Book Review: ‘The Invisible Bridge’ by Rick Perlstein

The mid-1970s brought a crime wave, meat and gas rationing, a deep recession, workers idled at Christmastime—then came Ronald Reagan.

Wall Street Journal

August 1, 2014

Rick Perlstein has established himself as one of our foremost chroniclers of the rise of the modern conservative movement. It’s an unexpected niche for a card-carrying liberal. But if he’s occasionally tart in his comments about conservatives, he is not entirely unsympathetic either. In fact, he reserves some of his most cutting barbs (and there are many in his well-crafted if slightly over-caffeinated works) for clueless establishment liberals who all too readily dismissed the significance of conservative champions such as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

 Mr. Perlstein’s first book, “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus” (2001), chronicled Goldwater’s emergence as the tribune of anti-government sentiment, and the deep-sixing of the corporatist consensus of the 1950s. His second, “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” (2008), looked at how Nixon cobbled together a coalition—the “silent majority”—built on resentment of the privileged elites. And now, in “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” he considers the political and cultural transition that occurred between the end of the Vietnam War in 1973 and the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City. This was the shift from Richard Nixon, who, despite the loathing he inspired on the left, turned out to be one of the most liberal presidents in our history (he implemented wage and price controls, toasted Mao and created the Environmental Protection Agency) and Gerald Ford, a non-ideological, country-club Republican who refused to meet with Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn for fear of offending Moscow, to Ronald Reagan, as committed a conservative as has ever entered the Oval Office, who as a candidate joked, “You know, sometimes I think moderation should be taken in moderation.”

The book’s clunky title is drawn from a comment Nixon made to Nikita Khrushchev : “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.” The metaphor doesn’t seem quite apt because, as Mr. Perlstein shows, the U.S. in the mid-1970s confronted real, not imaginary, obstacles. “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,” he claims. And he provides ample evidence to back up that assertion.

First and foremost, of course, was the defeat in Vietnam. Then, too, there was the first-ever resignation of a president and the Arab oil embargo, which led to nationwide shortages and rationing. Along with, as Mr. Perlstein writes, “A recession that saw hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers idled during Christmastime [of 1974]; 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.”

These were just a few of the headline events. An assiduous researcher, Mr. Perlstein has unearthed numerous “smaller traumas,” too, such as “the near doubling of meat prices in the spring of 1973, when the president’s consumer advisor went on TV and informed viewers that ‘liver, kidney, brains and heart can be made into gourmet meals with seasoning, imagination, and more cooking time.’ “

Mr. Perlstein suggests that this accumulation of crises had the potential to remake the U.S. into a very different kind of country. He quotes, for example, the editor of Intellectual Digest magazine writing in 1973: “For the first time, Americans have had at least a partial loss in the fundamental belief in ourselves. We’ve always believed we were the new men, the new people, the new society. The ‘last best hope on earth,’ in Lincoln’s terms. For the first time, we’ve really begun to doubt it.”

Liberals hoped to harness such self-doubt to redefine what it truly meant to “believe in America.” They wanted to displace wave-the-flag patriotism with a supposedly higher form of loyalty rooted in the freedom “to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent,” and to replace boundless belief in America’s potential with a conviction that, as Jerry Brown (then, as now, governor of California) put it during his 1976 presidential campaign: “We have fiscal limits, we have ecological limits, we even have human limits.”

Mr. Perlstein argues that this revolution in American thought was effectively thwarted by the ascent of that perpetual optimist Ronald Reagan, who insisted on seeing even the most traumatic events in his own life (such as his father’s alcoholism or his own divorce) as being part of a providential design for the greater good. Reagan made no concessions to the self-critical weltanschauung of the 1970s. Unlike many other Republicans, he did not attack Nixon over Watergate bugging (he quipped that Democrats “should have been happy that somebody was willing to listen to them”), and he never wavered in his belief that the Vietnam War was fully justified, that the only mistake we made was not fighting hard enough to win. Despite the oil shock and claims that natural resources were running out (which look ludicrous in hindsight), Reagan refused to believe that America’s best days were behind it. “Ronald Reagan was an athlete of the imagination,” Mr. Perlstein writes, with more than a bit of condescension, “a master at turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-hearted certainty.”

With his insurgent run through the 1976 Republican primaries, Reagan almost defeated a sitting president for the nomination of his own party. And though he narrowly lost the vote to Ford, he won the heart of the Republican Party. His oration at the end of the 1976 convention, which Mr. Perlstein recounts in minute and gripping detail, captivated delegates in a way that no speech of the humdrum incumbent (who described himself as “A Ford, not a Lincoln”) ever had. Reagan told delegates he had recently written a letter for a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. He wondered if those who read the letter “will look back with appreciation and say, ‘Thank God for those people in 1976 who headed off that loss of freedom, who kept us now a hundred years later free, who kept our world from nuclear destruction?’ ” But, he added, ominously, “if we fail they probably won’t get to read the letter at all because it spoke of individual freedom and they won’t be allowed to talk of that or read of it.”

Reagan had established himself as the presumptive Republican candidate the next time around. In the process, Mr. Perlstein argues (even though this speech wasn’t especially cheery), he ushered in “an almost official cult of optimism—the belief that American could do no wrong. Or, to put it another way, that if Americans did it, it was by definitionnot wrong.”

To show that such a “cult” exists, Mr. Perlstein quotes both contemporary Republicans and Democrats proclaiming, as Barack Obama puts it, that “we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.” Although he does not quite come out and say so, Mr. Perlstein implies that he would have preferred the redefinition of American nationhood that Reagan pre-empted—would welcome a U.S. less “arrogant,” more akin to Sweden and Britain, once-great powers that have accommodated themselves to diminished global status.

The question is whether this was ever a realistic prospect. Is it possible that a nation such as the United States, with more power than any other (even now, after the post-1979 rise of China) and a sense of optimism built into its very founding, could ever have given in to doubt and despair for long? Mr. Perlstein never examines this issue. Nor does he delve into the question of whether Reagan revived American spirits with his sunny rhetoric—or whether, as seems more probable, his presidential accomplishments, which showed that the country was far from ungovernable (and which fall outside this book’s scope), were more important.

Luckily, readers do not have to be convinced of Mr. Perlstein’s thesis to enjoy his work. Indeed, much of “The Invisible Bridge” is not about politics per se but about American society in all its weird, amusing and disturbing permutations. He seems to have read every word of every newspaper and magazine published in the 1970s and has mined them for delightful anecdotes involving half-forgotten characters such as the self-empowerment guru Werner Erhard (formerly Jack Rosenberg ), the rabidly pro-Nixon rabbi Baruch Korff, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, beer-swilling presidential brother Billy Carter and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, who bragged: “I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”

Mr. Perlstein is particularly good at showing how popular movies reflected the popular mood. “The Exorcist,” for example, became a surprise hit in 1973 because the demonic possession of a 12-year-old girl (played by Linda Blair ) resonated at a time when grown-ups feared they were losing their children to drugs, cults and “permissive” attitudes.

The flip-side of this media-focused method is that Mr. Perlstein did not delve deeply into the archives or conduct many original interviews, and thus he does not break much new ground. His irreverent writing style, moreover, can verge on the snarky or sarcastic. For instance, he mocks Reagan’s story of having to put his father to bed when he was dead drunk: “A good thing his father was passed out drunk, or else Ronald Reagan would not have had the opportunity to come of age.” Some of his juxtapositions of random events are labored and some of his caustic asides will not be to everyone’s taste. He is overly fond of appending “or something” at the end of sentences—for instance, when he notes that “comic books were big; at the ‘Nostalgia ’73’ convention in Chicago you could buy a copy of the first Superman comic for a thousand dollars, like it was a Picasso or something.”

But those are minor faults. “The Invisible Bridge” is surely not the last word on the events of 1973-76, but it would be hard to top it for sheer entertainment value.