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. This initially makes the book confusing, but eventually it becomes clear that the book isn’t really about Reagan at all.
The Invisible Bridge is really about what it felt like to live through the mid-1970s as an engaged, newspaper-reading American. It is also about the fears, needs and assumptions that motivated Americans to reject Nixon and Ford, and throw in their lot with Carter and warm to Reagan. Perlstein recreates the mood of the period, accumulating details like dots in a pointillist picture. If you step back and blink, the image clarifies.
Vietnam, inflation, Watergate, New York City on the verge of bankruptcy, the decline of heavy industry and the unions—from 1968 to 1976 the American political economy seemed to be lurching towards collapse. As Perlstein shows with an array of article clippings, letters to editors, interviews and polling data, many middle-class Americans felt that they were living in a culture gone mad. This was a period when Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of a legendary newspaper magnate, could be taken from her apartment and soon afterwards reappear as a member of the terrorist organisation that had kidnapped her. Obscure oil-producing nations in the Middle East could enforce an embargo and hold America’s economy hostage, with gasoline being rationed for the first time since the Second World War.
In response, Americans craved stability and reassurance that, although society might be changing, the change would be manageable. Most politicians, however, failed to understand this. The congressional committees that followed up Nixon’s impeachment with investigations into the CIA did not provide a sense of stability. Nor did Nixon’s successor, Ford, the fiscally conservative, socially liberal congressman who kept changing his position on key issues. Stability finally came in the person of Jimmy Carter, conservative Democratic governor of Georgia who crisscrossed primary states in 1975 and 1976, rallying Democrats with earnest messages of faith and love. It was also Reagan’s watchword. He’d made his name as governor of California, advocating a robust law and order response to the campus protests at Berkeley in the late 1960s.
Today, Carter and Reagan are seen as opposites, but Perlstein shows how similar their appeal was. Both were Washington outsiders who grew up in a simpler America of small government and capitalism on a human scale. They took from these formative experiences a sturdy vision of America as an ordered, prosperous country in which social turmoil was an exception rather than the norm.
Carter, born in Plains, Georgia (population 550) was raised on a farm with “a blacksmith shop; a tannery; a general store with staples and products of the Carters’ own manufacture.” Twenty-five black families worked on the farm, along with Carter’s family. Carter supported the Civil Rights Act, but was ambivalent about some of its results: “I would not force racial integration on a neighbourhood by government action,” he said in 1976. “But I would not permit discrimination against a family moving into the neighbourhood.”
Reagan’s vision of American decency was rooted in his more precarious but equally insular childhood. He grew up in Tampico, Illinois, a small town in the American Middle West in the two decades before the Great Depression, with an alcoholic father and a fervently religious mother who acted out biblical passages at church functions. Reagan attended Eureka College which he later described as a Christian collective where professors and students made shared sacrifices to make up for lack of funding.
By 1975, Reagan and Carter were men out of time. Their formative years, so important in their campaign brochures and stump speeches, bore very little resemblance to American life in the postwar period. Eureka College was a long way from Berkeley, the “multiversity” with thousands of students and a large bureaucracy. Tampico or Plains were a long way from the proliferating suburbs of California and the Southwest which were paid for by government defence spending to combat the threat from Soviet Russia. Life on a small farm and small-town religiosity had little meaning to the hyper-mobile postwar middle class.
But, as Perlstein shows, it was precisely by drawing on these backgrounds that Carter and Reagan were able to paint an alluring image of a more decent, better ordered country that appealed to a discontented populace. Carter, supportive of civil rights but also of ethnically homogenous neighbourhoods, spoke the language of orderly progressivism. Reagan, decrying public disruptions and big government, preached order at a more nostalgic pitch. After Carter’s presidency was sunk by a flailing economy, the Iranian hostage crisis and Carter’s hesitant public responses to crises, it was Reagan’s vision that triumphed.
Perlstein doesn’t follow his story this far, and his decision not to cover the 1980 election limits the conclusions he is able to draw—in this volume at least. Comparing Carter’s and Reagan’s approaches would have made for an instructive examination of the kind of leadership Americans look for in anxious times. Both Presidents identified similar problems, but addressed them in different ways. Carter held long fireside chats with the American people, arguing that lifestyles had to change in order to combat energy independence, and analysing the “culture of narcissism” and a host of other issues that he believed contributed to our “malaise.” Reagan came into office with two principal aims and stuck with them throughout his presidency. The first was to combat the communist threat; the second was to cut government spending. Reagan’s simpler outlook turned out to be the more appealing.
In his introduction, Perlstein makes a brief stab at explaining this dynamic: Reagan succeeded, he says, because America is “a nation that has ever so adored its own innocence, and so dearly wishes to see itself as an exception to history.” This describes the psychology of the hyper-patriotic American right, but it doesn’t really capture the motivations of the American majority when it goes out to vote. If Perlstein had compared Reagan to Carter in 1980, he might have found a more persuasive explanation: working people with little time for politics can stomach a certain degree of sceptical analysis from their leaders, but not too much.
Today, although Barack Obama has won the White House twice with a healthy majority, he has been unable to define his presidency as transformative in the way that Reagan did. He’s tried to tackle a range of issues—climate change, immigration, gun control, energy reform, nuclear nonproliferation, healthcare—rather than constructing his rhetoric around a few. Even his political allies remark that he is more a responder than an active executive. The ideal American leader would probably be one able to combine the rational, empirical approach to policy adopted by Obama and Carter with Reagan’s reductive rhetorical vision. But over the past 50 years, such a synthesis has been absent from the Oval Office.
The Invisible Bridge: the Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan is published by Simon and Schuster