You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

How Ronald Reagan Rode America's Delusions to the White House

Reviewing Rick Perlstein's 'The Invisible Bridge'

AFP/Getty Images

Rick Perlstein is becoming an American institution. In 2001, his account of Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus was well received. This he followed with Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, in 2008, a study of the American body politic between the 1968 and 1972 elections. The epic continues in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, which examines the four turbulent years from 1972 to 1976, the bridge from Nixon’s very visible demise to Reagan’s increasingly visible triumph. All three have a trademark style. They are prodigiously researched; they are long; they are funny; and, in their zeal for narrative, they owe more to the high-quality journalism of a David Halberstam or a Theodore White than to the footnoting, the theorizing, and the narrowed focus of academic historical writing. In addition, Perlstein’s three books trace a single argument—that the conservative movement divided the nation.

But how often can a nation be divided? Perlstein would struggle to answer this question. In his multi-volume history, division functions not as an analytical category, rooted in statements of cause and effect, but as a poetic motif. As such, it resembles the melodies associated with particular characters in a opera, and when Goldwater or Nixon or Reagan is on stage, the trumpet of disunity is duly sounded. As a matter of logic, they cannot each have been the one to divide America. Without the motif of division, however, The Invisible Bridge would be a collage of campaign and cultural detail, of journalistic citations and political anecdote, held together only by chronological sequence, which, in essence, is what his latest book is. Perlstein’s genuine writerly gifts are compromised by the banality and imprecision of his broader historical insights.

Because the fracturing of America has no real beginning, in Perlstein’s chronicle, it can have no recognizable end. He registers the Alger Hiss case of 1948–1950 as the first time Nixon, “this strange, sweating man divided the country in two.” (This is a wildly hyperbolic claim: The deep divisions exposed by the Hiss case were ones that Nixon, a political novice when he stumbled on the case, simply exploited and in no way created.) With the McCarthy era, “the nation was now neatly divided,” Perlstein continues, and, in 1958, labor relations were “approaching a pitch near to civil war.” Lyndon Johnson’s presidency was, also, fractious. In this it was superseded by “Nixonland’s division.” “There were two tribes of Americans now,” Perlstein writes of the early 1970s: “how badly out of joint the nation had become.” Despite his popularity, Reagan too was “a divider.” “All right,” wrote John Dos Passos far more succinctly in his U.S.A. trilogy, "we are two nations."

Exhaustively detailed, The Invisible Bridge eschews nuance for generalizations: The country is enmeshed in a permanent and enervating presidential campaign, ever on the edge of unraveling. In The Invisible Bridge, the “world [has] gone mad,” its madness cause for “an increasingly paranoid culture.” “Everyone wanted to be somewhere else,” Perlstein writes of Americans during and after Watergate, because “it was easy to feel like civilization was falling apart” and “the world seemed well neigh unto apocalypse.” In “such death-haunted times,” a nation’s dreams could only be “haunted” as well. Even “trick-or-treating was just about too frightening to contemplate” in 1973, Perlstein notes. Amid their despair, “people yearned to believe.”

More than anything, in Perlstein’s eyes, people longed to believe in their country’s vanished innocence. There were America’s credulous conservatives, and there were “the suspicious circles”—epitomized for Perlstein by the cynical journalism of Seymour Hersh and Woodward and Bernstein. Conservatives believed, while a disenchanted Left did not, or it believed in America’s innovative capacity for wrongdoing. Try as he might, Ford could not shed Nixon’s perfidy and the suspicions it had aroused. With Nixon pardoned and the suspicious circles inserting their doubts into the culture, “no one trusted much of anything.” By 1976, the riddle of suspicion and innocence admitted only two political solutions: the born-again innocence of Jimmy Carter and the stylized innocence of Ronald Reagan. Perlstein concludes The Invisible Bridge with Carter momentarily ascendant and Reagan marked, even then, as a man of destiny. Carter and Reagan will doubtless be the dueling protagonists of Perlstein’s next book.

Reagan graces the cover of The Invisible Bridge, and he dominates its pages. Recognizably the son of an alcoholic father, Perlstein’s Reagan is “an athlete of denial.” As a Hollywood actor, he learned to merge the innocence of his public persona with a political appeal to innocence, directed first against Hollywood’s communists and then against the Bay Area’s radicals (when Reagan served as Governor of California from 1967 to 1975). Although Perlstein’s biographical writing on Reagan is vividly drawn, it adds little to Lou Cannon’s sober two-volume biography or to Edmund Morris’s experimental biography-novel, Dutch, though it is a bit darker than both, lingering on Reagan’s “rank hypocrisy” and serial dishonesty.

Reagan profited from what Perlstein characterizes as at one point “a new rightward tilt in the nation’s electorate” and at another as “a blinding backlash” against liberalism. The plodding Gerald Ford was no genius, and he could neither perceive nor contain “the right-wing insurgency bubbling barely beneath the surface” of mainstream American politics. He did not envision opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, to abortion, to Keynsianism, and to secularism as the catalysts of a new electoral coalition. Instead, he sought a conciliatory course that stranded him in a political no man’s land.

Reagan was different. Perlstein delights in the “myopia of pundits” where the pre-presidential Reagan was concerned—and especially of the New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Drew. The pundits knew that Vietnam and Watergate had changed everything, and the guilt-ridden Carter was a media darling. Whereas Reagan was easily dismissed as too conservative, too sanguine, and too out of touch. Vietnam had not altered Reagan’s view of the Cold War; nor did Reagan see in Watergate much more than a tale of low-level crime and incompetence. In Perlstein’s estimation, Reagan was delusional—about this the New Yorker was right—but also prescient, and Reagan’s delusions of national innocence meshed perfectly with the nation’s own longing to be innocent once again.

Perlstein’s proof is the 1976 Republican primaries, recounted at interminable length in The Invisible Bridge. Reagan was so conservative that even Goldwater did not consider him a viable or attractive candidate. By the time Reagan stole the show at the GOP’s national convention, with an impromptu speech far better than Ford’s prepared speech, “the New Right had arrived,” Perlstein writes. In this arrival lies an analytical problem for Perlstein. Reagan is better in tune with the national spirit than Ford or than Carter in 1976, as Carter’s first and only term in office would proceed to demonstrate. Reagan is a strong campaigner, a natural communicator. The nation hungers for the innocence Reagan is trying to sell it, deceitfully if need be. A groundswell of conservatism almost lifted a poorly funded ex-Governor over an incumbent president. This would suggest that Reagan was creating something, assembling puzzle pieces, finding his way to a new reservoir of voters, but these actions go against the intensifying division to which Perlstein’s entire narrative is committed.  

Indeed, Perlstein titles chapter 21 of The Invisible Bridge “Weimar Summer,” an analogy that explains the limits of his historical imagination. The Weimar Republic, erected after imperial Germany’s defeat in the Great War, was beset by revolutionary and paramilitary groups intent on destroying it. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy had been traumatic and potentially destabilizing, but the government was not overthrown. This type of analogy illustrates the exaggeration of rhetorical effect to which Perlstein is historiographically addicted. The U.S. has never come close to having a Weimar summer. Yet nothing bores Perlstein more than a lack of division, a boredom that leads him to downplay Reagan’s coalition building, an essential ingredient of his political success.

Reagan’s promise was less to reach across the aisle than to unite conservatives—business conservatives, evangelical conservatives, Catholic conservatives, Jewish conservatives, national-security conservatives, working-class conservatives, etc. This he did better than Ford or Nixon, and this, combined with the widening of the conservative electorate in the 1970s, made Reagan unbeatable in 1980. The poetry of innocence, then, is an abstraction compared to the quotidian prose of Reagan’s coalition building, a work in progress from the ’40s to the ’80s.

Wikimedia Commons
Reagan and Nixon converse.

At least as important as Reagan’s small-town, greatest-generation air of innocence was his enjoyment of political warfare. Perlstein himself documents Reagan’s confrontations with radicals in Hollywood and Berkeley, persuasively claiming them as formative for Reagan and his initial supporters. Reagan’s very ideas were confrontational: They were, and are still, an affront to American liberalism. Moreover, Reagan promised to confront the Soviet Union, as had JFK in his presidential campaign, and not in the spirit of innocence. Considerable anger was contained behind the actor’s amiable façade, natural for a politician used to having—and seeing—enemies in his midst. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979, Reagan’s anger was a political asset. Perlstein discerns too much Frank Capra in Reagan’s appeal and too little of the friend-foe dynamic that Reagan used to conceptualize and sustain his political base. If Reagan did not unify the nation in 1980, he unified it enough to get elected and then to govern. To this degree, Reagan united more than he divided or, more mystically put, he united the nation by dividing it. Such is the synthesis that can be spun from Perlstein’s oversimplified thesis.

Rick Perlstein is a superb researcher and writer, and part of the excitement that greeted Before the Storm derived from his ability to do what many contemporary historians have lost interest in doing. His was the domain of high politics and presidential history, the monumental national turning points. He had a gift for linking personality and event to narrative. He beautifully conveyed the picaresque comedy of a presidential campaign, the strange human interactions and the strange situations, made funnier by how important it was all supposed to be. Before the Storm and, less memorably, Nixonland brought an intelligent enthusiasm to the history of American conservatism.

The same cannot be said for The Invisible Bridge. Running to some 880 pages, it is far too long. The Watergate section has endless citations from the tapes and the proceedings that are hardly digested into narrative, recapitulating material that has surfaced in dozens if not hundreds of other books. The narrative energy dissipates in a welter of detail, paraphrase, and digressions, such as the several pages Perlstein devotes to summarizing the plot of the film, The Bad News Bears. Sarcastic and knowing comments also disrupt the flow of narrative: “The President of the United States said that he was not a crook,” Perlstein reminds us. “That was surely good to know” is his deadpan commentary. Worst of all, The Invisible Bridge takes the freshness of Before the Storm and turns it into formula. Its narrative of break-down and division is rigidly predetermined, a narrative of inflated melodrama without much real suspense. At best it will introduce younger readers, for whom Watergate is unfamiliar, to a crucial chapter of American history. But a historian of Perlstein’s ability could have accomplished a great deal more with this material. In future installments he should work out another paradigm for his narrative. There was no golden age of unity prior to the postwar conservative movement, no garden of Eden awaiting its snake. Goldwater’s conservatism was as much the harbinger of a new consensus as it was the cause of eventual fracturing, one of many such storms in the republic’s long history.