FDL Book Salon Welcomes Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
It’s an honor to moderate today’s discussion of Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. For American history buffs and scholars alike, Rick’s work needs little introduction. He’s the acclaimed author of three major works on the rise of conservatism in the postwar United States (Before the Storm, Nixonland, and now The Invisible Bridge), whose journalism, criticism and writings on history have appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and countless other publications. Not just do his books hit the best-seller lists and make the end-of-year best-book roundups, they have become part of the canon, required reading for aspiring American political historians—appearing on the syllabi for graduate seminars, a necessary part of the rite-of-passage hazing ritual for graduate students known as the comprehensive exam, and thus filtering down into the undergraduate lecture courses that introduce the college students of this country to twentieth-century American history.
Why has he had such impact? Reviewers love to trumpet Rick’s snazzy, vibrant writing style (who else would describe Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew as “that pathetic man a heartbeat away from the presidency”?) as well as his indefatigable ability to dig up exactly the right quote, strange anecdote or vivid example. But more important than that—although intimately connected—is that by showing how political history is inseparable from culture, Rick has been able to make the strange history of conservatism comprehensible to a generation of readers and scholars. He’s able to identify with the passions that drove the right, even to admire the political commitment of the activists who built the movement, while at the same time always retaining a strong sense of the surreal, bizarre and downright destructive aspects of this history. He helps us to understand why the right rose not just through his arguments, but by reminding us—showing us—what it felt like to live through the crazy times he chronicles.
Rick’s first book (Before the Storm) told the story of the failed 1964 presidential bid of Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Senator whose ghost-written book The Conscience of a Conservative sparked the imagination of small-town manufacturers who dreamed of dismantling the New Deal, and who sought to promote Goldwater as a candidate to represent their particular brand of anti-welfare-state conservatism against the moderates in the Republican Party. Goldwater’s campaign, Rick showed, helped to galvanize a generation of conservative activists; it was one of the most successful failures in American history. His second book (Nixonland) looked at Richard Nixon, the sour paranoiac whose politics of melodramatic resentment bequeathed modern conservatism much of its emotional tone.
If anything, The Invisible Bridge is a more ambitious book, for it deals not only with the conservative gift for the alchemy that transforms defeat into victory, but also with the beginnings of actual electoral success for the right: the emergence of Ronald Reagan into national political life. The book braids together a rich social history of America between 1973 and 1976, from the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Watergate investigation through the 1976 Republican convention when Reagan almost (but not quite!) wrested the nomination for the presidency away from incumbent Gerald Ford, with a biography of Reagan. Rick mines newspaper ads and letter-to-the-editor pages to unearth the way that the Watergate hearings became a pop-culture phenomenon: newspaper boys who interrupted their routes to read the complete coverage before tossing their papers, Nixon supporters who likened Congress to the “Parisian mob” cheering on the guillotines. He tells the story of the heralded return of POWs in 1973, recollecting how even this moment intended as one of maximal national unity met with both hysterical support (the bumper stickers reading “POWs NEVER HAVE A NICE DAY!”) and criticism, the latter from the antiwar activists who objected that these celebrations elided the ongoing violence of the war. He remembers the public lighting displays that went dark during Christmas 1973—and the city (Rensselaer, Indiana, if you were wondering) that turned off its streetlamps to save energy. He digs up the apocalyptic predictions for 1974—which included the oddly prescient prediction that New York City would go bankrupt, “the first tangible sign of the collapse of our entire civilization.”
At first glance, this might seem to have little to do with the story of Reagan’s political development, from his recollected childhood idyll to his participation in the anticommunist politics of McCarthy-era Hollywood, to his time with the fiercely conservative General Electric. But in fact, the two parts of the book are closely connected for Rick makes the argument that Reagan’s appeal makes sense only when viewed against the backdrop of chaos and despair that was the early 1970s. Against this painful history—of Watergate, Vietnam, racial conflict, revelations of government spying, and the end of postwar abundance—Ronald Reagan was able to embody an image of wholeness and American virtue that spoke to a longing for escape. Historians have long been confounded by Reagan—did he really believe his own arguments, shallow as they may seem? Rick argues that the secret of his appeal may have been precisely that the Gipper recognized the political nature of dreams and stories: reality, for him, was literally shaped by the narratives he told.
I’ve known Rick since the late 1990s, when we were both part of a small group of aspiring writers who met every few weeks to talk politics at a small café on Greenwich Avenue in New York City. In the years since his own accomplishments have been accompanied by an unfailing generosity toward other historians; he loves to help junior colleagues locate archives, books and sources, and he’s unstinting in his efforts to promote other people’s scholarship on the right. He’s a historian and colleague whose sheer pleasure in the artifacts and documents that animate his work is completely contagious, and it’s a treat to be able to host this salon today.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]