Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge:
The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
Rick Perlstein has spent his career studying American conservatism in the second half of the 20th century and its capture of the modern Republican Party. His first major work, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, was an incisive and entertaining study of Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican Party nomination for the presidency and his landslide loss that year to President Lyndon Johnson. He followed with Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, a description of the nation at the time of Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972 victory over Senator George McGovern — a nation divided by a cultural war between “mutually recriminating cultural sophisticates on the one hand and the plain, earnest ‘Silent Majority’ on the other” (p.xix). Now, in The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Perlstein dives into American politics between 1973 and 1976, beginning with Nixon’s second term and ending with the failed bid of the book’s central character, Ronald Reagan, for the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination.
The years 1973 to 1976 included the Watergate affair that ended the Nixon presidency in 1974; the ultra-divisive issue of America’s engagement in Vietnam, which ended in an American withdrawal from that conflict in 1975; and the aftershocks from the cultural transformations often referred to as “the Sixties.” It was a time, Perlstein writes, when America “suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history” (p.xiii). 1976 was also the bi-centennial year of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which the nation approached with trepidation. Many feared, as Perlstein puts it, that celebration of the nation’s 200 year anniversary would serve the “malign ideological purpose of dissuading a nation from a desperately needed reckoning with the sins of its past” (p.712).
Perlstein begins by quoting advice Nikita Khrushchev purportedly provided to 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.” Perlstein does not return to Khrushchev’s advice and, as I ploughed through his book, I realized that I had not grasped how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into his lengthy (804 pages!) narrative. More on that below. There’s no mystery, however, about Perlstein’s sub-title “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”
About one third of the book addresses Nixon’s fall in the Watergate affair and another third recounts Reagan’s rise to challenge President Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican Party presidential nomination, including the year’s presidential primaries and the maneuvering of the Ford and Reagan presidential campaigns at the Republican National Convention that summer. The remaining third consists of biographical background on Reagan and his evolution from a New Deal liberal to a conservative Republican; an examination of the forces that were at work in the early 1970s to mobilize conservatives after Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 defeat; and Perlstein’s efforts to describe the American cultural landscape in the 1970s and capture the national mood, through a dazzling litany of vignettes and anecdotes. At times, it seems that Perlstein has seen every film that came to theatres in the first half of the decade; watched every television program from the era; and read every small and mid-size town newspaper.
Perlstein describes his work as a “sort of biography of Ronald Reagan – of Ronald Reagan, rescuer” (p.xv) — rescuer, presumably, of the American psyche from the cultural convulsions of the Sixties and the traumas of Watergate and Vietnam that had shaken America’s confidence to the core. Perlstein considers Reagan to have been a gifted politician who exuded a “blithe optimism in the face of what others called chaos” (p.xvi), with an uncanny ability to simplify complex questions, often through stories that could be described as homespun or hokey, depending upon one’s perspective. Reagan was an “athlete of the imagination,” Perlstein writes, who was “simply awesome” at “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty” (p.48). This power was a key to “what made others feel so good in his presence, what made them so eager and willing to follow him – what made him a leader. But it was why, simultaneously, he was such a controversial leader” (p.xv). Many regarded Reagan’s blithe optimism as the work of a “phony and a hustler” (p.xv). At bottom, Reagan was a divider and not a uniter, Perlstein argues, and “understanding the precise ways that opinions about him divided Americans . . . better helps us to understand our political order of battle today: how Americans divide themselves from one another” (p.xvi).
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In a series of biographical digressions, Perlstein demonstrates how Reagan’s blithe mid-western optimism served as the foundation for a long conversion to political conservatism. Perlstein begins with Reagan’s upbringing in Illinois, his education at Illinois’ Eureka College, and his early years as a sportscaster in Iowa. Reagan left the mid-west in 1937 for Hollywood and a career in films, arriving in California as a “hemophiliac, bleeding heart liberal” (p.339). But, during his Hollywood years, Reagan came to see Communist Party infiltration of the film industry as a menace to the industry’s existence. He was convinced that Communist actors and producers had mastered the subtle art of making the free enterprise system look bad and thereby were undermining the American way of life. Reagan became an informant for the FBI on the extent of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, a “warrior in a struggle of good versus evil – a battle for the soul of the world” (p.358), as Perlstein puts it. Reagan further came to resent the extent of taxation and viewed the IRS as a public enemy second only to Communists.
Yet, Reagan remained a liberal Democrat through the 1940s. In 1948, he worked for President Truman’s re-election and introduced Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey to a national radio audience. In 1952, Reagan supported Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s bid for the presidency. His journey toward the conservative end of the spectrum was probably completed when he became host in 1954 of General Electric’s “GE Theatre,” a mainstay of early American television. One of America’s corporate giants, GE’s self-image was of a family that functioned in frictionless harmony, with the interests of labor and management miraculously aligned. GE episodes, Perlstein writes, were the “perfect expression” of the 1950s faith that nothing “need ever remain in friction in the nation God had ordained to benevolently bestride the world” (p.395). Reagan and his blithe optimism proved to be a perfect fit with GE Theatre’s mission of promoting its brand of Americanism, based on low taxes, unchallenged managerial control, and freedom from government regulatory interference.
In the 1960 presidential campaign, Reagan depicted the progressive reforms which Democratic nominee John Kennedy advocated as being inspired by Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler. Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, noted Reagan’s evolution and directed his staff to use Reagan as a speaker “whenever possible. He used to be a liberal” (p.374). By 1964, Reagan had become a highly visible backer of Barry Goldwater’s presidential quest, delivering a memorable speech in support of the candidate at the Republican National Convention. Reagan went on to be elected twice as governor of California, in 1967 and 1971.
While governor, Reagan consistently argued for less government. Our highest national priority, he contended at a national governors’ conference in 1973, should be to “halt the trend toward bigger, more expensive government at all levels before it is too late . . . We as citizens will either master government as our servant or ultimately it will master us” (p.160). Almost alone among conservatives, Reagan projected an image of a “pleasant man who understands why people are angry” (p.604), as one commentator put it. He gained fame if not notoriety during his tenure as governor for his hard line opposition to student protesters, particularly at the University of California’s Berkeley campus, attracting scores of working class Democrats who had never previously voted for a Republican. “Part of what made Berkeley [student unrest] such a powerful issue for traditionally Democratic voters was class resentment – something Ronald Reagan understood in his bones” (p.83).
Early in Reagan’s second term as California’s governor, on June 17, 1972, four burglars were caught attempting to break into the Democratic national headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office and apartment complex. Throughout the ensuing investigation, Reagan seemed indifferent to what Time Magazine termed “probably the most pervasive instance of top-level misconduct in [American] history” (p.77).
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Watergate to Reagan was part of the usual atmosphere of campaigning, not much more than a prank. Upon first learning about the break-in, he quipped that the Democrats should be happy that someone considered their documents worth reading. Throughout the investigation into corruption that implicated the White House, Reagan maintained a stubborn “Christian charity to a a fallen political comrade” (p.249). The individuals involved, he argued, were “not criminals at heart” (p.81). He told conservative commentators Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that he found “no evidence of criminal activity” in Watergate, which was why Nixon’s detractors were training their fire on “vague areas like morality and so forth” (p.249-50). Alone among political leaders, Reagan insisted that Watergate “said nothing important about the American character” (p.xiv).
Thus, few were surprised when Reagan supported President Gerald Ford’s widely unpopular presidential pardon of Nixon for any crimes he might have committed related to Watergate, issued one month after Nixon’s resignation. Nixon had already suffered “punishment beyond anything any of us could imagine” (p.271), Reagan argued. Ford’s pardon of Nixon dissipated the high level of support that he had enjoyed since assuming the presidency, sending his public approval ratings from near record highs to near new lows. Democrats gained a nearly 2-1 advantage in the House of Representatives in the 1974 mid-term elections and Reagan’s party “seemed near to death” (p.329).
As Ford’s popularity waned, Reagan saw an opportunity to challenge the sitting president. He announced his candidacy in November 1975. Reagan said he was running against what he termed a “buddy system” in Washington, an incestuous network of legislators, bureaucrats, and lobbyists which:
functions for its own benefit – increasingly insensitive to the needs of the American worker, who supports it with his taxes. . . I don’t believe for one moment that four more years of business as usual in Washington is the answer to our problems, and I don’t believe the American people believe it, either (p.547).
With Reagan’s bid for the 1976 Republican nomination, Perlstein’s narrative reaches its climatic conclusion.
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The New York Times dismissed the presidential bid as an “amusing but frivolous Reagan fantasy” and wondered how Reagan could be “taken so seriously by the news media” (p.546). Harper’s termed Reagan the “Candidate from Disneyland” (p.602), labeling him “Nixon without the savvy or self pity. . . That he should be regarded as a serious candidate for President is a shame and embarrassment” (p.602). Commentator Garry Wills responded to Reagan’s charge that the media was treating him unfairly by conceding that it was indeed “unfair to expect accuracy or depth” from Reagan (p.602). But, as Perlstein points out, these comments revealed “more about their authors than they did about the candidate and his political prospects” (p.602), reflecting what he terms elsewhere the “myopia of pundits, who so frequently fail to notice the very cultural ground shifting beneath their feet” (p.xv).
1976 proved to be the last year either party determined its nominee at the convention itself, rather than in advance. Reagan went into the convention in Kansas City as the most serious threat to an incumbent president since Theodore Roosevelt had challenged William Howard Taft for the Republican Party nomination in 1912. His support in the primaries and at the convention benefitted from a conservative movement that had come together to nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, a committed “army that could lose a battle, suck it up, and then regroup to fight a thousand battles more” (p.451) — “long memoried elephants” (p.308), Perlstein terms them elsewhere.
In the years since the Goldwater nomination, evangelical Christians had become more political, moving from the margins to the mainstream of the conservative movement. Evangelical Christians were behind an effort to have America declared officially a “Christian nation.” Judicially-imposed busing of school students to achieve greater racial balance in public schools precipitated a torrent of opposition in cities as diverse as Boston, Massachusetts and Louisville, Kentucky – the Boston opposition organization was known as ROAR, Restore our Alienated Rights. Perlstein also traces the conservative reaction to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which recognized a constitutional right to abortion. The 1976 Republican party platform for the first time recommended a Human Rights amendment to the constitution to reverse the decision.
Activist Phyllis Schlafly, who died just weeks ago, led a movement to derail the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, intended to establish gender equality as a constitutional mandate. Schafly’s efforts contributed to stopping the proposed amendment at a time when approval of only three additional states would have officially adopted the amendment as part of the federal constitution (“Don’t Let Satan Have Its Way – Stop the ERA” was the opposition slogan, as well as Perlstein’s title for a chapter on the subject). Internationally, conservatives opposed the Ford administration’s intention to relinquish to Panama control of the Panama Canal; and the policy of détente toward the Soviet Union which both the Nixon and Ford administrations pursued.
Enabling the long-memoried elephants was Richard Viguerie, a little known master of new technologies for fund-raising and grass roots get-out-the-vote campaigns. Conservative opinion writers like Patrick Buchanan, former Nixon White House Communications Director, and George Will also enjoyed expanded newspaper coverage. A fledgling conservative think tank based in Washington, the Heritage Foundation, became a repository for combining conservative thinking and action. The Heritage Foundation assisted a campaign in West Virginia to purge school textbooks of “secular humanism.”
With the contest for delegates nearly even as the convention approached, Reagan needed the support of conservatives for causes like these. But Reagan also realized that limited support from centrist delegates could prove to be his margin of difference. In a bid to attract such delegates, especially from the crucial Pennsylvania delegation, Reagan promised in advance of the convention to name Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate. Schweiker came from the moderate wing of the party, with a high rating from the AFL-CIO. But the move backfired, infuriating conservatives — North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in particular — with few moderate delegates switching to Reagan. Then, Reagan’s supporters proposed a change to the convention’s rules that would have required Ford to announce his running mate prior to the presidential balloting, forcing Ford to anger either the moderate or conservative faction of the party. Ford supporters rejected the proposal, which lost on the full floor after a close vote.
The 150 delegates of the Mississippi delegation proved to be crucial in determining the outcome of the convention’s balloting. When the Mississippi delegation cast its lot with Ford, the president had a sufficient number of delegates to win the nomination on the first ballot, 1187 votes to 1070 for Reagan. Ford selected Kansas Senator Robert Dole as his running mate, after Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, whom conservatives detested, announced the previous fall that he did not wish to be a candidate for Vice President. Anxious to achieve party unity, Ford invited Reagan to join him on the platform following his acceptance speech. Reagan gave an eloquent impromptu speech that many thought overshadowed Ford’s own acceptance address.
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Perlstein includes a short, epilogue-like summation to the climatic Kansas City convention: Ford went on to lose to Democratic governor from Georgia Jimmy Carter in a close 1976 general election and Reagan emerged as the undisputed leader of his party’s conservative wing. But as the book ended, I found myself still asking how the notion of an “invisible bridge” fits into this saga. My best guess is that the notion is tied to Perlstein’s description of Reagan as a “rescuer.” Reagan’s failed presidential campaign was a journey across a great divide – over an invisible bridge.
On the one side were Watergate, the Vietnam War, repercussions from the Sixties and, for conservatives, Goldwater’s humiliating 1964 defeat. On the other side was the promise of an unsullied way forward. Reagan’s soothing cult of optimism offered Americans a message that could allow them to again view themselves and their country positively. There were no sins that Reagan’s America need atone for. Usually dour and gloomy conservatives — Perlstein’s “long memoried elephants” — also saw in Reagan’s buoyant message the discernible path to power that had eluded them in 1964.. But, as Perlstein will likely underscore in a subsequent volume, many still doubted whether the blithe optimist had the temperament or the intellect to be president, while others suspected that his upbeat brand of conservatism could no more be sold to the country-at-large than the Goldwater brand in 1964.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
October 2, 2016