The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What politicians can learn today from Reagan’s unexpected rise to power

Rick Perlstein, author of The Invisible Bridge (photo provided by Perstein)

Defeat in Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, Watergate, rising crime rates, and the first signs of the collapsing blue-collar economy marked the mid-1970s as among the toughest periods in American history.

Rick Perlstein’s current best-seller, Invisible Bridge, chronicles that time. Its 880 pages and accompanying Web site portray the rise of Ronald Reagan from the Nixon presidency’s Watergate demise to the 1976 Republican nomination fight between Reagan and then-incumbent president Gerald Ford. Although Ford narrowly prevailed in that bitter contest, Reagan and his conservative followers seized the reigns of the modern Republican party. Four years later, Reagan himself ascended to the presidency.

Perhaps inevitably given the book’s protagonist, Invisible Bridge’s critical reception exemplifies the polarization Perlstein seeks to depict. Writing in the New York Times Sundau Book Review, Frank Rich labelled Invisible Bridge an “epic work,” calling it “both enjoyable as kaleidoscopic popular history… and telling about our own historical moment.” The National Review’s Michael Knox Beran was less favorable. His review, titled “The decline of liberal history,” allows that Invisible Bridge “has a certain energy, derived from the hysterical flippancy of the writing.”

I caught up with Perlstein last Friday. We discussed Reagan’s improbable success. We also discussed many other things: The OPEC oil embargo, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, whether President Obama underestimated the implacability of his political opponents. Finally, we discussed what Perlstein himself has learned from critical essays written about his book.

Below is an edited and shortened transcript of our conversation.

Harold Pollack: Thanks so much for joining me. Maybe you should mention how Invisible Bridge is situated in your larger body of work.

Rick Perlstein: This is the third book in what is now to be a four-book series. My first book was called Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. I covered the rise of the conservative movement in the late 50's and early 60's through Barry Goldwater's landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson. Nixonland picked up where that left off. It started out with the Watts Riots in summer 1965 and went through Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide. In the preface, I wrote that book was not so much about Richard Nixon as about “the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president, because to do anything else …seemed to court civilizational chaos and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”

Invisible Bridge was originally planned to go until 1980, but I found myself narrating something that no historian had ever quite done before: what it was like to experience Watergate for the American public. This was such an engrossing thing that I ran out of pages by the time I got to what turned out to be this book’s dramatic climax: the 1976 Republican nomination fight. Ronald Reagan did something extraordinary, which was to challenge a sitting president and almost win.

I'm doing one more book. I have a contract with Simon & Shuster to take the story forward. At first, I thought I would go through the election of 1980. But I think I'm going to go to the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, because the battle to shape the Reagan administration during that transition was very dramatic and very interesting. That should be done in three years or so. Out in four years.

Reagan’s surprising success

HP: What accounted for Reagan’s incredible success? Throughout your book, there are so many points at which liberals are baffled. They are saying: "Wow. You uncritically defend Nixon precisely at the moment when all of the damaging evidence is coming out?" All the commentators are saying, "Wow. This guy is done."

He runs for governor of California. Many people are thinking he's an empty suit. Somehow, the empty suit always manages to out-maneuver everyone and to be present at the graves of the people who prematurely wrote his political obituary. What accounts for his extraordinary success and what accounts for the blindness of the people observing him and not seeing it?

RP: That’s a huge part of what the book is about. In the preface, I note the evidence that he divided people in this way since high school and college. He always divided opinions down the middle. Half of the people saw him as this figure of heroic stature, whom they would follow into a fire. And half found him to be a toadie and phony.

He had these extraordinary gifts, what I call his emotional intelligence. It's really extraordinary: His ability to read a crowd, and to tell them a story that is inspiring to them. This guy completely bucked the trend of seeing Watergate and Richard Nixon as this necessary moment of reckoning for the republic itself. He was the only political figure to not only say that Richard Nixon was innocent, and this was a liberal witch hunt, but that Watergate just wasn't a big deal. It wasn't even something worth talking about or thinking about.

Evans and Novak did a column in June 1974, in which they interviewed all his political handlers who wanted to make him president. They were agonizing that they couldn’t do it until he denounced Nixon, and Reagan never did. What his advisers didn't understand, what Evans and Novak didn't understand (Novak would go on to become one of Reagan’s greatest admirers), was that this was not an impediment to Reagan’s success. It was actually the foundation of his political success.

The story in my book began in 1973. Richard Nixon declared “peace with honor” in Vietnam when there was nothing honorable about it at all. We lost a war. We wasted 58,000 lives, billions of dollars. The government that we'd expended all this blood and treasure to prop up was not only corrupt, but its Army collapsed like a house of cards, much like the Iraq armies today.

While this was happening, Americans were getting the first inkling of something called the “energy shortage.” This was a remarkable blow to America's self-image, because people didn't really think of energy as something that you could even have a shortage of. The idea that we could be held hostage by these Arab sheikhs was just completely traumatizing. We were straddling the world like a colossus. We defeated Hitler. We created the first mass middle class. Doubled real incomes.

So you've got Watergate, you've got the Energy Crisis, and then you have Vietnam… For the first time, Americans begin to confront the notion we are not God's chosen nation, the last best hope on Earth. My argument is that this was a time of extraordinary political engagement, which marked America's coming of age as a nation. I quote Kant's definition of enlightenment, which is, "Mankind's emergence from its self-imposed adolescence." In other words, the country was growing up.

The story I tell is that there was always a counter-force pushing against this: this longing for innocence, this longing for the easy answer, that America couldn't possibly fall from this pinnacle of greatness.

That was the force represented by Reagan. It was the wave that he rode. By the time of the bicentennial, there was a remarkable movement in which people were saying, "America doesn't deserve to have a big birthday party. Terrorists are probably going to blow up the celebrations anyway." There were 82 terrorist bombings in the United States in 1975. Suddenly this moment passes and people are realizing this uncritical joyous celebration of patriotism was not that hard to do, after all.

HP: There seems to be an anger underneath your writing, in which you believe that what we needed to do as a nation was to have this reckoning, to come out of our self-imposed adolescence. And then Reagan and others short-circuited that, and we took the easy way out.

RP: Yeah, I have a theory about that. I'm angry that we learned lessons about the foolishness of pursuing a counter-insurgency war halfway across the world and promptly forgot them in Iraq. I'm angry that we're facing civilizational extinction due to global warming. And yet, the Republican Party refuses to even admit this is a problem. I'm angry that the Bush administration did some very nasty things in violation of the Constitution and the laws of the country in pursuing the War on Terror. Then the first thing Barack Obama did after he got elected was to say: "I'm not going to pursue a reckoning with this. We're just going to look forward instead of looking backward."

I don't see how we can solve these huge problems until we cross the threshold on the level of political culture of recognizing that there are big problems in America, and that we need to apply ourselves, collectively, to address them.

HP: One thing that comes through in the book, is how turned-around and crazy the 70's really were. The small things included wacky packages and Mad magazine, which were strikingly anti-corporate some of those things were in their moment. Then there were the more serious things like the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. I was a kid in the 70's. It wasn't like 1968. The intensity was different. But there was a lot of bad stuff happening to the country in the mid-1970's. And it just kept coming.

RP: Coming and coming and coming and coming. We mentioned the three big ones, but there were others. Kids were disappearing into cults. That was one of the reasons, I think The Exorcist took off and was so popular. Lines wrapped around the block. And it made as much money as Gone with the Wind in just a few months. It touched this deep, deep nerve. People really felt like their own innocent daughters could be possessed by demons. This was a real, living fear.

And the crime rate was exploding and crime was becoming more spectacular, more horrifying. There were even inklings of Jihad. We have kidnapping by Islamic groups and things like that.

Hollowing out of the American economy

HP: Invisible Bridge doesn’t say a whole lot about one issue worth considering. The 1970's were also the period where the bottom is about to fall out of the American industrial economy.

RP: They'll be much more about that de-industrialization in the next book. Methodologically, I'm not writing from this omniscient 30,000-foot perch. Sometimes, I do. You can't avoid it. We do have hindsight. But it's very much what people, in the consciousness of the time were able to get their mind around.

I write a little bit about how the one presidential candidate who did speak to the hollowing out of the middle class and did see it coming--Hubert Humphrey--really gets no traction at all. The Democrats who are rising to esteem and power in that period, the Watergate babies, are guys who literally disdained The New Deal and saw it as irrelevant. They're very much lifestyle liberals. They're speaking to this professional suburban constituency.

Even Gary Hart, who's the King of the Watergate babies, derides “Eleanor Roosevelt liberals.” He cites neo-liberal classical economists, as does Jerry Brown. Brown doesn't speak to figuring out a way to assure that ordinary middle class Americans get a piece of America's growing bounty, but says that we should stop growing the bounty. Jerry Brown is literally campaigning with a lot of success in the Democratic primaries arguing for a notion of limits to economic growth.

The resilience of conservative populism

HP: You note in all of your books the surprising resilience of what might be called “the new right” and connected movements. At the very moment when they're really starting to coalesce and gather steam. The cognoscenti are basically saying: "The Republican Party is dead. The conservative movement is dead. It's a dinosaur."

RP: In 1974, pundit Joseph Kraft said: "Conservative populism is on the run." His evidence was one primary election in California. I was talking to Digby about this, on a podcast last night. What is the sociological nature of this group of people, pundits? They so desperately wished for the self-fulfilling prophecy that conservatism will die out and is dying out. Why is that mistake made over and over again…?

HP: The current version of that argument cites long-term demographic changes to claim that the Democratic Party will dominate.

RP: Demography is not destiny. Chester Bowles, a Democratic mandarin of the 1950s, wrote a whole book in 1958 saying the population of WASPS is dying out: The rising population is the white ethnics-Polls, Italians, and Irish. They're never going to vote for a Republican. So the Republican Party is dead unless it becomes liberal.

Demography is not destiny. There's nothing to say that Hispanic voters won't become more conservative as they're ushered into the middle class.

Anti-Catholic prejudice was a real thing in the 40's and 50's. The guys who were working in the steel mills, are now doing pretty well out in the Chicago suburbs and should have no problem voting for Republicans. There's a new historical literature that’s been going on for about 25 years now, about how groups become "white" and how people written out of the mainstream of U.S. ethnic politics get ushered in.

Who's to say Mexican-Americans won't become “white” in the next 20 years? Who's to say that if we reform immigration, that instead of rewarding the Democrats--as if that’s how politics works!--the Democrats won't have immigration to run on anymore.

Reagan vs. Obama

HP: You're somewhat disdainful in that President Obama does not--or did not for much of his presidency--recognize the implacability of who he was up against.

RP: Right. The New York Times Book Review asked me what book I most wanted Barack Obama to read. My answer was the Book of Job. Because he really needs to understand that life does not always respond to reason, and that there are implacable foes who are not susceptible to thoughtful ratiocination. Every time he compromises with them, he moves the center to the right.

He had a great opportunity to say, in month ten of his term, to do what he's doing now and say: "Look, I tried to extend a hand of fellowship. Look at all these ways they pushed it away in defiance of your, the American people's, interests." He didn't have to say “Republicans.” He didn't even have to say “conservatives.” He could have said: “extremists.”

He could have really pivoted and caused a historical shift away from conservative ignominy in the same way that Ronald Reagan did in 1982-83 with liberal ignominy. Once the economy started to get back on track, he was able to say, "It’s morning in America, and it's all the liberals’ faults that we ever strayed from the true path."

HP: I'm much less confident than you are, partly because the institutional structures in the Congress. There's a whole set of institutional gears that are hard to turn.

RP: Doesn’t matter. Reagan was a good loser. He lost all sorts of legislative fights. Yet on the level of rhetoric, he was always able to recover his losses and turn them into rhetorical gains for conservatism as an idea. He was always able to say, "Look at all these things I tried to do but couldn’t do because the institutions are in the hands of liberals. That’s the problem."

Every time he had to do something like sign a bill to raise taxes." He could say, "I'm doing this while holding my nose, but you can help me not do it next time by joining my crusade to de-legitimize liberalism as a governing philosophy.” That’s definitely something that Obama just doesn't want to do because building the strategic capacity for liberalism, as such, is something he finds pretty distasteful.

ObamaCare: Good policy is good politics

HP: Speaking as a liberal, I’m optimistic about the on-the-ground progress of health reform. The immediate politics are not looking great, but it's actually working on the ground. That will matter, politically.

RP: Good policy is good politics. It really is.

It's like old Harry Truman said, when someone said give him hell, he says, "We'll tell them the truth and call it hell." We can put together a good social democratic reform and really stake a claim for the next generation: “We were the people who did this.”

If you listen to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, it's famous for Nixon's sweating. The reason he was sweating is that Kennedy was saying: "We were for Social Security. They were against it. We were for unemployment Insurance. They were against it. We were for the minimum wage, and they were against it."

Kennedy was very partisan. He said: "There's a party that built the middle class and there's a party that opposed building the middle class. I want you to join me." He reduced Nixon to spluttering that he agreed with him but wanted to do it a little better.

Learning from the critics

HP: Your book is capturing widespread attention…. When you read the reviews, what are some arguments that might changing the way you're thinking about the story you just told, or the way you’re thinking about the story that you will tell in your forthcoming book?

RP: I could stand to mature a bit as a writer. One reason I never became an academic-- even though I went to graduate school—was that I really wanted to be paid attention to in a way that was not possible writing technical things for a technical audience.

I almost want to call it neurosis. It wouldn’t be enough to have to build a solid niche and contribute to knowledge. In a sense, I'm like one of these politicians. I want to be loved by everybody, right? I do a lot of grabbing people's lapels when I write. "Look at this, Look at this, Look at this crazy thing that happened!"

It works in the period that I'm writing about. I think my first book was a lot calmer because I was writing about a calmer period. In a sense, the media is the message. In Nixonland, and in this book, I'm writing about such a crazy, frenetic period that it works to write in this Hunter S. Thompson kind of way.

I think the challenge in my next book will be to dial down the freneticism a bit. That’s certainly something that some people love about my books, but some people have been critical, too. I've been listening to those criticisms. I'm not going to go as far as the guy in the National Interest who said my writing is “spastic.” I think maybe I'll write more in a way befitting of a 45-year-old that I'm going to be next week.

There'll still be lots of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. That puts fannies in seats and I’ve got to eat (smiles)…

This was always conceived as a project that would finish when Reagan is in power. It's a funny thing. That’s my upbringing. I was born in 1969 and suddenly, once I become an adolescent, the history I remember, I think becomes exponentially larger and more unmanageable and I just don't see a storyline for me to tell in the 1980's. Although, I do have visions of writing a book about the Democratic Party's turn to the right, but I think it'll be less of a “You-are-there” historical narrative and a bit more analytical. A lot of the interesting stuff happens behind closed doors and not on TV screens. You'd read that, wouldn’t you?

HP: I would. Thank you so much for spending the time with me.

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He is a nonresident fellow of the Century Foundation.