From the bestselling author of Nixonland: a dazzling portrait of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the tumultuous political and economic times of the 1970s.
In January of 1973 Richard Nixon announced the end of the Vietnam War and prepared for a triumphant second term—until televised Watergate hearings revealed his White House as little better than a mafia den. The next president declared upon Nixon’s resignation “our long national nightmare is over”—but then congressional investigators exposed the CIA for assassinating foreign leaders. The collapse of the South Vietnamese government rendered moot the sacrifice of some 58,000 American lives. The economy was in tatters. And as Americans began thinking about their nation in a new way—as one more nation among nations, no more providential than any other—the pundits declared that from now on successful politicians would be the ones who honored this chastened new national mood.
Ronald Reagan never got the message. Which was why, when he announced his intention to challenge President Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, those same pundits dismissed him—until, amazingly, it started to look like he just might win. He was inventing the new conservative political culture we know now, in which a vision of patriotism rooted in a sense of American limits was derailed in America’s Bicentennial year by the rise of the smiling politician from Hollywood. Against a backdrop of melodramas from the Arab oil embargo to Patty Hearst to the near-bankruptcy of America’s greatest city, The Invisible Bridge asks the question: what does it mean tobelieve in America? To wave a flag—or to reject the glibness of the flag wavers?
Eric S. "Rick" Perlstein (born 1969) is an American historian and journalist. He graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in History in 1992. He is a former writer for The Village Voice and The New Republic and the author of numerous articles in other publications. Until March, 2009 he was a Senior Fellow at the Campaign for America's Future where he wrote for their blog about the failures of conservative governance.
Perlstein is also the author of the books Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008). Before the Storm covers the rise of the conservative movement culminating in the nomination and campaign of Barry Goldwater and how the movement came to dominate the Republican Party despite Goldwater's loss. Nixonland covers American politics and society from 1964 to 1972, centering on Richard Nixon's attempt to rehabilitate himself politically and his eventual successful use of the resentment of settled society against the social unrest of the day to rebuild the Republican Party.
His article for the Boston Review on how Democrats can win was published in book form under the title The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, together with responses.
“In certain ways we live in some of the darkest times in our history: global warming threatens to engulf us; political polarization threatens to paralyze us; the economy nearly collapsed because of the failure of the banking regulatory regime; competition from China threatens to overwhelm us; social mobility is at its lowest point in generations – to name only a few versions of the national apocalypse that may yet come. But at the same time, somehow, something almost like a cult of official optimism – the greatest nation in the history of earth – saturates the land. How did it happen? That is one of the questions The Invisible Bridge poses. Here is another: What does it mean to truly believe in America? To wave a flag? Or to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag-wavers – to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent? During the years covered in these pages Americans debated that question with an intensity unmatched before or since – even if they didn’t always know that this was what they were doing…” - Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is the third instalment of a four-book series detailing the rise of the American conservative movement from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. It is good – at times even excellent – but at over 800 pages of text, it also requires a significant investment in time.
And that doesn’t even take into account all the reading you have to do before you can start this.
The two prior volumes in Perlstein’s political epic – Before the Storm and Nixonland – combine for an additional 1,200 pages. Thus, by the time you reach the last word here, you’re over 2,000 pages deep, with much more to come if you want to finish the saga.
It might seem like I’m a little preoccupied with length at the moment. But the sheer expansiveness of Perlstein’s hugely ambitious project is starting to wear me out. Perlstein writes in a prose style verging on the manic, and though he has shown remarkable endurance in maintaining that tempo, it has become progressively more exhausting with each title.
Beyond Perlstein’s breathless, hyper-caffeinated, more-is-more approach, The Invisible Bridge takes on an increasingly strident tenor that was absent before. As I plowed through this, my patience with Perlstein’s scattershot lack of focus, his superficial caricatures, and his superior attitude started to fray. I still really liked it, or I never would have bothered finishing. Still, by the end, I mostly felt relief that it was over.
The Invisible Bridge picks up where Nixonland left off, with President Richard Nixon embroiled in the still-percolating Watergate controversy. Covering the years between 1973 and 1976, Perlstein describes how a third-rate burglary exploded into one of the great presidential disgraces in U.S. history, leading to the resignation of Nixon, the accidental presidency of Gerald Ford, a nationwide loss of confidence, and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan, who promised to bring that confidence back.
According to Perlstein, Nixon’s fall was a potent symbol of a superpower knocked off its perch. Rampant inflation doubled the cost of meat. Oil prices quadrupled. Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, meaning that all the effort in lives and money to prop up the South had been wasted. Spectacular crimes grabbed the headlines, including the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst, her conversion into a domestic terrorist, and then her conversion back into an heiress. The Church Committee aired the exceptionally dirty laundry of the CIA, NSA, and the FBI. The nation that had stormed the shores of Normandy Beach thirty years before suddenly could not look itself in the mirror.
In an America in conflict with itself, with large numbers distrusting its institutions, deconstructing its hypocrisies, and questioning its very premises, Reagan – a mediocre actor and former governor of California – challenged the incumbent Ford for the Republican presidential nomination by going in the exact opposite direction. Ignoring all the complexities and ambiguities of American history, Reagan presented the world in its starkest terms, dividing everything into good and evil, black and white, night and day.
Reagan’s calculus was simple: America was God’s own chosen land. Though his math did not quite work out – Ford withstood Reagan’s challenge to capture the presidential nomination – it was Reagan’s particular brand of conservatism that ultimately prevailed, arguably to this very day.
The thing about Perlstein is that he does not present all these events in a traditional chronological narrative. This is not a history that methodically lays out a timeline, weighs the evidence, and analyzes the consequences. To the contrary, the storytelling here is like a pinball machine on a roller coaster during an earthquake, with Perlstein careening from one happening to another.
To take just one example, Watergate is given a huge amount of space. At no point, however, does Perlstein bother to systematically describe this multifaceted, byzantine mother-of-all scandals. Instead, he bounces from character to character, more concerned with creating a vibe than imparting factual information. This is certainly entertaining, but if you’ve never studied Watergate before, this is not the place to start.
Along with Watergate, The Invisible Bridge coheres around two other big subjects: Gerald Ford’s presidency – filled with pratfalls and debatable decisions – and the 1976 presidential primaries, which saw Ford and Jimmy Carter become their party’s respective standard bearers.
The interstices between these three loci are stuffed with a dizzying cultural survey that – unfortunately – come with no endnotes (you have to go online for that). Perlstein riffs on Henry Aaron’s home run chase, the premiere of Saturday Night Live, and the box office success of Jaws.
Mostly, though, he is obsessed with detailing crime. Apparently maxing out his Lexis subscription, Perlstein – and his researcher – drudge up every notorious felony that ever graced a newspaper headline. To an extent, I found this fascinating, as I am not immune to the pull of true crime. After a certain point, though, I began to question Perlstein’s purpose. It seems he’s trying to argue that all these murders, bombings, and even an on-air suicide played into the national disposition. Yet that seems an argument based more on emotion than empiricism. The media – since the first caveman journalist – has been in the business of sensationalism. Its entire business model is predicated on highlighting the outrageous and unusual. As such, I’m not convinced that Perlstein’s strip-mining of endless back-issues – which would not have been available to most people in the pre-internet 1970s – is actually a simulacrum of the contemporary national temper.
As a general rule, I don’t like polemics. Documented facts and unsupported opinions tend to become impossible to separate at the poles. Though heated rhetoric, broad interpretations, and hyperbole have their place, I prefer them in op-eds, not histories.
I say this because The Invisible Bridge can sometimes feel polemical.
Perlstein is unabashedly left-of-center. Still, in Before the Storm, he at least made an effort to describe why a person might vote for Barry Goldwater, even if he believed that such a vote was dangerous. If not exactly objective, Perlstein at least acknowledged the possibility that some conservatives were driven by motives other than pure evil. Nixonland was less evenhanded, but it did not harm the book, since Richard Nixon is not exactly a guy who deserves a dispassionate treatment.
In The Invisible Bridge, however, Perlstein veers into burlesque. For instance, Reagan is the chief target of his contempt, and is portrayed as a pathological liar from his earliest days. Whether or not Perlstein’s overall judgment is correct – and I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong – there is a cartoonish quality that feels unserious, like a lampoon. Almost everyone else gets the same glib treatment, Republicans and Democrats alike. According to Perlstein, no one in these pages ever acted upon a genuinely decent impulse.
When it comes to American history, I have no patience for patriotic bromides or the gilding of an often ugly past. That said, Perlstein is so relentlessly negative that he often ends up just as wrong as the beer-swilling firework-gazer chanting “U.S.A.!” There is a very real difference between evidence-based realism and self-congratulatory cynicism, and Perlstein jumps so far across that line that he occasionally ends up in the realm of irritating self-righteousness. The result, of course, is that Perlstein is not going to convince anyone who did not start out convinced.
Another colossal history by Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge chronicles the collapse of Richard Nixon’s presidency, the evolution of the New Right and Ronald Reagan’s primary challenge to Gerald Ford in 1976. Like Perlstein’s Before the Storm and Nixonland it is long (804 pages of text), generally engrossing and saturated with detail, with the era’s political machinations, cultural developments and receiving almost equal attention. Perlstein interweaves his chronicle of America “on the verge of a nervous breakdown” with a pseudo-biography of Reagan, whose improbable career proves the book’s central. The book’s most compelling in Perlstein’s blow-by-blow recounting of events, whether well-known (the first third of the book provides a propulsive, page-turning recap of Watergate; the last quarter follows the ‘76 campaign in minute, almost excruciating detail) or less-remembered: Operation Homecoming, the heavily-propagandized return of Vietnam War POWs; battles over textbooks in West Virginia and school busing in Boston; outbreaks of far-left terrorism and far-right activism; New York City’s financial collapse and the Church Committee’s exposure of intelligence abuses. The country’s faith becomes shattered, with America becoming divided, paranoid, and desperate for something to anchor them: whether born-again religious evangelism or occult phenomena, cultists like Reverend Moon or the Scientologists, self-help fads like primal scream and EST, drugs, television either nostalgic (Happy Days) or subversive (Saturday Night Live), or even politics. Thus the rise of improbable figures like Jimmy Carter, the little-known, ideologically fuzzy Georgia Governor who becomes an improbable presidential front runner; Jerry Brown, the eccentric Californian whose Zen pronouncements and lackadaisical governing style earned him massive popularity; and, of course, Ronald Reagan, who nearly unseats a sitting president from his own party.
Perlstein, as usual, provides a book so energetic that’s it’s hard not to enjoy. He shows how the liberal-left backlash to Nixon and Vietnam, in turn, generated a desire for old-fashioned patriotism and easy answers (which Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford, a bumbling, well-intentioned mediocrity, couldn’t hope to provide) that allowed Reagan, with his simple, self-assured worldview and anti-government rhetoric to capitalize. Perlstein builds in previous books in showing the far-right using conservative networks founded by Goldwater, campaign strategies borrowed from Nixon and new wedge issues like abortion, the ERA and gay rights to create a formidable New Right movement. Yet the book stumbles in its obsession with minutia, with Perlstein granting Wacky Packages and The Bad News Bears as much page time as, say, the Yom Kippur War. As solid as his recounting of conservative movement-building is, Perlstein fails to present a Reagan that’s either human or convincing. Instead he falls back on the hoary old caricature of him as a shambolic Hollow Man who, a failure in movies and his private life, reinvents himself as the tribune of militant reaction, disguised as warm, fatherly, old-fashioned patriotism. As an explanation of Reagan the Phenomenon, it has its merits; as an explanation of Reagan the Man, it’s tired and one-dimensional. But then, Perlstein would probably argue that’s the point.
Disclosure: Rick Perlstein contributed an excerpt of this book to the website where I work.
If you've read Nixonland and liked it, The Invisible Bridge is its worthy successor. The thing to know about Rick Perlstein is that he has a schtick (one that I think is fantastic, actually): blending the popular culture at the time with the events in politics. He brilliantly blends the two to create what living through that time was probably actually like (I'm a bit young to judge), and it transports you wholly to the events of the early 1970s. [I would be remiss not to note that Perlstein has been accused of committing acts of plagiarism in this book. They don't bother me enough to dispense with the book, but if you are curious, you can read about them here, here, and here.]
Bridge begins where Nixonland left off, just after Nixon's re-election, and takes you through the moment-by-moment blow of the Watergate scandal. Reading about it in journalism or history, the events of the Watergate scandal seem clear-cut and rapid. Perlstein unfolds them as they did at the time, with the minutiae of what journalists and the public knew and when they knew it. Watergate was a ploddingly slow-to-unfold scandal (much like scandals today), and Perlstein ensures you feel that gradual slow-motion horror that eventually caught on in the public.
One smart point he notes is that politics were less siloed than they are today — Watergate permeated so much of popular culture and so many people were glued to the Watergate hearings that it was impossible to escape. Now, of course, everyone has their own version of reality as translated by various types of partisan (or nonpartisan) media. I am, of course, a soldier in this modern information war.
Perlstein also smartly rolls other idiosyncratic movements and news stories into the narrative: Patty Hearst's "kidnapping" and affiliation with a domestic radical terrorist group the Symbionese Liberation Army is no small part of the narrative, the Weather Underground's threats, the Manson murders, and popular obsession with alien abductions and the occult capture the weird, weird flavor of the early 1970s.
He also significantly captures the contradictions of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. He's a man who managed to rewrite his own history to his audience, then proceeded to do so for the American public. Reagan was born to an alcoholic father and a seemingly pious mother, but left all that to become an actor. Perlstein rightly corrects the narrative on Reagan's stardom — he didn't sour on Hollywood and its liberalism; it soured on him. Toward the end of his film career, he was taking on humiliating projects, eventually becoming a paid booster for General Electric. He was, in many ways, a bit like Kirk Cameron today. But Reagan of course made a more successful transition to politics, and his nationally syndicated radio program became his policy platform.
The ending is a somewhat unsatisfying one, if only because after 800-plus pages, Perlstein only gets to Reagan's failed attempt to secure the 1974 Republican nomination after a mess of a convention and one in which the Equal Rights Amendment — or more accurately, its defeat — played a significant role. The ending left me craving for more, but I suppose I will have to wait for another artfully constructed Perlstein book.
I read this mostly to understand my dad’s fascination with Reagan as an “American hero” and “the last great Republican president” and I’m even more confused than before I started.
I read this before the 2020 election and was amazed by many of the parallels we’re currently faced with. The book starts with Nixon and follows Ford, Carter, and Reagan, and during that time we see: the Civil Rights movement, racial injustice and police brutality, Patty Hearst kidnapped by terrorists, young people were joining weird religious cults (then it was the Moonies, now it’s NXIVM), Reagan essentially thought Watergate was NBD, and he was a celebrity.
This all serves to show our political system has been sick for a long time. On one hand, it’s comforting to know that this isn’t the first time it’s felt like the end of days, but on the other hand it’s frustrating we haven’t learned much over the last 60 years.
Reading the third installment of Rick Perlstein's excellent chronicling of the rise of the right-wing of the Republican Party is particularly interesting given the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. Perlstein pays particular attention to Ronald Reagan, who in the mid 70s was finishing up his eight-year stint as Governor of California and laying the groundwork for a run at the Republican nomination for President in 1976, taking on the unelected incumbent, Gerald Ford. A significant portion of the first one-third of the book examines the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's fall into disgrace.
But the main player is always Reagan. Even when Perlstein is writing about Nixon and Watergate, Reagan is lurking just offstage. While this is a (very good) work of history, there are some biographical elements to this where Reagan is concerned. Perlstein devotes two chapters, one of them being especially lengthy, to examining Reagan's youth, background, migration to Hollywood, subsequent B-grade movie career, his time as president of the Screen Actors Guild, his emergence as a national spokesman for GE on TV, and then transformation from a liberal to an arch-conservative. I enjoyed this component of the book, and I understand why Perlstein decided to devote so much time to it, as it helps the reader get a less unclear (I am not sure it is possible for anyone to get a clear picture) understanding of who the Reagan of the 1970s was. However, I could see how, if someone were more interested in American history of this period as a whole, and less concerned with learning many details about Reagan, that they might think this an unnecessary diversion.
Something stood out to me as I read about Reagan: some of his tactics are being used today by Trump. Reagan frequently peddled unsubstantiated conspiracy theories (that there were still prisoners of war in Vietnam); took something with a grain of truth in it and twisted it around into something entirely different, and false (the abortion bill he signed while Governor); his refusal to lay any blame on Nixon for Watergate; wrapped himself in nostalgia and the American flag whenever he thought it would do him good; and his obfuscation whenever he was asked a question he didn't like or didn't want to answer – he simply pretended the issue didn't exist and would start talking about something, or he would obfuscate and not answer the question. All of these things we see daily from Trump. Reagan, for the most part though, was at least courteous and cordial. And his attacks were viewed much more as political than personal, unlike Trump. Except where Ford was concerned. Reagan did not like him and it showed. I found that fascinating how he supported Nixon to the hilt, despite the release of tapes that had Nixon and Henry Kissinger disparaging Reagan, yet attacked Ford at every turn. I would have liked for Perlstein to have examined why this was. But I think it came down to this: Nixon was already President, and then was an ex-President. He could not prevent Reagan from attaining the office. Ford could, and Reagan didn't like that.
Perlstein is clearly not a fan of Reagan. However, he plays this fairly evenly as Jimmy Carter comes in for a bunch of criticism as well, as does Ford. Perlstein fleshes out Carter's self-righteousness and smugness as he moved toward clinching the Democratic nomination, showing how Carter kept trying to play things both ways with people: being for gay rights while simultaneously being against homosexuality, criticizing the possible negotiations with Panama over control of the canal while at the same time agreeing that negotiations needed to take place, amongst other issues. Perlstein also touches on the other Democrats competing against Carter, and shines a light on the intelligence agency abuses uncovered by the Church Committee in 1975. Perlstein argues that, by that point in time, Americans were tired of hearing about bad news and had come to believe – with good reason – that their government did bad things and that their leaders were untruthful. This was a cynical age, full of fire bombings all over the country and racism everywhere.
Ford here is treated as an uninspiring President and candidate, someone whom people just sort of accept as he is a decent guy, but are unable to be enthusiastic about as Ford cannot seem to generate any enthusiasm. Stuck in a somewhat no-win situation, Ford did not help himself by giving the appearance that he was bumbling (like falling down the stairway from Air Force One). Unlike most other times in American history, he was an incumbent President who had to fight, and fight hard, for his party's nomination.
The last segment of the book focuses on the primaries, and then the party conventions, especially the Republican one in Kansas City. I think this is the best part of an already very good book: Perlstein succeeds in recreating the atmosphere and intrigue of what still remains today as the last contested convention in the United States. Ford had a slight advantage, which is remarkable in that it was only a slight one, given that he was the President and not Reagan. The Reagan forces were more devoted to their candidate, more enthusiastic about the issues they cared about, more ruthless in their willingness to do whatever was needed to win, and quite frankly, bigger nutjobs than the Ford people were. Perlstein ends with Reagan giving an electrifying speech at the end of the convention, after Ford had received the nomination, and even then there is dispute about whether or not the speech itself was premeditated or not. Like most everything else with Reagan, the truth depended on your view of Reagan.
Despite a few repetitious spots, and some typos that should definitely have been corrected prior to publication of the paperback version, this is an engrossing book to read. I do want to note that I was disappointed to see that none of the endnotes were included at the back of the book like normal. They are all online. I do not like that: since I am reading the physical copy of the book, I think Perlstein should have put his endnotes at the back so as to be easily accessible. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the 1970s, American history, Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Carter or Watergate.
Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge takes up where his terrific Nixonland ended: Watergate – and beyond. It’s the “beyond” that is really the heart of the book, which is an inbetween time that, just like Nixonland, is chock full of (for me) nearly forgotten history. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Wallace, Patty Hearst, James (“Jimmy”) Earl Carter, Squeaky Fromme, “Whip in Inflation Now,”The Exorcist, Jaws, Nashville, Tony Orlando and Dawn, “Saturday Night Live,” New Right, New Left, the Yom Kipper War, Entebbe, it’s all here in 800 pages of not-so-happy-nostalgia that is both a political history and a cultural one.
These were tough times. Watergate, which is masterfully recorded here, plays out in a tense separation of powers chess match between Nixon, and, eventually, virtually everyone else. Skip the boring All the President’s Men, Perlstein is a much better, and focused, writer. He can often be a funny one who always has an eye on the human factor. It’s interesting that in the various mini bios that populate the book, he never is all that harsh with his subjects, even with dark characters like Nixon and Wallace (who he kind of admires as a true American original). Perlstein -- who styles himself as something of an old New Deal Democrat -- almost always seems to understand his subjects, how they tick, and why. The worst judgment for Nixon is that he was a “strange man.” Reagan, a quiet, lonely boy living in a dysfunctional family that had an alcoholic father and a beloved, but often absent mother, reinvents himself into the “good guy,” the “hero,” the vigilant lifeguard. Gerald Ford, the plodding politician nearly as conservative as Reagan, who is generally a good man, and his very liberated wife, Betty. Two characters that don’t fare well are Jerry Brown (“weird, weird, Jerry Brown”), and Carter. Perlstein definitely doesn’t like Carter, I suspect, at least in part, because he represents a kind of Democrat that Perlstein feels had turned his back on what made the party great. But also because Carter is soon perceived, often by those in his own party, as a manipulative liar (speechwriter Bob Shrum quit the campaign after just nine days out of disgust). By that point, however, it’s too late, and Carter has virtually sealed the nomination. (I love Pearlstein's weavework when he discusses the movie Nashville, and the coming of Carter.)
IB flows nicely until about the last hundred pages. It’s as this point that Perlstein gets way-way down into the weeds to examine the Republican Convention in Kansas City. The level of detail switches from week to week to, it seems, hour by hour. I understand the Why here. The battle between Reagan and Ford was incredibly close – a virtual tie. Then Reagan, in a sense, blinked, choosing moderate Republican Senator Richard Schweicker as a running mate. It was a move meant to pull in some uncommitted delegates, but it backfired. In an attempt to reverse the damage, Reagan’s team pushed a parliamentary maneuver meant to force Ford’s hand – and choice as VP. It didn’t work, and Ford clinched the nomination. It is dramatic, and does set the stage (in a future book) for Reagan consolidating his strength and trying once again. That said, my main complaint with IB is the lack of notes. They are available online at Perlstein’s website. I find that really annoying, especially since I so often enjoyed flipping back to the notes section in Nixonland . Perlstein obviously read just about everything (much of it now out of print) on the period. The spontaneity of checking those references out as you're reading is lost by separating the notes from the book (both hardbound, and, as I understand it, the e-book version as well). I hope future books (or editions of this one) correct that experiment.
US presidential history from the Watergate hearings through the 1976 Republican convention. Some social history, primarily the Patty Hearst kidnapping. The focus of the book is Ronald Reagan.
My takeaway: there is a noisy far right minority in the US. Sometimes a cult of personality will arise around a demigogue and the size of this group will swell. This is merely my opinion not an idea explicitly expressed in the book.
Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge are both well written and fascinating books yet I’m disinclined to read further. I don’t think I can stomach any more books about Reagan at this time.
Reviewer Frank Rich: “It says much about Perlstein’s gifts as a historian that he persuasively portrays this sulky, slender interlude between the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan (as his subtitle has it) not just as a true bottom of our history but also as a Rosetta stone for reading America and its politics today. It says much about his talent as a writer that he makes these years of funk lively, engrossing and on occasion mordantly funny..."
This is a maddening book to grade. In the thickest point of the central plot, the author points out that it is the stuff of a movie, and he is right. An accidental president, thoroughly likable and respected but uninspiring, battles for reelection against a charismatic Hollywood actor in an extremely close fight for the party nomination. This suspense is paced quotidian details that put the reader back into the world of the mid-1970s. This is five-star stuff.
But two other strands are distractingly interspersed with the above. Most noticeably is Perlstein's running commentary in which he comes across as about as dislikable as Reagan is likable. He is certainly entitled to point out Reagan's flaws which would be of greater importance in the presidency, but he seems to take such glee in doing so. He becomes so fond of meanness that he extends it to anyone who would support Reagan or see anything positive in the America he is describing. Add to this shrill interruption his tendency to switch back-and-forth between the 1970s and extended sections of Reagan's previous biography, and considerable patience on the reader's part is required to wade through 800 pages to get to a really good central story which could have been told in 500.
Historical examination of the rise of the conservative right of the Republic party from January 1973 through the the Republican National Convention in 1976, where Reagan almost defeated the sitting President for his party's nomination.
Perlstein does an excellent job of integrating social and cultural events (the return of Vietnam POWs, the mockery of Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Life) within the political environment of the mid 1970s. He also explores Ronald Reagan in depth--from his childhood in Illinois through his Hollywood career. This was nearly 1000 pages and it took me about a month to read, but it was enormously informative and enjoyable. I look forward to reading Perlstein's next book (probably about how Reagan finally became president). Perlstein writes from a liberal perspective but he is equally critical of Democratic politicians as he is of Republican ones (Jimmy Carter doesn't come off particularly well here). Readers who are either extreme conservatives or extreme liberals will probably find this not ideological enough for them. Perlstein is interested in the rise of the conservative arm of the Republican party and is fair in his portrayal of the major players.
Found this at the local library on the for sale shelf and it looks like it's replaced the global warming politics book on my non-fiction reading shelf for now. Already the author has shown himself to be very much in agreement with me and my take(s) on the Right-Left divide. This book is part three of his series about how the right wing developed such strength since the Goldwater debacle in '64. A sad story for this country(IMHO). I was never a fan of Reagan, but he was certainly someone you could kind of like - he did have a sunny, positive personality even if his version/vision of "America"(the greatest country in the world) did rely on bullshit and mythology. One of the big debates among lefties about RR is whether or not he actually believed all that crap. This guy(no admirer - politically) says that he did.
Reagan in nearing the end of his 8 years as governor of Califormnia but is being coy about running against Ford, who is not particularly popular. Meanwhile, the author details the emerging, gathering political strength of "the New Right." One aspect of this movement is the increasing participation(mostly on the Republican side) of evangelicals, who had previously eschewed political involvement as too "worldly." Abortion was the primary gateway issue for them.
- The author details how RR went from New Deal Democrat to Hollywood Quisling and Commie hunter. Not a pretty story. Blacklisting comes on as RR refers to "so-called" blacklisting. He loves to use that phrase - "so-called"!
- I skimmed through the too-many pages of RR's General Electric history.
- The above stuff should have been lower in the review. I screwed up but I'm not gonna fix it since it's likely that very few people are going to read this!
Despite the fact the re-living of the 1970's is a bit boring at times, it's so compelling to re-live it that I'm having a hard time putting this one down. I forgot that it seemed to take forever for Nixon to finally say bye-bye. F'ing nutcase! And now we've got Trump. I wonder how long he'll last. Thanks Republicans!
- The "Dream and the Glory" ended when Watergate began(or is the "Glory and the Dream"?) and this book picks up the story in much the same vein. Plenty of cultural history for context. There's very little here about "Woodstein" - I wonder why?
Now its time for a history of Watergate while sunny Ron cools his heels in Cali acting like the Nixon-mess is no big deal. I'm being reminded now of how much I hated the man back then and going forward. Another narcissist in politics. Savior of the tighty-whiteys ... Flag bearer for the emerging right wing and the increasingly nasty Republican Party ... a precursor to Trump. UGH!
Onward into the murk waters of Watergate and a reminder of where the roots lie of the Republican Party's ongoing venality. Up next will come attack-dog Pat Buchanan's testimony. Remember the whole dirty tricks campaign? Here we go, and PB will be only the latest in the stream of All-American right-wing nastiness. Meanwhile, we have the still-odious Republican Party of today and it's continuing assault on our principles of democracy. Mitch McConnell! What a man ... barf ... Nixon - Reagan - the Bushes - Cheney - Trump. A den of thieves/liars etc. And I forgot the biggest, craziest, scariest Republican nut job of all - Senator Joe McCarthy. There are STILL Repubs. who speak well of that lunatic. God help us all ...
- Shakey's Pizza gets a nice shout-out. The only Shakey's I've ever been to(that I can recall) is(still) in Waipahu, Hawaii, near Pearl Harbor. One of only 5 Shakey's in the U.S. not in SoCal. Most are overseas, including a whole bunch in the Philippines.
This continues to be my book choice of the moment, crowding out three others. The re-hash of our long national nightmare(thanks Gerry!) is compelling indeed. I'd forgotten how long that f'ing Nixon dragged it out. Now we've got Trump and I wonder how long he'll last. Thanks(again) Republicans!
So, Nixon goes down for the count - finally - and the supposedly more moderate Gerry Ford takes over and starts pissing off conservatives right away by choosing Rockefeller as V.P. and at the same time pissing off liberals by his pardon of Nixon. Meanwhile, the right wingers, presumed to be chastened after the Watergate debacle, are actually gaining strength. All this is well described and nostalgic(not necessarily in a good way) for me. In six years Reagan will be president.
- Spends time on Nixon's emotional, self-pitying good-bye speech to his staff. I well remember that one - crazy!
- Mentions Peter Dominick - I'd forgotten the name. I remember that he was sort in my mother's social circle back in the late 50's - I think.
- Mention is also made of the incredibly wealthy and conservative DeVos family in Michigan. Sound familiar?
- Los Vegas???
Finally got back to this after Focusing on Fiction the last couple of weeks. I'm making no promises about finishing it soon, however, as the story is a dreary one - the rise of the new right in America. Look at what it's brought us to today - a dangerous, self-absorbed, dumb-assed clown is now president and wants to review National Monument designations so his pals can make more billions of $$ despoiling the West. It makes me sick ...
- HEY! The Coors brewing family is in Colorado, not California - sheesh!
- "so much more easy"??? How about - "so much easier"???
- Lowery AFB should be Lowry AFB
Last night's reading brought me into a period of my own life that was not so great for me. Depression and confusion. 1974-75-76. Not the whole three years, but certainly all of '75. I think that as a result I was not paying that much attention to the discouraging political stuff. The main thing I remembered about Gerry Ford was that as a congressman he'd wanted to impeach Earl Warren. That's says it all! F'ing moron ...
Moving on into the primary season of 1976. My parents were living close by NH in Kittery, Me, and we'd once lived in central NH, but I was living in Colorado and not paying a lot of attention(as previously noted).
I'm now slowly approaching the end as it looks like Reagan has gained the primary upper hand, though we know that Ford prevails eventually. He covers the Democratic race as well, where Carter is doing well, but will face a last-ditch effort to dump him at the convention. Done soon, but not tonight.
- My recollection of the words used by Gilda Radner for Emily Litella's rant about "presidential erections" is different from the author's.
- Reagan continues ever onward with his at-best shaky relationship with objective reality, hard facts and the truth. In other words, he liked to make things up. Sound familiar?
The conventions are getting close and Reagan and Ford are neck-and-neck, while the stop-Carter forces won't give up even though he technically gains enough votes to win the nomination. The author gives some time to the strange candidacy of Jerry Brown. He also mentions that the Redford film "The Candidate" was based on this. Either I'd forgotten that or never realized it. Jerry's still around ...
The big Bi-centennial celebration is over with and so is the "We Love Jimmy" love-fest in Manhattan of the Democratic Party Convention. My memory was not accurate as to the doings there. BTW, the author is NOT a Jimmy Carter fan. Now for the Republicans ...
- The author states that the suns light strikes "the North American continent" first at Mars Hill in Maine. HUH? Seem to me that Maritime Canada is much further east than that ... Maybe he meant just in the United States. More shaky proofreading and editing.
YAY! I finished this by NOT reading anything else(for the most part) last night. Reagan came up a bit short but came back yet again and had his eight years. Trump has bumped Reagan out of the top spot as the oldest person to assume the Presidency for the first time(I think). You can admire his career objectively while abhorring his politics, which I do. Republicanism, though not necessarily true ideological conservatism, is also abhorrent to me. Especially in its current "love the rich, privileged and corporate" form. Funny to see Roberts voting with the lefties while Gorsuch voted with the thumbs down folks on the death penalty thing - of course he did!
The ending of the Vietnam war coincided with many chickens coming home to roost for America. Nixon’s administration was busted wide open for their mafia-like behavior with the Watergate scandal. As American POWs returned from their campaign of terror in Vietnam, Americans were confronted with deciding whether these men were heroes or war criminals. Worst of all to the citizens of the consumer republic, inflation and shortages were quickly disrupting the average American’s ability to enjoy the pleasures of being in a global hegemon. What was that average American to make of all this? How could we move on when it seemed like the entire nation had lost confidence in America as an idea? Ronald Reagan had an easy to swallow answer: we were the good guys. A nation sanctified by God. Anybody that did not support us or critiqued America was our enemy and the enemy of moral goodness. Anything bad that America or Americans did was justified by these “facts”. Liberals were confused and ignorant, and it was up to conservatives to take the reins of the empire out of their hands. Instead of self-reflecting during this tumultuous period, it was this Reaganite view of reality that Americans began to believe.
Nixon’s great political gift was his ability to tap into the paranoia of the average right leaning American (an ability no doubt strengthened by Nixon’s own paranoid delusions). A paranoia about gay people, black people, communism, hippies, sex, and anything that upended their conventional narrative about what it meant to be an American. Nixon helped stoke these fears and paranoias, but Reagan helped “solve” them.
Reagan’s great political gift was that he could give the paranoid silent majority a great conservative vision of the future that saw America reclaim its mantle as the greatest nation on Earth. Reagan had an easy answer for everything; an answer which wouldn’t require Americans to reflect on how being part of an empire stained all our hands with blood. POWs were heroes who made Reagan emotional to just think about their ‘sacrifices’. Watergate was a total witch-hunt, and if it wasn’t a witch-hunt then it was a necessary move made by a morally righteous man who loved morally righteous America. Best of all, the answer to our economic woes was not any sort of government-backed wealth redistribution or welfarism. It certainly wasn’t socialism. No, the answer was actually less government oversight into the economy and less “handouts to lazy welfare queens”. Reagan was Goldwater for a new generation.
Where Goldwater bored his audiences by droning on about specific tax laws or the intricacies of certain fighter planes, Reagan invigorated his constituents. He was the embodiment of the vanguard of the resurgent business elite, taking the ideas of Hayek, Von Mises, and the Mont Pelerin society of the 1940s and presenting them in a moralistic way that Americans would understand: big government equals tyranny but small government equals freedom. Small government, of course, meaning a program of ruthless austerity: regulations on corporations and finance capital should be stripped back to the bone, taxes on the rich should be greatly reduced, government welfare programs should be curbed and anything state run that can be privatized should be privatized.
Reagan’s defiance of the Keynesian spirit of age isolated him politically. Yet his radicalism made him an extremely popular figure amongst the conservative masses. One of his most efficient tactics to garner attention was to say something outrageous, get said outrageous statement picked up by the media (like saying he wishes poor people die of botulism) then accuse the media of attacking him because they have a liberal bias. Because the media is a tool that constantly seeks to seem impartial and unbiased in its propaganda, and because members of the media feared their broadcasting licenses being revoked by conservative republicans, the media gave equal “fair” coverage to Reagan and other conservatives’ insane statements no matter how untrue they were and no matter how much they disparaged the media. By providing them equal time on air the media unintentionally helped legitimize the growing conservative movement in the mainstream.
When Nixon’s excruciatingly drawn out watergate scandal came to an end his resignation made many believe that, with Gerald Ford taking over the Oval Office, our national nightmare was over. But, it quickly became apparent that the nation’s contradictions would not be solved by a figure so deeply insulated in the system that brought Nixon power in the first place. When Ford pardoned Nixon for his crimes his approval rating tanked to a greater degree than any president had ever seen.
As Ford faltered the conservative organizations that had been festering since the Goldwater period grew and strengthened. As issues like pornography, school busing, and teaching evolution in text books divided working class white Americans, right wing groups jumped in to propagandize, agitate, organize, and most importantly provide a sense of community to alienated white Americans. Sex, race, religion, and education galvanized conservatives. As these right wing forces were fermenting and spreading like germs a new breed of pro-austerity democrats, called Watergate babies, were ascending to power and took over the party in the 1974 midterm elections (elections that only 33% of the eligible voting population ended up participating in). These democrats were funded by special interest groups and preached about changing the stagnant and corrupt systems that were failing the United States citizens; systems like the seniority system within the Democratic Party or the fat-cat labor union bosses. What can be clearly seen here is that this period of turmoil, from the failure of LBJ to the excruciatingly long watergate scandal, had produced a culture that had lost faith in the domestic institutions that helped foster America’s dominance since WW2. White working class Americans nostalgically longed for the days of JFK when Americans could feel good about being American while ignoring all the contradictions inherent within the American capitalist system. The right wing not-very-fringe media groups and political organizations (many of which received major funding from billionaires or large corporations like GM) jumped at the chance to recruit these Americans into their cause and began taking over the American political system starting at the local level. The different strands of conservatives: those who wanted to stop the spreading of new ideas about sex and abortion, those who wanted to stop subversion of religious teaching in schools, those who hated communism, those who hated integration, those who hated taxes and the government, and those who were a mixture of all of the above began to see Reagan and his simplistic moralism as the flag bearer of the movement.
More events further destabilized the legitimacy of America’s liberal ideology which was holding on by a thread: the OPEC oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis, the church commission and exposure of various CIA atrocities (assassinations of foreign leaders like Lumumba, MK-ULTRA secret experiments, domestic mass spying and surveillance in Operation CHAOS, etc.), the quick and total collapse of South Vietnam, the rightward turn in foreign policy that began undermining Detente, the fact that by 1975 66% of Americans polled reported they did not trust the government, and the bankruptcy of New York City which was the poster child for Keynesian economics and welfarism. When Ford told the city to “drop dead” the dress rehearsal for the neoliberal age began.
The growing rightward American turn helped Reagan push the Republican Party farther and farther to the right while contesting Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination for president. While both candidates preached nearly identical goals of reduction of “big government” and Keynesian economic programs, Ford was seen as a bumbling, uncharismatic oaf whose family of unruly liberals walked all over him. But it was Reagan, whose wife beat their daughter daily and installed cameras in their home to spy on the children, whose own daughter and son said he often forgot their names and did not recognize them, who would spur on the arrest of his daughter’s lover for being black and subsequently use the FBI to spy on her next lover, who would become the only divorced president, who was known (along with his wife) for being one of the most promiscuous people in Hollywood, this man would become the embodiment of good Christian family values that Gerald Ford lacked. Ford had been a perennial party man and Republican loyalist, but Reagan was the exciting, outspoken outsider. Americans were tired of career politicians. They were tired of the government. They longed for a president outside the “establishment”; that president would not be Ronald Reagan (not yet at least). Instead it would be Jimmy Carter.
Carter was a perfect contradiction for the spirit of a the age. A “small time peanut farmer” who actually owned a warehousing business, he talked and campaigned like a folksy populist while simultaneously being a bureaucratic technocrat. Being an outsider made you popular, but being an insider gave you power and Carter took advantage of both. He preached a message of compassion, respect, and love that called out to the empathy of the disillusioned masses of America. In a time where bombings were increasing and cults like Scientology and EST were swelling in numbers, Americans appeared to be either grasping for straws of hope or raging at the lack-there-of. Carter promised loving compassion to the hopeless and excluded, but his compassion was saturated with the strengthening ideology of the coming neoliberal revolution; an ideology of austerity. Deep down Carter was a cynic; the type of man who preached things like integration yet didn’t support actual desegregation policy like school busing, and had been a vocal proponent of George Wallace.
While he was the sitting president, Gerald Ford was able to tap into existing Republican institutions and political machines for support (plus their bottomless pits of money) that Reagan simply did not have access to. This allowed Ford to narrowly defeat Reagan in the primaries. However Ford was unable to tap into the current zeitgeist the way Jimmy Carter was. Ford was boring while Carter was inspiring. The book ends with Ford edging out Reagan for the nomination by the skin of his teeth, but nobody in the Republican camp appears particularly enthusiastic about it. Carter, on the other hand, had the Democratic National convention, and soon much of the nation, in a virtual frenzy over his nomination as the Democratic candidate for president. His presidency would be a disaster, and with it the dying throngs of liberalism would give birth to the Reaganite revolution soaring over the ashes.
A poor excuse for political analysis and biography. The author only juxtaposed popular culture events and anecdotes with a time line of political events. However, anecdotes do not substitute for analysis. Really, was the Patty Hearst story a metaphor for an important political point of view or movement? The extent that both Carter and Reagan both used a degree of political license to succeed is hardly news. That Ford was not as skilled an orator a Reagan is also not news. What is the point of this book? It is not about political philosophy. It is only secondarily about campaign skills. Is the point that Reagan was insincere? Or that he was a highly practical politician. The author does not even let reader evaluate if this was a tradeoff.
Also the refrain that Ford was "dammed if he does and dammed if he doesn't" while presented persasively did not add to any understanding of the tensions between campaigning and governing.
The book has lots of information but no theme no sense of purpose and no discernible point of view. All the reporting on Frank Church's activities but no conclusions as to why it was ultimately non consequential. Perhaps at the end of the day the government is willing to accept compromises with liberty to achieve security. That is a topic that merits serious analysis. The author only waves at it as he breezes by.
The Invisible Bridge, third in Perlstein's four-volume history of the rise of conservatism, picks up in early 1973 with the early stages of inflation and Watergate, and focuses heavily on the 1976 primary campaign of Ronald Reagan. His argument is that, in the midst of an unprecedented level of public skepticism toward American institutions, Americans chose nostalgia over real scrutiny. This can be seen not only in the Reagan campaign but in the aw-shucks, I'm-just-a-simple-country-farmer campaign by Jimmy Carter. As a cultural critique, it's powerful and convincing.
As it happens, I was reading The Invisible Bridge while following the appalling police riot in Ferguson, MO every day. And while the left-leaning folks on my Facebook and Twitter feed were expressing rage and despair, a few of them were also passing along a gif from--of all things--The Andy Griffith Show. And in that gif, Sheriff Andy Taylor explains that he doesn't even wear a gun, because he wants to relate to the people on Mayberry as fellow citizens. This is Perlstein's thesis in a nutshell. If you the concerned American citizen are repulsed by the ugly present, here is the nostalgia for an imagined past where kindly Southern sheriffs spoke in liberal bromides. It bears little resemblance to the rural South of the early 1960s, when a white person could shoot a black person in broad daylight without fear of prosecution. Similarly, Reagan's imagined American past was more Hollywood than history.
If The Invisible Bridge seems perfectly chosen to the present moment, that's not coincidental. Part of Perlstein's appeal to a popular audience--in my mind--is that he always seems to be writing about the present through the lens of past. Perlstein wrote The Coming Storm largely during the Clinton era, and his portrait of the complacent liberal consensus of the early '60s sounds a lot like the complacent neoliberal consensus of Clintonism. (Notably, he is most sympathetic to conservatives in that first volume, as fellow outsiders to the establishment; he recounts how some New Right activists would join up with leftists at a bar to sing socialist drinking songs.) Nixonland is written during the Bush administration, and Nixon's ability to win by polarize the country between liberal elitists and the Silent Majority is a clear reflection of George W. Bush, the president voters wanted to have a beer with. In The Invisible Bridge, the Reagan challenge to Ford seems an awful lot like a Tea Party challenge. Perlstein has explicitly compared Carter to Obama in interviews, to his mind two flaccid centrists trafficking in phony uplift.
There are advantages to this, particularly for a popular historian. Much of what Perlstein writes about Nixonland and here in The Invisible Bridge are deeply familiar in American pop culture. Perlstein can write about something as familiar as Watergate and make it gripping--both by placing the reader in the midst of the action, and by constantly tying it to the present. (A small mention, of 10 year old Barry Obama obsessed with the Watergate hearings during a rare family trip to the mainland, gave me chills.) Not for nothing is Perlstein a best-selling author, with many readers who would never buy a book on the 1976 election without his name on it.
But it's worth questioning Perlstein's analysis, particularly since he always seems to overstate the power of conservatism. (RULE OR RUIN, Geoffery Kabaservice's history of moderate Republicans during the 1960s, convincingly argues that Perlstein overstates the right's power during the period covered by NIXONLAND.) In this volume, Perlstein argues that the Democrats marched to the right after the election in 1974. But in the election of 1976, the Democratic consensus was in favor of single payer health care and a social democratic bill (called Humphrey-Hawkins) that mandated economic planning and the automatic provision of federal jobs to maintain 2% unemployment. Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter was the first pro-choice nominee (with provisos) and the first presidential nominee to support gay rights. Had Carter enacted his platform, he would have been the second most important president of the 20th century, phony uplift or not. (Perlstein presents this as Carter being all things to all people; but politicians being opportunistic is part of how political change happens.) Surely liberalism had strength left in it yet.
Nor did Ronald Reagan have the magic bullet to overcome the residual strength of liberalism. Perlstein mentions that Reagan's first attempt to kick off a tax revolt in California flopped in 1973. Fresh off of this stinging loss, he began his primary campaign. Notably, when he called for changes in the Tennessee Valley Authority, the southern conservatives in his base revolted and delivered Tennessee for Ford. Even among the Republican electorate, he got little traction off of his call for privatizing Social Security as a way to strengthen the institution. (Reagan's first chief of staff, James Baker, would later conclude that Reagan could only lose by trying to change Social Security.) Reagan's insecurity can be seen in his choice of running mate, a liberal Republican named Richard Schweiker who had also supported Humphrey-Hawkins and single payer. Reagan's primary appeal was in flogging American jingoism around the issue of the Panama Canal, suggesting that Republicans were primarily disgusted with Ford for losing the war in Vietnam than anything else.
(None of which is to say that Reaganism didn't eventually become a force. But economic liberalism's power diminished slowly throughout the 1970s, and in some important ways constrained Reagan's freedom of action when he was president. Perlstein's analysis often overlooks that.)
Perlstein reminds me of Robert Caro for a younger generation; like Caro, he's adept at myth-making. Caro's are Boomer myths about the noble Kennedys and the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson. Perlstein's myths are more contemporary--the eternal fecklessness of the Democratic establishment, the cluelessness of the mainstream media, the scary resourcefulness of conservatives who always seem to win by losing. Like Caro, I think Rick Perlstein is a tremendously valuable writer to consult, but in conjunction with other histories of the period. Like a famous man once said, Trust, but verify.
The follow up to Nixonland bring us from the excitement, the motion, the carnival, and the conflict of the Sixties to the quagmire and culture wars of the seventies. A morass that we have yet to crawl out of. This book feels very now, the silly divide and conquer conflict of culture wars, solipsism, spiritual longing crumbling infrastructure, apocalyptic rumblings, news as a source of panic more than information, and the political parties fighting a civil war for their identity. Covering Watergate, the rise of Reagan and Carter, the floundering of Ford, the end of Vietnam, and the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Perlstein continues to make history as addictive and arguably as exploitative as a novel. Essential and compulsive reading.
Definitely some compelling political history. Perlstein has been criticized for his depictions of the Republican party, but 1) he lambasts democrats as well whenever they are brought up (which, granted, isn't as often, but this is a history of the conservative movement) and 2) he backs his claims up with facts. The last 75 pages or so are woefully dull, outlining in gratuitous detail the occurrences at the 1976 Republican convention, but the rest of the books 800-some pages are great. Fast, readable, full of fascinating information.
Mr. Perlstein has chosen a fascinating period in contemporary American politics to write about. And there is some genuinely interesting material here, for example his discussion of Lemuel Boulware and his nitty-gritty account of the 1976 Republican National Convention. Reviews that accuse the book of political bias ignore the fact that Mr. Perlstein directs his sarcasm at both Republicans and Democrats (and, in fairness, Reagan's self-contradictions and convoluted statements are a matter of public record).
That sarcasm is one of the fundamental problems with the book. Mr. Perlstein spends too much time showing us how cool and insightful he is, when a true journalistic effort would have been much more impressive. He just ends of seeming condescending.
A couple of other issues. One is that too many of his paragraphs read like bullet lists of facts. He takes something of a kitchen sink approach in reporting cultural events without convincingly tying it all together. (Not every movie is a culturally significant reflection of its times. Sometimes a movie is just a movie.) A good round of editing could have shortened this book by 200 pages and made it more compelling.
Another problem is that Mr. Perlstein seems careless with his facts. (It bothers me that his notes are not printed in the book but instead listed on his web site. He claims one benefit of this is that he can link to the original sources; I found several of those links didn't work.) For example, at one point he mentions the University of Indiana, which must come as a shock to graduates of Indiana University. He reports that a teenager committed suicide after watching the Exorcist, but I can find no credible source to confirm this. His discussion of the bankruptcy of NYC in the 1970s makes no mention of Robert Moses, an oversight that will be caught by anyone who has read Robert Caro's The Power Broker. These might seem like small details, but details matter, and if the author gets these wrong, then what other mistakes did he make?
So there is some good material here, but anyone who reads The Invisible Bridge should scrutinize it carefully.
I cannot believe I took the time to read this whole thing. It is a huge undertaking to read and must have been a piece of work to write.
The detailed information about the social, media, cultural and political activities of the 60's, 70's and 80's is interesting, though he has selected to support what he believes. And one useful observation, that the Watergate Babies crop of congressmen and senators can be compared to the tea party crowd today, so there is nothing new.
Titles are not important, but if you are looking for a plausible analysis of some sort of bridge between Nixon and Reagin, in my opinion the book misses the title and that premise. I could find no Bridge, Visible or Not.
And the lenses that he sees the world through are thick indeed. And statist liberal to the core. The epitome of the north eastern liberal US writer, in Canada he would qualify as an elder statesman of the Laurentian political class.
So you want a sense of the US liberal view of a couple of important decades, a good read.
Be mindful though, I have my own set of thick spectacles that includes profound respect for Reagan and his political genius. His policy results were of course not perfect, but the best that could be done and winning in the end.
I was a teenager during this time period, and being the child of political parents, I watched the Senate Watergate hearings, the House impeachment hearings, and Richard Nixon's resignation speech. It was a crazy, cynical time.
No wonder a con man like Ronald Reagan could be elected president in 1980. America was confused, adrift, and looking for easy, certain answers. And we are still living with these consequences.
As he did in Nixonland, Rick Perlstein finds all the socioeconomic, political, and cultural details of an era and ties them all together in a masterful narrative. Patty Hearst, streaking, "The Exorcist," "Saturday Night Live," politics at the Academy Awards -- it's all there.
Just look at the cover of this book. Reagan in 1976 looks like Elvis Presley, arms and legs all flung out, posing for his adoring fans, understanding the moment, while everyone else in the background is clueless.
Sobering -- particularly if you are a reader uninterested in certainty or simple answers.
This is the third installment in Rick Perlstein's colossal history of Movement Conservatism in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. It begins with the disgrace of Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal, depicted here as a slowly unfolding horror show, and ends with the near triumph of Ronald Reagan in challenging President Ford in the 1976 Republican primary. In between these moments Perlstein adds plenty of cultural context to get a sense of what the climate was like in the America of the 70s. It's not a pretty image. He paints a picture of a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown, having lost faith in institutions that only a few years earlier had seemed so reliable. Between Watergate, the loss of the Vietnam War, the Church Committee investigations, or the economic malaise of stagflation, Americans were faced with a crisis of identity about what their country was and what it meant to be an American. In this context it is understandable why a scandal-weary public would find solace in the myths and simple answers of one Ronald Reagan.
This book doesn't quite reach the heights of Perlstein's previous installment, Nixonland. His propensity to go extremely in depth, while very effective at giving the reader a sense of what it felt like to live during this period, often feels a bit all over this place in this book, diluting the overall narrative. This was particularly true in the last one hundred pages or so, when the delegate battle between Ford and Reagan is described in minute by minute detail. Also, Reagan just isn't as compelling a character as Nixon. Perlstein really leans into the 'plastic man' image of Reagan, a guy covered in so many layers of self-aggrandizing BS it's hard to see a human being. Compared with Nixon, a man made up of pure human neurosis, it just doesn't make for quite as good reading.
Lastly, it's fascinating to see how the scattered cadres of right-wing fanatics of the 50s were able to maintain the organization and disciple to hijack on of America's major political parties within two decades. I guess it helps having wealthy backers with deep pockets.
I think Rick Perlstein’s got to be my favorite American history writer. Each of the volumes in this series are so brimming with life that, for lack of a better cliche, you feel like you’re there. It’s also a balm for our anxious times in how thoroughly it reminds you that this country has seen years just as, if not more, crazy and action packed. I also have to hand it to Perlstein for consistently profiling all his subjects with a no holds barred critical eye without disregarding one iota of their multifaceted humanity. It’s a lengthy read, but it goes by at breakneck speed.
This is the third book in Rick Perlstein’s quartet of the history of the rise of modern conservatism in the United States. It covers the period of 1972-76. It’s the story of the fall of Nixon, the interregnum of Gerald Ford, and the rise of both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to national prominence. Perlstein is a great storyteller and takes you through this period of the mid-1970s as though you are actually there. His telling of history just pops off the page. Not only does he get the politics and biographical details right, he also summons the spirit of the age — the social, cultural, and even psychological dimensions of this era. I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in this period of American political history.
This is an interesting book and an enjoyable read for the most part, especially for someone who came of age in the 1970's. It is the third in Rick Perlsteins' history of the modern American conservative movement ("Before the Storm," which focuses on the Barry Goldwater phenomenon, and "Nixonland" are the other two). There was a lot in this book that brought back memories of that era, both politically and culturally, and many behind-the-scenes details that I was learning about for the first time. The book actually can be seen as three separate books: a cultural history of the mid-1970's, a type of "Making of the President, 1976" (without the general Presidential campaign included), and most disappointingly, a psychological study of Ronald Reagan. This part of the book was easily the weakest, as I really don't believe that Reagan's appeal was based on his work as a young lifeguard or his first marriage to Jane Wyman. I'm not sure why a more through analysis of his record as governor of California wasn't included; that is how most Americans first learned of him. I also have some questions about Mr. Perstein's research techniques; they are very sloppy at times. The details that he gets wrong are usually pretty trivial, but they display a certain laziness about checking one's facts. For instance, Al Downing was pitching for the Dodgers, not Cincinnati, when he gave up Hank Aaron's 715th home run (just look at the photos, Rick!). It was Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America," not "America the Beautiful" that was played before Philadelphia Flyers games in the 1970's (and what a connection to Reagan, who introduced that phrase to Presidential addresses). When Jimmy Carter's team arrived in Iowa in early January, 1976, it was not 100 degrees in Atlanta; it was in the low 60's. (I found out that info in a search that took less than a minute!) Come on, Rick, 100 degrees in Atlanta in January?? Does that even make sense? And then to top it off, if you turn in his book to look for his source notes, you are told that they are online. Perhaps this is a view of scholarship in the future, but it seems a little slapdash and cheap (by the publisher) to do it this way. Finally, despite the author's exhaustive, and often convincing attempts to show the nation in the 1970's as moving into separate "tribes," I think that he missed an opportunity to show how both Carter and Reagan represented for many Americans the same thing: the innocent "outsider" promising to come into Washington in order to redeem the nation. That's what got Carter elected, and when he failed to deliver on that redemption, the nation turned to Reagan. Whether or not he succeeded is still begin debated, but in many ways we are still looking for that type of leader to help us address the uncertainties of the 21st century.
The Invisible Bridge begins with the Fall of Nixon, for which he had set himself up, hubristically, at the end of Nixonland, the second volume in the series. It ends with Reagan's rise as a people's favorite who almost managed to snatch away the nomination from the Accidental President, Gerald Ford. It also deals with Carter's rise and the displacement of the great men of the Democratic Party (the McGoverns, the Kennedys). Although the book is at times a ponderous read with great detail about minor events (it's a 900 page book with no notes, to cover a three year period), I believe this detail is necessary to properly appreciate the great set piece, the Republican convention of 1976 at Kansas City. Having read Perlstein's fascinating description of this event I have concluded that I am mostly blind, because I have never appreciated the many nuances that he brings to the table. Guided by a master of small p politics like Perlstein, the most minute details come together a detailed tapestry of intrigue and pettiness that tells a very clear story: how Ford, a perfectly decent, competent and likable President with a charming wife and family, was nearly sidelined by a chronic liar like Reagan. Perlstein also tells Ronald Reagan's story and how this extraordinary man created his own reality as he retold it. In the 1970s this version of reality (of the USA as a country of decent, hard-working, heroic people) was preferred by many to the sordid reality of post-1960s, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America. Thus, Ford's many real achievements were swept under the carpet as both the Republican and the Democratic party remade themselves: the Republicans shifted to the South where they took up the former Dixiecrat cause, while Democrats moved out into the coastal areas, including Reagan and Nixon's own California. Liberal Republicans like Ford's Vice President Rockefeller would go the way of the Dodo,while Carter would be the harbinger of a new, post-racial South, liberal in politics but conservative in economics. His most clear successor would be Bill Clinton. As he did in the first two volumes of his tetralogy about the rise of the neoconservative movement in the USA, Perlstein picks up on popular culture and does a particularly fine job on the cultural implications of the Exorcist, the Patty Hearst/Simbionese Liberation Army case and Charles Bronson's Death Wish. He shows the sordidness of the mid-seventies, the almost palpable sense of moral collapse and the rendering of moral fiber, with the never-ending fallout of the 1960s as a permanent fixture. This is specially repulsive in the context of the stories of former prisoner of war GIs returning from Vietnam and finding their wives wallowing in the promiscuity and anomie of the era. Overall a very good read.
Like with Ronald Reagan himself, there's not quite a "there" there on this book.
Rick Perlstein has trod on conservative sacred ground with this book. Hence, the 1-star reviews; almost all are disgruntled Reaganite wingnuts, and many have gone so far as to peddle totally bogus plagiarism theories.
That said, those theories get their ground for a reason -- no hardcopy endnotes.
And, that's part of why it's not a 5-star book. Sorry, partisan Dems. (That said, I vote Green when I have the chance.)
I don't give a fig if Perstein has online endnotes. I'm reading the hardcopy book and I want my endnotes there. If he or his publisher thought it made the book too long, then split it into two volumes.
Also, it's missing explanatory end-of-page footnotes as well. Those, if they exist online, would be even more useless there than teats on a boar hog.
Plus, he doesn't totally find the "there" there of Reagan. Certainly not for the number of pages invested. (That said, neither did Edmund Morris.)
And, the book, besides the possibility that it either could have been written in 200 fewer pages, or else with more depth and in two volumes, does have errors, too.
No whoppers, but, as one example?
Perlstein regularly calls Congressman Mo Udall "Senator." Regularly. And, more jarringly, once, he gets it right. Can't blame an editor, Rick; this is something you should have gotten right yourself.
Well, we can also blame an editor, after Perlstein got it wrong.
The years have given Perlstein a cynicism about politicians that I didn't detect in his earlier Goldwater history. The earlier tale was told in the most straightforward manner where you couldn't really detect Perlstein's attitude toward Goldwater. Here there is no doubt that sees politicians of the 1970s as untrustworthy. The book begins amid Nixon's Watergate troubles and drifts into Ford's attempt at reconciliation, and concludes with challenges by Reagan and Carter. Of the group he is easiest on Ford. Nixon can't be trusted. Reagan's spontaneity is all an act. Carter's brand of honesty belies the most dishonest and calculated campaign of the 1976 cycle. Thankfully, Perlstein's sly sense of humor about the folly of politics and politicians makes it all go down easy with laughs that will sometimes come out loud. This approach paints most of the participants in least flattering lights to the point where it's not always even fair. At least it's entertaining.
I just recently read ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN and I have read Craig Shirley's take on the 1976 election so some of this was familiar territory. But there was also enough new information here to keep me turning pages and I might have given up on a drier account. I am looking forward to what I suppose is the next book about Reagan and Carter in 1980.
the third in perlstein's series on the rise of the modern conservative movement is the most compelling of the three books and traces the rise of reagan and the fall of nixon. perlstein's narrative style transforms otherwise dry non-fiction into a page turner, albeit occasionally at the cost of analytical rigor (i.e. perlstein is constantly describing the relationship between his interpretation of the zeitgeist and the movement of history).
his most interesting contribution in this book is his fairly believable assessment of reagan's cognitive style, dating back to his youth. in brief, reagan's crowning gift (politically, at least) was his ability to see (and crucially, to deeply believe) simple moral narratives wherever he looked. combined with his gift for glibness, reagan was a tonic in an age of cynicism. in an era where trusted institutions not only failed, but flagrantly violated the trust placed in them, reagan's simple moralistic sentiments were uniquely compelling.
this narrative, of course, is fairly depressing if you think that democracy should function remotely the way that our founders thought it was supposed to work, but its a plausible partial account of why the modern conservative movement has been so successful in persuading voters to defy their self interest.