partly as a parable of the Viet Cong against the United States. For Perlstein, Star Wars merely ratified the rightward—yes, rightward—direction of Hollywood, coming on top of the “vaguely reactionary” Taxi Driver and the “disappointing” best picture of 1976, Rocky. His long and disapproving retelling of the plot of The Deer Hunter culminates with a quotation from movie maven Peter Biskind that Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino was “our first home-grown fascist director.”
For all of the painstaking detail Perlstein dug up for this fine-grained narrative, there are many key events he describes in rushed or inadequate fashion, such as the failed Iran hostage-rescue mission in 1980 or key episodes from the final weeks of the Carter–Reagan election showdown. Other major issues, such as arms-control diplomacy with the Soviet Union, are treated perfunctorily at best. Reaganland, in the end, is more a visit to Perlstein’s ultimately uninteresting brain than it is a fulfilling return to America in the 1970s.
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