Though America has had quite a few great presidents, iconic presidents are much rarer. Icons appear only in hindsight and are created in a very specific fashion. First, one party will hail the president as great, while the other claims he has wrecked the country. Then the opposing faction realizes the president wasn’t that bad, and reckons with his policies and broader influence, changing its own policies in the process. And finally, both parties fight to claim the president as their own, that they are his true heirs.
So, who makes the cut? Washington, Jefferson, Jackson (maybe), Lincoln (definitely), both Roosevelts, and … Reagan. Deceased barely a decade, he is already in the second stage of iconographic development. Liberal Democrats, who despised him and everything he stood for, are reckoning with Reagan and his legacy. Bill Clinton made "the era of big government is over" his cri de coeur, reformed welfare, and deregulated Wall Street. Barack Obama called Reagan a "transformational president." And Rick Perlstein has written The Invisible Bridge.
Yes, the last is a big slide down the world-historical food chain. But Perlstein’s work is worth noting, because he is one of the few liberal writers to take conservatism seriously. The Invisible Bridge follows Perlstein’s Before the Storm and Nixonland, which, respectively, charted the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater (his first, in 1964) and Richard Nixon (his second, in 1968). Both books were provocative and fair-minded. If conservatives needed a guide to the liberal reckoning with Reagan, Perlstein seemed to be the man to do it.
But he isn’t. The Invisible Bridge is intensely frustrating and ultimately flawed.
The Invisible Bridge is divided into three parts: Nixon’s second term, biographical sketches of Ronald Reagan, and a social-cultural history of mid-1970s America. The chapters on Nixon are a slog. Every literate person knows the story, and Perlstein’s version adds nothing new.
But Perlstein needs Nixon’s fall for the sake of his broader argument, which ties the otherwise disparate sections of his book together. Put simply, he thinks that Watergate, Vietnam, and Nixonian sleaze led many Americans to a "new definition of patriotism, one built upon questioning authority and unsettling ossified norms." This approach involved "question[ing] leaders ruthlessly … throw[ing] aside the silly notion that American power was always innocent, and think[ing] like grown-ups."
According to Perlstein, this new conception of patriotism was on the verge of national acceptance in the mid-1970s. And he thinks that was a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, one man messed it all up: Ronald Reagan. In the aftermath of Watergate and defeat in Vietnam, he encouraged "citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them" from these national calamities.
The remainder of The Invisible Bridge is all about Reagan, and the societal divisions Perlstein believes he exploited and helped deepen. Biographical chapters are interspersed throughout the books’ narrative on the social and cultural history of the mid 1970s. These sections span Reagan’s boyhood and acting career, continue with his work for GE and governorship, and end at his failure to unseat Gerald Ford as the 1976 Republican nominee.
Perlstein’s portrait is not kind. Reagan fibs about his past, lurches from one business-appeasing policy to the next, and uses homespun (and inaccurate) anecdotes to hoodwink Middle America into hating government. While he is in awe of Reagan’s political abilities, Perlstein loathes what they have wrought, and he keeps lamenting the America that might have been—the America of the "new definition of patriotism," where Americans "unsettl[e] ossified norms," "question authority," and "think like grown-ups."
Perlstein gives Reagan both too much and too little credit. Too much because Reagan didn't destroy the "new definition of patriotism"—most Americans hated it from the moment of conception. And too little because Reagan also "unsettled ossified norms" and "questioned authority" in his quest to save the nation.
Liberal Democrats were the main purveyors of Perlstein's "new definition of patriotism" during the 1970s—not the happiest time for the party or the nation. This sentiment was actually a liability, because most Americans viewed "question[ing] leaders ruthlessly" and "throw[ing] aside the silly notion that American power was always innocent" as blame-America-first nonsense. And they felt this way well before Reagan, as evinced by the almost 61 percent majority that pulled the lever for Nixon-Agnew in 1972.
Perlstein avers that Watergate changed everything. And, once again, he is wrong. Yes, Watergate gave the Democrats a massive congressional majority in 1974, and (barely) delivered Carter the presidential election in 1976. But these victories were wavelets in a conservative tide. The same issues that gave Nixon his landslide—anger at the failures of the Great Society, fear of rising crime, and disgust at the for-thee-but-not-for-me noblesse oblige of the limousine liberals—remained issues after Watergate and his resignation, and hobbled Democratic candidates all over the country.
The American people were thus predisposed to like any politician who wasn’t a left-wing Democrat. Reagan’s genius was to turn this anti-liberal conservatism into pro-conservatism conservatism. His effort to do so was derided by establishment figures on all sides. They sniffed at his tax-cutting economic policy, laughed at his unironic invocation of American exceptionalism, and scorned his full-throated denunciation of Soviet communism. But many more Americans listened to Reagan, and liked what they heard.
This is where The Invisible Bridge falls down. Reagan didn’t destroy Perlstein’s "new conception of patriotism" because that version of patriotism never had popular acceptance. And left-wing flower children weren’t the only people "questioning authority" and "unsettling ossified norms" in 1970s America. Ronald Reagan was too. But he did so by suggesting new ways for vital institutions to function, not the wholesale destruction of those institutions. Perlstein recognizes this tension—in fact, he repeatedly acknowledges the arrogance of the chattering class, and their blindness to the popularity of Reagan’s new approach—yet he won’t bend his thesis to reality.
In spite of Perlstein’s obsession with Reagan’s supposedly malign influence, The Invisible Bridge does have some merits. The writing is excellent. Some sections are well drawn and exciting. Perlstein has a journalist’s feel for place and character, and paints set pieces—from race riots in Boston to school-curriculum meetings in Charleston—with ease.
But technical skill can only get one so far. To paraphrase his bête noir, the trouble with Perlstein isn’t that he’s ignorant, he just knows so much that isn’t so. He ends The Invisible Bridge on the last night of the 1976 Republican convention. Reagan gave the final speech, one of the best of his career. Perlstein reveals that the address, long viewed as impromptu, was actually scripted. Does it matter? Reagan, ever the actor, dealt in illusions—that America’s economy could be revived, her military strength recovered, her totalitarian enemy vanquished. Those seemed impossible aims in the 1970s. But the American people believed. And under Reagan’s leadership, they made the illusion real.
Published under: Book reviews