I watched Watergate unfold as if it were a spectator sport. Not just the Irvin committee hearings, at which John W. Dean intoned that “there was a cancer growing on the presidency,” but also the House Judiciary Committee hearings, the press conferences, all of it.
This was the beginning, or so it seemed, of a new era in American politics, an era of humility and transparency, involving, as Rick Perlstein explains in “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” “a new definition of patriotism, one built upon questioning authority and unsettling ossified norms.” Who could have imagined that in 1980, just six years after Richard Nixon’s resignation, Ronald Reagan would roll to the presidency with a promise of morning in America, his sense of our identity, our destiny, that of “a shining city on a hill”?
FOR THE RECORD:
“The Invisible Bridge”: In the Arts & Books section elsewhere in this edition, a review of “The Invisible Bridge” misspells the name of the Ervin committee as the Irvin committee. The error was detected after the section was printed. —
As it turns out, this is the point (or one of them) of “The Invisible Bridge”: that Reagan’s ascent, and even more, the transformation of American politics that it signified, was not anomalous but obvious — for those who were willing to look closely enough.
The third volume in what has become an extended history of American conservatism (its predecessors include 2001’s “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus” and “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” which came out in 2008), “The Invisible Bridge” is a magnificent and nuanced work because of Perlstein’s mastery of context, his ability to highlight not just the major players but more important, a broader sense of national narrative.
For Perlstein, the collapse of the Nixon administration exposed a series of fault lines in American public life: between Democrats and Republicans, yes, but also within the parties themselves.
“There’s no question,” Reagan declared early in his run for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, “Goldwater tried to tell us some things that maybe eleven years ago we weren’t ready to hear. We still were wrapped in the New Deal syndrome of believing that government could do all of these things for us. I insist Barry Goldwater never was defeated on the basis of his philosophy. The opposition, aided and abetted by Republican opponents in the primaries … created a straw man, and what the people really voted against was a false image of a dangerous man.”
This is, of course, the rhetoric of contemporary politics, albeit framed through a more polite and thoughtful lens. That’s another one of Perlstein’s points, that our political life of the last half-century is (to borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra) a case of “déjà vu all over again.”
He meticulously examines the years from 1972 to 1976, detailing the foment: “Peace with Honor,” the return of the POWs, Watergate, the resignation, Nixon’s pardon by the new, and unelected, president, Gerald Ford. He traces the inquiries into abuses by the intelligence community, including “a government bureau that was so secret most Americans didn’t even know it existed”: the National Security Agency, which, New York representative Bella Abzug revealed, “had … been monitoring both the phone calls and the telegrams of American citizens for decades.” He explores the resistance, across the United States, to the influx of immigrants from South Vietnam; “the national mood is poisonous and dangerous,” observed Harvard sociologist David Riesman, “and this is one symptom — striking out at helpless refugees.”
At the same time, Perlstein lets us see that this is all part of a continuum, in which a corrupt and virulent culture does not wish to see itself as corrupt and virulent.
“What they missed,” he writes, exposing a key blind spot of Reagan’s detractors, “were the political undercurrents. It was supposed to be a skeptical age. But the longing for conservative innocence Ronald Reagan was selling was strong, for those with eyes to see, in all sorts of quarters.”
This was Reagan’s genius, to recognize that and tap into it, to cast himself (in Perlstein’s telling, his whole life is a matter of casting) as the hero who could bring America back. That it was all smoke and mirrors goes without saying, and yet, he emerges as one of the most complex and fascinating figures in “The Invisible Bridge,” a kind of sunshine visionary, at once callow and invested with a vivid political intelligence.
In 1966, during his first run for California governor, he insisted on making campus radicalism an issue, going against his advisors and his own polling; after that helped him win the election, he reflected, “This is how it became an issue. … You knew that this was the number one thing on the people’s minds.” A similar self-awareness led him to seek the 1976 nomination, challenging an incumbent, Ford, in a battle widely seen to be divisive — and a factor in Jimmy Carter’s November victory. For Reagan, short-term loyalty was less important than playing the long game, in which the campaign of 1976 might set up 1980 and beyond.
Perlstein ends the book just short of the 1976 election, with Reagan narrowly losing the nomination — acclaimed by delegates but written off by the politicians and the punditry. “This is probably the end of Reagan’s political career,” wrote Elizabeth Drew in the New Yorker, while the New York Times put it just a bit more bluntly: “At sixty-five years of age, … [he is] too old to consider seriously another run at the Presidency.”
There is, in all of this, a certain irony, given our history since. Reagan, of course, was not too old, and his sensibility continues to define American politics on both sides of the aisle. It’s not just a matter of ideology; Reagan, Perlstein reminds us, often governed as a pragmatist. Consider the IMF Treaty, limiting intermediate-range nuclear weapons, which he signed with the Soviets in the last year of his presidency.
And yet, even more essential was his faith that, in the words of Pope Pius XII, “Into the hands of America, God has place the destiny of an afflicted mankind.” You can argue with that, call it naive or sentimental, but there’s no denying its influence. I think of Barack Obama, accepting his own nomination for president by saying, "[W]e are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.”
We now take such pieties for granted; humility and self-reflection have long since fallen by the wayside in our political discourse. “The Invisible Bridge,” among its many other triumphs, tells us how we got that way.
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The Invisible Bridge
The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan
Simon & Schuster: 856 pp., $37.50