The Rise of Reagan’s America

The Rise of Reagan’s America

California Governor Ronald Reagan on a visit to the White House, 1971 (NARA)

Dissent has invited Rick Perlstein, the author of Invisible Bridge, to respond to this review. To read his response, and Judith Stein’s reply, click here.

Invisible Bridge:
The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

by Rick Perlstein
Simon & Schuster, 2014, 880 pp.

Invisible Bridge is an old-fashioned study of American character from the unraveling of the Watergate scandal in 1973 through the 1976 presidential nominating conventions. The title is its thesis. Nikita Khrushchev told Richard Nixon that if people believe that there is an imaginary river, leaders should not tell them the truth, but should build them an imaginary bridge. America’s chief bridge-builder was Ronald Reagan, who forged the cult of official optimism and virtue. Perlstein believes that this hubris endures, governing both parties in America today.

During the years covered in the book, Reagan was governor of California in 1973 and 1974 and a presidential aspirant in 1975 and 1976, when he failed to wrest his party’s nomination from Gerald Ford. Perlstein states that the book is “a sort of biography of Ronald Reagan.” And a good portion of the book is about Reagan’s youth, his years in Hollywood, and his transformation from New Deal Democrat to right-wing Republican. Perlstein stresses Reagan’s propensity to transform events into morality tales in which he was a hero and a wholesome innocent, a tendency he transports to the nation in the future. The justification for so much Reagan during the Nixon-Ford years is that he represents forces that became dominant in 1980.

This is a book about character and culture, not politics and policy. It is a mélange of presidential biography and popular culture, which Perlstein believes mirror each other. In his previous Nixonland, Perlstein defined American politics between 1964 and 1972 as a battle between the resented and the resentful. This interpretation married Nixon’s personality with political culture. In Invisible Bridge, Perlstein argues that the traumas of Watergate, the end of postwar affluence, and the energy crisis deepened and multiplied the divisions of Nixonland: “The 1970s were throwing up so many new ways for Americans to disagree.” Material changes were not the source of new divisions. Falling wages, declining living standards, and unemployment are simply backdrops for the cultural issues Perlstein believes are salient.

Although Perlstein claims that both Nixon and Reagan created social divisions, causation is murky: Reagan’s life reveals “how Americans divide themselves from each other.” Divisions also lie in the nation’s DNA. “Americans, being Americans, had always found things to passionately disagree about.” But a different future is in the wings. The marriage between presidents and culture will be transformed. Reagan, once a divider, becomes a feel-good leader. Unlike Nixon, he possessed a sunny, serene demeanor. So, according to Perlstein, American culture in the age of Reagan was bathed in innocent, feel-good optimism. Perlstein previews this future, but it is not yet hegemonic. The years from 1973 through 1976 are not Reagan’s America, because after Watergate and Vietnam, possibilities opened up that Americans would recognize that they were not an exceptional people, that they had sinned and needed to begin anew. This possibility was nipped in the bud by the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and a growing Reagan-inspired culture of optimism and innocence.

Perlstein tells lively stories. The big one in the first part of the book is about the Watergate discoveries in 1973 and the resignation of the president in 1974. This episode, like most of the book, draws from the considerable literature on the 1970s, supplemented by newspaper, TV, and film commentary. Why spend so much time re-telling the well-known Watergate story? Doing so allows Perlstein to display White House behavior that challenges the notion of the virtuous nation. “Watergate, then, was no less about Richard Nixon than it was about us, an emanation of our national soul …” After hearing about the many American divisions, it is difficult to accept the notion of a national soul.

Perlstein’s narrative is frequently interrupted by the shocks of the day—shootings, crime, racial conflicts, hostage-taking in the United States and abroad, bizarre cults. This is history as police blotter. None of these events are explained because they are only meant to convey the notion that the world was falling apart. Thus, we learn, “[w]ith canny savagery, Egypt and Syria launched a simultaneous attack on Israel at the one time the entire nation shut down: Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.” Why savagery? Why did they do it? Then immediately we are back in the United States where “a UFO scare was afoot.” The truncated style subverts analysis and Perlstein, perhaps realizing how confusing this can be, tries to justify it. He observes that “horrors, of course, drench the news in any decade. By the middle of the 1970s, however, the perception was that the density of horrors was so much worse.” What is the evidence for such a conclusion? “The BBC’s Alistair Cooke gave a speech as guest of the House of Representatives in which he declared “crime and violence in the cities has become greater than at any time since the fifteenth century.’ ” Too often, such is the nature of Perlstein’s analysis.

Even though Reagan was far from Watergate events, Perlstein keeps the future star in view, telling us that Reagan embraced the “few bad apples” theory of Watergate. Making the governor appear to defend the president obscures the fact that the two men represented different wings of the GOP. Nixon’s cabinet was composed of moderates and liberal Republicans while Reagan represented new right-wing political and business groups. Perlstein acknowledges this obliquely in the subsequent section on President Gerald Ford. “One of the things Richard Nixon had been most expert at as president was damping the ideological passions of his party’s right wing. Now, with Nixon gone, those passions thrummed.” Contained passion did not suddenly pop up. The problem is that Perlstein ignores political developments that explain party changes.

Voters expressed their rage against the party of Watergate, defeating many moderate Republicans. This phenomenon had two effects. First, many suburban Republican politicians were replaced by Democrats, so-called “Watergate babies.” Their key experiences were Vietnam and Watergate and most opposed New Deal-ish measures, moving the Democratic party to the right on economic issues. The defeat of moderate Republicans strengthened the position of right-wing Republicans in the party. Thus the Democratic party was larger but more conservative and the GOP was smaller and more right-wing. To put it this way complicates and thus modifies Perlstein’s passion play.

One effect of Perlstein’s constant volley of horrors is that it is difficult to assess the significance of any one event. The most important event, the recession of 1973 to 1975 that affected all industrialized countries, is invisible. This crisis, called by contemporaries the “crisis of the West” challenged the mixed-economy solutions fashioned after the Second World War. With the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 and the stabilization of oil prices, the nation confronted, without distraction, the post-OPEC inflation and the subsequent recession which produced the highest unemployment since 1941: 9 percent in May 1975.

Today’s inequality started with this recession, when wages began to fall. But Perlstein uses the crisis only to mock Ronald Reagan’s supposedly simple solution, “the gospel of free enterprise.” Perlstein notes correctly that most Americans at the time believed in government action to end the recession, opposed cuts in government spending, and rejected the view that unions caused inflation. But he ignores the fact that Reagan’s words had new salience. The bad times produced new ideas from the left, but they also amplified Reagan-like ideologies on the right. The recession inspired the well-documented mobilization of business and class consciousness on both sides of the divide. Much more than Watergate, the recession halted Republican progress in the South, a fact certainly relevant to Perlstein’s larger project.

Instead of discussing the changing politics and economics of the day, Perlstein argues that Americans retreated to an imagined past. There were cultural conflicts during the decade to be sure, but in general Americans were becoming more liberal on social issues, even if Perlstein doesn’t acknowledge it. His treatment of First Lady Betty Ford’s interview on CBS, where she expressed support for the Equal Rights Amendment and Roe v. Wade, is a case in point. Ford also told the TV audience that her children had tried marijuana, that young people “living together” was not necessarily a bad thing, and that she would not be angry or surprised if her daughter told her she was having an affair. In short, she embraced many of the new gender and sexual mores of the era.

Perlstein, however, cites a storm of opposition to Betty Ford’s remarks, and if you stopped reading at that point, you might agree with him that Americans resisted change. But thirty-three pages later, after an interruption for discussions of the attempted assassination of President Ford, teacher strikes, gay marches, the New York City fiscal crisis, the CIA scandal, and Patty Hearst, we discover that 64 percent of Americans supported and only 23 percent opposed what Ford said about her daughter’s theoretical affair. Seventy percent approved of her views on the Equal Rights Amendment. Perlstein uses the statistics to demonstrate Ford’s strengths going into the 1976 presidential nominating convention. But the numbers also counter Perlstein’s idea of unchanging Americans. The book’s disjointed style makes it impossible to follow themes.

Because Perlstein is uninterested in policy, he simplifies the complexities of political choices.

Jimmy Carter, running as a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam president, embodied many of the characteristics that Perlstein prescribes for the nation. Carter’s inaugural address acknowledged an imperfect past. “Let our recent mistakes bring a resurgent commitment to the basic principles of our Nation,” he said, “for we know that if we despise our own government we have no future.” Perlstein now becomes Holden Caulfield. He calls Carter a phony. He does have some insight into Carter as a person when he asks, “What does sincerity mean if it is chosen as a deliberate strategy?” But once again, he merges a president with American culture at large. Carter “was just the sort of anti-politician in which people clearly long to believe. The reasons seemed far more spiritual than they did political—revealed far better by the dreamscape of popular culture than the mundane world of polls or public policy.”

But people supported Carter for very concrete reasons—liberals because he had defeated George Wallace in the Florida primary, unions and black people because he endorsed the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. And many workers, at a time when unemployment was more than 8 percent, had learned the lessons of 1972. “I think we need change; we need change bad,” one Ohio factory worker argued. “I don’t especially like Carter, but maybe if we get enough good Democrats in there to back him up he can do some good.” The mundane world of polls and numbers spoke volumes. In the South, Carter carried poor white and black people while losing white members of the middle and upper classes. You don’t need a dreamscape to explain that.

Perlstein tells us that the Bicentennial celebrations in the summer of 1976 interrupted the doom and gloom, people “forgot their fears and had fun.” Attempting to explain this surprising turn, he loses his footing for a moment, but finds that “People yearned to believe.” Again, there is no explanation for the harmonious Democratic convention in New York the week after the July 4 festivities. He does not have much to say about the state of the Democratic Party in the summer of 1976. Perhaps they too yearned to believe. In the afterglow, Carter led Ford by 66 to 27 percent and Reagan 68 to 26 percent, the greatest post-convention margin ever.

The narrative quickly migrates to the Republican convention and the Reagan-Ford fight for the nomination. Perlstein believes that the main difference between Ford and Reagan was that Ford believed that the world’s rules applied to Americans while Reagan believed that they did not, because “into the hands of America God had placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.” President Ford is nominated, but the discussion ends with Reagan’s speech, which allows him to conclude: “People want to believe. Ronald Reagan was able to make people believe.” These are the same words Perlstein used to explain the Bicentennial celebrations.

People do want to believe but they believe in different things. Because Perlstein is uninterested in policy, he simplifies the complexities of political choices. He creates morally-freighted dualisms: Americans had the choice of “facing the facts or patriotic reassurance.” It is as if facts alone yield truth.

The book ends with Elizabeth Drew’s words in the New Yorker: “This is probably the end of Reagan’s political career.” The attempted joke reveals only the perils of journalism. But it also displays the foibles of Whiggish historians. Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and Perlstein has written a pre-history that makes that event inevitable. To explain why Drew and most others at the time reached a different conclusion and that prospects for Reagan and his party were poor in 1976 would require coming to terms with a United States that had accepted much of Perlstein’s own critique of the American past. Perlstein does not write about the election or results, which would challenge his argument, because he wants to leave the reader with the image of a resurgent Reagan.

Nevertheless, the triumph of Carter, although by a small margin, and the huge victory of the Democratic party in Congress led many to forecast that this was the end of the GOP as well as Reagan. Kevin Phillips, having predicted that the Republican party was about to create a new majority in 1969, now concluded that the Republican Party was approaching “critical nonmass.” Others anticipated a period of one-party, Democratic rule. The Wall Street Journal urged Ford, Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and John Connally to step aside for younger men. Scrutinizing these views can counter the tendency to read the future into the past. In this case, it could open up the possibility that what explains the results of 1980 is not the worldview of a sixty-five-year-old losing GOP candidate, but the events from 1977 through 1980.

The over 800 pages of text do not include notes, which are available online. (They were not yet online when I read the book and wrote this review.) So, the book will mostly be read without documentation. Perlstein claims that because of the internet, writing recent history “no longer requires arduous trips to libraries or archives.” But the only way to avoid the distortions of memory and the snap-shot bias of journalism is deep and critical engagement with archival sources. It is hard to trust a writer who revels in the error of a journalist and then informs us that his sources were mainly the work of other journalists. If Elizabeth Drew was wrong, perhaps the others were too.

To read Rick Perlstein’s response, and Judith Stein’s reply, click here.

Judith Stein teaches history at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her latest book is Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s.