A new book about the former President shows us what it felt like to live through the mid-1970s as an engaged, newspaper-reading Americanby Matthew Wolfson / September 26, 2014 / Leave a comment
Ronald Reagan looms disconcertingly from the cover of Rick Perlstein’s new book. Reagan is campaigning in Illinois in 1976, feet on the bumpers of two boxy cars, smiling, arms outstretched, surrounded by men in suits and sunglasses. He looks like a religious icon: attractive and dangerous, interesting yet oddly repellent.
The question Perlstein wants to answer in The Invisible Bridge: the Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is how Reagan acquired his hold on the American public. The book begins with two episodes that shook America to its core in the early 1970s: the final, ignominious phase of the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal. First, US foreign policy was shown to be both incompetent and morally bankrupt; then the President was revealed, thanks to his own office tape recordings, to be a paranoid figure who spied on his enemies. By the end of the decade, however, Americans had left their anxieties behind and embraced Reagan’s sunny philosophy: unquestioning faith in God, country and unregulated capital markets. What explains this shift?
Perlstein’s fascination with Reagan reflects his longstanding interest in the conservative movement in the United States. A committed liberal, he made his name with Before the Storm and Nixonland, two big books about the collapse of the mid-century liberal consensus and the development of the modern Republican party. In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein zeroes in on the years 1973 to 1976, finally confronting the man who brought conservatism to full flower, with Reagan challenging the incumbent Gerald Ford, unsuccessfully, for the 1976 Republican Presidential nomination.
It makes sense, given Perlstein’s larger story, that he wants to spin the book as a story about Reagan. The problem is that the years 1973 to 1976 were not defined by one figure alone: Richard Nixon, Ford and Jimmy Carter were just as important as Reagan. Nor is Perlstein’s time period sufficiently long to explain Reagan’s rise, which would require following his trajectory through to 1980. Perlstein’s solution to this problem is to remain faithful to the facts at the expense of his stated theme: he sticks to examining the early-to-mid 1970s and jettisons “the Reagan question” without acknowledging that he has done so.…