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Review Essay: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Pearlstein

The Invisible Bridge, the book jacket informs us, “is the story of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Thus are we introduced to the third volume of Rick Perlstein’s exploration of the birth and growth of contemporary American conservatism, centering on the rise of Ronald Reagan. (He has produced other books centering on Goldwater and Nixon.) Whether or not the United States was on the verge of a breakdown, either by design or because it is his natural style, Perlstein, who wears with pride his designation as “the hyper-caffeinated Herodotus of the American Century,” conveys the sense that it was. And by constructing, as it were, a memory of 1973-76 for those who did not live through those years, and by reconstructing memory for those who were there, he persuades us to imagine we are experiencing something of that period. The recovery of memories is, however, a risky enterprise, so Perlstein’s methods must be scrutinized. But first a bit more about his style.

Perlstein’s description of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville says much about the form, the content and the purpose of The Invisible Bridge. That film, composed of “random, unmotivated cut[s] to . . . apparently unrelated scene[s]” was “a sort of scattered, discursive allegory for a national mood buried a bit too far beneath the surface of the national consciousness to make it a simple thing to explain” (p. 581). The overall effect, Perlstein writes, was that “you could pick through the various runes and try to make them signify something coherent, but the incoherence felt like the point – but an incoherence, be that as it may, that is shared. That somehow ends with this shambling, variegated community redeemed, as one” (p. 583; italics in original).

My first problem with Perlstein’s book is that what made for an engaging if long (160 min) film does not necessarily make a very long book engaging too. Yet my difficulties stemmed not just from length and not just from its Altmanesque, hypercaffeinated style which, in my view, discourages reflection. Actually it doesn’t come over as a single book. I find it hard to say precisely what it is. Two books interwoven together? Or one or more books constantly interrupted by interjections?

There is a story here about president-centered politics from 1973 when America’s Vietnam War ended and the Nixon presidency began to implode as “Watergate” grew, until 1976, as the Ford presidency deflated out of sight, having had the remaining air sucked out of it, Perlstein says, by Ronald Reagan’s not-quite-spontaneous, not-quite-in-support-of-Ford speech which brought the Republican convention to a close in August. That ten weeks later Ford would be defeated by Carter the Democrat is merely a looming, unmentioned anticlimax.

This ‘book’ comes across more as short stories—many quite engaging—than as a systematically linked series of chapters. But Perlstein intends them and his frequent interjections collectively to make a specific point, to show “how Ronald Reagan came within a hairsbreadth of becoming the 1976 Republican nominee for president.” And since Reagan is the star in this episode of Perlstein’s epic series on conservatism, we are treated to segments of Reagan’s life, from birth through his childhood, school and college years, his career in radio and Hollywood, and his performance as California’s governor. This “sort of biography” (p. xv), an oft-told tale, is scattered throughout the text. So Perlstein’s production includes, besides the ‘book’ and the interjections, a biography. But where then do we stop this count of its many parts? For it also includes a ‘sort of biography’, though a shorter one, of Jimmy Carter, whom Perlstein treats with much greater moral disdain than he does Reagan.

Regarding the interjections, Perlstein intends that they contribute to his larger purpose, to lay bare the traumatic wounds “America suffered. . . to its ideal of itself” (p. xiii). Here are vignettes, some no more than anecdotal asides, drawn from popular political culture, many about what might be described as minor moral panics of the time. His selectio is idiosyncratic. Are we supposed to read a lot into the extensive list on p. 63 of misdeeds committed by politicians, as if they were peculiar to that time? And what about the fourteen-year-old who “was stripped of first prize [in the Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio] after officials X-rayed his car and discovered an electromagnet in the nose to pull him out of the starting gate more quickly” (p. 167)? Cute, this last one. But these hardly add up to a demonstration that those times were seriously morally out of joint—unless, of course, we accept that bribery, corruption and cheating—and suspicion (what officials would think to X-ray a child’s soapbox?)—were peculiarly salient during those years, and unless we are swept along by Perlstein’s energetic style into believing that beforehand Americans were for the most part naively innocent. That 1973-1976 was when Perlstein began to become a conscious human being—he was born in 1969—should be historically irrelevant, but it may not be psychologically irrelevant to the way he assigns significance.

Since the ‘short stories’ and the cultural vignettes follow the same chronological order, their interweaving suggests an interactive relationship between these two aspects of the reality Perlstein addresses. Since, however, everything is merely juxtaposed rather than linked in an explicit way, since Perlstein keeps his reasoning under wraps, and since the cultural component is undeveloped – presented in the form of interjections whose significance is rarely explored. Is he urging us to reflect upon those times and develop an understanding of them? Or is he seeking to overwhelm us, not just by the volume of the information but also by the somewhat chaotic nature of his discourse, into accepting his understanding that the period was an almost incomprehensibly chaotic one? (That is not, by the way, quite how I remember it.) Besides, should that be Perlstein’s purpose, is he asserting that that time was a uniquely chaotic? And if so, how might a claim such as that be sustained?

So far, I have not remarked on Perlstein’s tendency to hyperbole, something one immediately encounters in his Preface:

In the years between 1973 and 1976, America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history (p. xiii).”

He then launches into a litany of major traumatic events–the American defeat in Vietnam, the unfolding of Watergate on television, the oil embargo– and “dozens of smaller traumas,” including one of his favorites, “lost to everyday historical memory, . . . the near doubling of meat prices in the spring of 1973.” But let’s not dwell on the bathos. He continues:

“In the next few years the traumas continued, compounding. The end of a presidency . . . Inflation such as America had never known during peacetime. A recession that saw hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers idled during Christmastime; crime at a volume and ghastliness greater, according to one observer, ‘than at any time since the fifteenth century.’ Senate and House hearings on the Central Intelligence Agency that accused American presidents since Dwight Eisenhower of commanding squads of lawless assassins.

With these traumas emerged a new sort of American politics–a stark discourse of reckoning (pp. xiii-xiv).”

“[C]rime at a volume and ghastliness greater . . . ‘than at any time since the fifteenth century’.” Really? (I cannot tell from his Source Notes who the “observer” is who first put forward this problematical claim.)

I do not mean to suggest that these things were insignificant or pain-free. But to refer to them all, the greater and the smaller, as traumas is surely to overstate the case. Were they all experienced as emotional shocks that did substantial, lasting damage to the American psyche?

“In the years between 1973 and 1976, America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history.”

Just how would one validate that claim? Is the insertion of “just about” intended to serve as an escape clause: he wants to make a claim of some enormity, but he doesn’t want to be held responsible for it? One might even use Perlstein to indict Perlstein for his careless – hypercaffeinated? – rhetoric by turning to the Preface, where we are told that it is now that, “In certain ways we live in some of the darkest times in our history: global warming threatens to engulf us; political polarization threatens to paralyze us; the economy nearly collapsed because of the failure of the banking regulatory regime; competition from China threatens to overwhelm us; social mobility is at its lowest point in generations–to name only a few versions of the national apocalypse that may yet come” (p. xx).—Interestingly, he does not include the events of 9/11 and its consequences among the things now weighing heavily on American minds, yet he does include among his cultural vignettes something that would have traumatized me had I witnessed it: the1974 between-the-twin-towers skywalking feats of Philippe Petit (p. 269)—Americans are just fated, it seems, to keep on experiencing periods of trauma.

Neither is it only in the recent past and in the present that extraordinarily troubling things have happened. Having asserted that 1973-1976 was perhaps the most traumatic period in American history, Perlstein briefly sums up the American Civil War. Only he minimizes its traumatic status by beginning as if it were a children’s story: “Once upon a time we had a civil war” (p. 1)—perhaps invoking “a galaxy far, far away”? Then he passes over the “more than six hundred thousand Americans [who] were slaughtered or wounded” to dwell a trifle longer on the “sentimental rituals of reconciliation” and on the fact that those who sought a different sort of reconciliation were shouted down. To be sure, the Civil War and its consequences are not his subject. But I have to protest that it is surely bathetic to juxtapose all that the Civil War connotes for Americans to the claim that 1973-1976 was especially disturbing, Vietnam and its aftermath notwithstanding. What is lacking here is any sort of historical judgment supported by evidence and argument. We just have to accept his assertions on faith because they are pronounced so confidently and without any serious qualification.

The Civil War evidently is introduced as a lead-in to Perlstein’s assertion, that “America the Innocent [is] always searching for totems of unity it can never quite achieve–even, or especially, when its crises of disunity are most pressing: it is one of the structuring stories of disunity” (p. 1). But surely, if this is a recurrent feature of American life, there is no need to overdramatize the mid-1970s? It would have been sufficient and more accurate to say that yet another trying time prompted yet another politically consequential round in America’s endlessly recurring search for unity. That would, of course, somewhat diminish the historical status of Ronald Reagan; he would become just one among all the others who somehow, through a mixture of luck, disposition and skill, managed to climb to the top of the pole when it was more than usually tall and greasy. (It goes without saying that these conjoined diminutions of the period and the man would have diminished the glamour of Perlstein’s production.)

So what, finally, is one to make of what Perlstein has wrought? At the outset I noted that he has constructed a memory of 1973-1976 so as to lead us to imagine we are experiencing, sometimes vividly, that political climate. But the memory he constructs is a partial one—how could it be otherwise? He tells us he has waded and crowd-sourced his way through enormous masses of detail (pp. 805-810), but nowhere does he tell us what principles he employed to recover these particular memories. Neither does he indicate that he views with any suspicion the news reports that constitute so much of that detail. Should we take on trust what the media disseminated? There are surely grounds to be suspicious.

Even more troubling, however, is the notion that we are therby re-experiencing those times. As those who experienced it the first time round will be only too well aware, to experience was not to understand. To live through those years was, as always, to be confronted by the need to try to understand what was happening and to act in relation to that, not just to find relief in some imagined unity. And that need to understand and act resulted in argument, sometime bitter political argument about how to do so. All that too was an essential aspect of the experience. And that was something that surely figured in the processes that contributed to the development of American conservativism as well as other political strains. Yet I detect very little evidence of this, other than allusions to some of the arguments then going forward among conservatives, in Perlstein’s account.

Second, with respect to the ’short stories’ and the vignettes, I think he short-changes the movements for racial and gender equality and the reactions to them, all of which has resonated through American politics and culture since the Seventies, all of which occasioned passion and bitterness on the right which is still with us. Perlstein alludes to them at several points, to be sure. But one would be hard pressed to discern in what he writes that both these challenging movements and the virulent reactions to them would be so definitive of America’s future conservatism. Since by his own telling he has embedded himself in the Seventies, and since also by his own telling he has a “heroin-like habit of tacking between past and present” (pp. 806-807), in other words, since he has not been locked into that past, he was in a position to know what they portended, not just what they were, so he surely could have at least suggested that there was more to them than their epiphenomena, e.g., the tribulations of Hank Aaron, the rhetoric of Barbara Jordan, the titillations of the sexual revolution, or Betty Ford doing “the Bump” with singer Tony Orlando (p. 771, photo no. 76, facing p. 525)?

Perlstein also treats the scope of American conservatism much too narrowly. He does note that during the period presently of concern to him “another front opening up in the right’s political war: the corporate front.” He does note Lewis Powell’s now infamous insistence that it be a primary responsibility of corporate management to advance pro-free-market politics. And he does emphasize how New York City was made a brutal example to encourage austerity elsewhere (pp. 475-483). He does show how Reagan’s years as a General Electric “ambassador” in the 1950s attuned him to this sort of corporate conservatism (pp. 386-395). He does quote a corporate executive’s complaint that “One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II” (p. 479), but he does not really convey that those initiating and funding this endeavor intended it to be an international war. It is surely clear in retrospective that Perlstein’s period of trauma included neoliberalism’s birth pangs. But he leaves the impression that the development of American capitalism and American conservatism can be engaged with as if they have not been a part of, and informed by, a much more comprehensive global project.

This sort of short-changing mars the entire work. I do not take away from Perlstein any sense that there were struggles going on in the United States in the Seventies. Despite the oppositions he portrays between the traditional and the emergent within and between the political parties and in American culture at large, there is something static about it all. What people do is reactive. Corporate leaders aside, people are disconnected from deeper purposes. He constructs a big data set–a subset, it may be said, given what he tells us of his research methods, of Google’s enormously big data set (pp. 809-810) – leaving it to his readers to try to construct knowledge out of all that information. There was this, and there was this, and there was this, . . . as if interactional relationships may be induced from discrete events. What Perlstein places before us would seem to be symptomatic of our big-data times. But Perlstein’s set of events can be connected by innumerable explanations; that his data set is large does not alleviate this problem. But should not a would-be interpreter of some historical period at least suggest an explanation, draw some quite specific connections indicating the interactive processes at work? For that is what may then usefully be debated and evaluated. As it is, the dynamism is all in Perlstein’s rhetoric, not in what he is writing about. The movement is on the surface, not in its substance. Is it that Reagan’s own shallowness has come to define the world of Reagan’s children?

But, perhaps finally, it would be fairer to say that Perlstein is not just seeking to evoke experience or offer an explanation? Perhaps he is really seeking to carry out the more ambitious and more archetypal American project – a search for unity, a search occasioned by the events of 1973-1976 but perhaps also by trials and tribulations that face Americans now? Evn so, and leaving aside the argument whether unity is possible or desirable, it seems to me his book is symptomatic of our times. In its disjointedness, in its refusal to draw and defend connections, in its “incoherence . . . shared,” Perlstein proposes another “shambling, variegated community redeemed, as one” of the sort he ascribed to Altman. Perlstein’s is just another unity with a conservative thrust to it since it affords no critical purchase on the past or the present.

 

Robin Melville formerly offered classes in politics at a liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Retired, he now lives in California.

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