In 1976, Ronald Reagan came within a dyed hair’s breadth of denying incumbent President Gerald Ford the Republican nomination. Four years later, he unseated another president, Jimmy Carter, in a landslide that brought transformational change to Washington, the start of a generation-long redress of escalating white grievances that has made it almost impossible to reach consensus on vital issues.
But Reagan’s loss to Ford was integral to his ascendancy. It established him as a national figure, the semi-legitimized standard-bearer for an ideology roundly rejected in 1964, when Barry Goldwater whetted the far right’s appetite for power.
Goldwater’s doomed insurgency was the subject of Rick Perlstein’s first book, Before the Storm. Nixonland, his follow-up, reminded us of the depths to which a corrupt and cynical president would sink to exploit social tensions for electoral advantage. Now, in The Invisible Bridge, Reagan, a Hollywood fantasist of Norma Desmond-like proportions, is ready for his close-up.
But the camera is brutally honest and unforgiving in Perlstein’s hands. Expect no balance from this author, who never attempts to hide his liberal bias.
Regardless of your party affiliation, you may still enjoy his observations, which are often revealing and insightful. As for his research, it appears to be voluminous. “Appears,” for Perlstein chose not to include footnotes. You must go to his website to check his sources, a decision he may now regret, as some doubt has been cast on his scholarly rigor and integrity.
If you hold Reagan in semi-divine status, however, this book is not for you. While Perlstein admires his “gift” for reducing complex problems to easily digestible partisan soundbites, he regards Reagan as a divider — a much more genial character than Nixon, yet just as culpable for widening ideological fault ines.
But these almost 900 pages are not merely about one man. They constitute a time capsule, a detailed portrait of a loopy era that will make those who lived through it smile with nostalgic pleasure. The Invisible Bridge spans three and a half years, from January 1973 to August 1976. Remember killer bees, primal screams, the Bicentennial minute? Perlstein litters the text with hundreds of such memory joggers. His objective is not to train readers to dominate the Me Decade category on Jeopardy. To understand Reagan’s success, you must know the historical context that paved its way.
Perlstein takes his title from a piece of advice Nikita Khrushchev gave Richard Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” In the mid-1970s, Americans had neither a river nor a bridge. The road to Nixon’s resignation, which Perlstein retraces step by step, decimated public confidence in government. Other events deepened the depression. Every day, it seemed, a headline suggested the nation’s best days were behind her: the Arab oil embargo, the fall of Saigon, New York City teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, rampant crime, stagflation.
At first, Nixon’s successor basked in high approval ratings. Then Ford pardoned Nixon, the first of many blunders. Conservatives didn’t mind the pardon so much. But when Ford chose Nelson Rockefeller, whom they considered a liberal, as his vice president, they threatened to revolt. Ford was solidly center-right, but that wasn’t good enough for them. They demanded purity; they wanted Reagan, an opportunistic compromiser who, as Perlstein shows, was hardly pure, in private and public.
Although Republicans may howl at the comparison, Reagan was a lot like Jimmy Carter: two ex-governors who grew up in small towns, campaigned as Washington outsiders and offered voters a message of renewal based on traditional values.
Perlstein clearly dislikes Carter; like Reagan, he considers him something of a con man. In his mind, America was at a crossroad after Watergate. It could have accepted the truth about itself or fallen back on well-worn myths. Of course, it chose the latter. After Reagan lost in 1976, pundits wrote him off as a has-been. Instead, he was getting ready to build a bridge over a river.
Ariel Gonzalez is a writer in Miami.