Ronald Reagan in all his blithe optimism is the star of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” the latest volume in Rick Perlstein’s ongoing chronicle of modern American politics.
Simon & Schuster ($37.50).
Although Richard Nixon’s downfall dominates the book’s early chapters, it is Ronald Reagan who stands as the central character in this epic-length recapturing of the post-Watergate era. More than anyone, he embodies the “right-leaning longing for innocence” that eventually triumphs at the close of the 1970s.
The book takes its title from some shrewd advice Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev once gave to Mr. Nixon. If the people believe in imaginary rivers, Khrushchev said, it is the job of their leaders to build imaginary bridges over them. Mr. Perlstein presents Mr. Reagan as a master builder of illusions, but just as important to his story are the millions of Americans who wanted illusions built.
After the twin debacles of the Vietnam War and Watergate, a huge chunk of the electorate “preferred stories of patriotic reassurance to the anguished ordeal of facing uncomfortable facts.”
Those facts are served up with a mixture of scholarly precision, outrage and wry humor over the narrative’s 804 pages. Both pivotal moments (the fall of Saigon, the presidential impeachment hearings) and forgotten characters (die-hard Nixon supporter Rabbi Baruch Korff, pathetic would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore) are covered here.
Mr. Perlstein does an especially good job at recounting the various investigations into covert intelligence operations conducted by the U.S. Congress and the Ford administration. The failure of both parties -- and the voters -- to hold America’s leaders to account for the spying and assassination plots uncovered is offered as an example of the nation’s collective failure to come to terms with its sins.
Admittedly, this sounds like a familiar liberal indictment of America’s willful blindness. But to Mr. Perlstein’s credit, he seems as exasperated with the biases of left-leaning elites as with those of the Right. He especially hates “blitheness,” a scornful term he uses throughout the book.
While Mr. Reagan is taken to task on this account, Mr. Perlstein likewise condemns “that blitheness, that unthinking arrogance of liberals when it came to formerly private realms of the family.”
Mr. Perlstein is at his best when describing how conservative Middle Americans felt under siege as the ‘70s unfolded. He paints compelling portraits of people such as Alice Moore, the West Virginia homemaker who fought to keep “Satanic” textbooks out of public schools.
Activists such as Ms. Moore are portrayed as both sincere crusaders and useful tools in a larger offensive waged by the likes of the Heritage Foundation against federal authority. If Mr. Perlstein recognizes the extremism of such right-wing zealots, he also notes that East Coast journalists treated evangelical Christianity “as if it were as alien to American culture as a Balinese cockfight.”
Beyond the political realm, Mr. Perlstein captures the moral miasma of ‘70s pop culture with a discerning eye. He recounts the violent reactions to showings of “The Exorcist” (vomiting, heart attacks, suicide) and draws links between nostalgic TV fare like “Happy Days” and a yearning for old-fashioned patriotism.
Cultish movements like est and radical groups like the Symbionese Liberation Army testify to a hunger for self-transformation. The era’s weird fusion of mass-produced banality and counter cultural excess is detailed in lurid tones.
Through it all, Mr. Perlstein interweaves the story of Ronald Reagan’s rise from a troubled childhood through middling success in Hollywood and emergence as General Electric’s corporate spokesman.
Mr. Reagan “had fashioned his sumptuous voice and had been studying himself being studied by the camera since he was a little boy.” Once he entered politics, his “passionately creative visions of innocence” offered a “litany of absolution” to Americans “hugging any excuse not to change.”
For those wanting raw political combat, Mr. Perlstein provides a dazzling blow-by-blow account of Mr. Reagan’s battle with Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, culminating in a nail-biting showdown at the party’s convention. Mr. Ford won, but Mr. Reagan was the true victor in the fight for the GOP’s heart and soul.
The book closes with the pundits writing Mr. Reagan’s political obituary. Once again, they were poor prophets. Mr. Perlstein makes clear that champions of innocence are hard to beat. If America demands invisible bridges, he suggests, the fault is not in our ex-movie stars but in ourselves.
Barry Alfonso, a writer and independent scholar, lives in Swissvale (firstname.lastname@example.org).