The Invisible Bridge

By Rick Perlstein

An 800-page account of the American political scene from 1973 to 1976 – that is, roughly from Watergate to the presidential primaries that would ultimately lead to the election of Jimmy Carter – won’t be for everyone.

For political junkies, however, The Invisible Bridge is a knockout.

These were primarily the years of the unhappy and undistinguished Ford administration, but Rick Perlstein’s main subject is a man who was not president but waiting in the wings: Ronald Reagan. This is the third volume in Perlstein’s account of the rise of modern American conservatism, following books on Barry Goldwater (Before the Storm) and Richard Nixon (Nixonland), and it sticks to the same script of identifying the conservative movement with an individual who came to impress it with his own character: in this case that of the Great Communicator.

Reagan, however, is a subject who mocks biography. Many authors have tried, but few have come up with anything like a convincing whole portrait. In part this is because Reagan himself worked so hard to mythologize his own past. Later, all of the stuff he made up would harden into a carapace of legend hard to crack (though not through lack of trying, as witness recent volumes like Will Bunch’s Tear Down This Myth or William Kleinknecht’s The Man Who Sold the World). But making things even more difficult is the fact that as an actor/salesman/politician Reagan was always performing, playing a role. Was there anything behind the image to really get at? Even contemporary observers were unsure. Elizabeth Drew, following on his primary campaign trail in 1976 confessed herself baffled:

Reagan is a dim figure. There is so much that we don’t know about him [note: he had already served two terms as governor of California, and had been a public figure almost his entire life]. What is he doing with these public relations people as his key advisors? How does his own mind work? Is he a contrived figure? One cannot shake the idea that this is Ronald Reagan the movie actor. . . . His “speeches” are actually sets of four-by-six-inch cards on which he has written paragraphs and anecdotes with a felt-tipped pen, and which he shuffles to give slight variations. His fund of knowledge seems to be made up largely of clippings – stories and polls he has come across that will make good material.

Reagan was not a stupid man, and indeed he had a very canny political sense. But he was simple. As he liked to say, the truth was simple: a clear division existing between good and evil, right and wrong.

It is this essential, radical simplicity of the Great Communicator that Perlstein attacks. America did not need simplicity in the ‘70s; it needed to hear hard truths. Hence the conflict in the book between “small, suspicious circles” and the tribe of Reagan’s true believers, between Spiro Agnew’s “nattering nabobs of negativism” and know-nothing, nostalgic nationalists.

In all of this Perlstein is clearly hammering a thesis, and picking and choosing his headlines and anecdotes to do so. But his point of view isn’t clearly partisan (he is as damning on the faux-naif Jimmy Carter as any Republican), and pinning down the zeitgeist isn’t easy. His style sometimes tips too far into informality, but his energy and brio help to carry a narrative heavy with research along at a frantic clip. Not for nothing has he been described as the era’s “gonzo historian” and “the hypercaffeinated Herodotus of the American Century.” And while you do get the sense that he’s done a lot of skimming of the sources, it does seem as though he’s at least looked at every newspaper and magazine article, not to mention television news program, of the period. The last third of the book suffers a bit from being excessively “inside baseball,” but the overall effect is of a kind of media Rorschach test, with more than enough splattered ink for the reader to form their own impression.

What makes the book highly relevant for our own time is the fact that we still live in the long tail of the Reagan revolution. That revolution began as a kind of therapy, with Reagan himself adopting the role of an avuncular and genial optimist who specialized in making Americans feel good about themselves at a time when they needed picking up. But looking back on it, we can now see the historical moment as a darker tipping point. Reagan’s America was committed to unlearning the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate, replacing the former with the myth of a “stab in the back” and dismissing the latter as a partisan witch hunt. Reagan’s America would also wage war on the middle class, a generations-long slaughter that continues to this day. And it was exactly that sense of “morning in America” optimism that would eventually be counted on to forestall any complaint by the small, suspicious circles, who were increasingly marginalized as conspiracy nuts:

Reagan’s America would embrace an almost official cult of optimism – the belief that America could do no wrong. Or, to put it another way, that if America did it, it was by definition not wrong. That would come later. But signs were already pointing that way.

This was a time when America didn’t lose its innocence (already long gone) so much as its maturity. As noted, Reagan liked to say that his answers to global and domestic problems were not easy, but simple. The people who listened to him didn’t make the same distinction. They wanted to believe, they yearned to believe, and Reagan was the man of the hour, what the age demanded. What resulted was a political system unable to respond in an adult way to challenges at home and abroad. Negative information dangerous to national self-esteem – from America’s role in global warming to a framing of the war on terror in terms of “blowback” – was to be blithely ignored if not vociferously denied. The aim of politics was to make people feel good about themselves and their country, which meant cutting off any criticism, no matter how constructive or deserved. Any politician daring to say the state of the nation was not good (Ford), or to hint at a national malaise (Carter, even when he didn’t use the word), would be punished. America’s sense of optimism was non-negotiable.

It was terribly effective therapy.

Review first published January 31, 2015.