You can learn a lot by reading newspapers, especially if you have helped write them. Frederick Lewis Allen was a journalist of the 1920s who became a book author by taking what he and other journalists had written about the decade and reshaping it into the 1931 bestseller “Only Yesterday.” Allen’s contemporary Mark Sullivan did something similar on a grander scale, eventually producing six volumes on American life during the first quarter of the 20th century. The secret of the success of Allen and Sullivan was not that they broke new ground in reporting, which they did not. Their secret was just the opposite: They reminded readers of what the readers already knew but were starting to forget. They took a ride down memory lane, pointing out the sights that conjured up moments from the readers’ collective and individual pasts.
Rick Perlstein currently lands midway in page count between Allen and Sullivan. Perlstein, who has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, among other newspapers and magazines, positions “The Invisible Bridge” as the third installment of his history of the emergence of modern American conservatism. In fact it is much more. Like Allen and Sullivan, Perlstein ranges far beyond political history, in his case touching on just about everything interesting that happened in the United States between 1973 and 1976. The familiar stories are here: the dispiriting end of the Vietnam War, the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, renewed conflict in the Middle East, the first oil shock, Richard Nixon’s resignation and his pardon by Gerald Ford, the revelations of wrongdoing by the CIA, the puzzlingly simultaneous experience of high unemployment and high inflation, the near-bankruptcy of New York City, the midterm elections of 1974, the national political conventions of 1976 — which is where Perlstein ends this book.
Perlstein acknowledges his debt to the work of other authors, “upon which my work is all but parasitic.” And he doesn’t claim any particular revelations about subjects that were thoroughly covered by journalists at the time and historians since. Yet he tells those stories with a verve that carries readers along, even when they know they’ve heard the stories before.
Perlstein identifies certain themes. “This is a book about how Ronald Reagan came within a hairs-breadth of becoming the 1976 Republican nominee for president,” he writes. Readers might wonder at this choice of topic, since not only did Reagan not win the Republican nomination, but the Republican nominee, Gerald Ford, lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter. “This book is also a sort of biography of Ronald Reagan,” Perlstein continues. Again a bit curious, given that the book stops well before Reagan achieves the only thing that makes him interesting to biographers or anyone else: the presidency.
Perlstein’s broadest theme resolves the puzzle, partly. He describes a shift in the American mood roughly coincident with the bicentennial celebrations of July 4, 1976 — from the disillusionment of the immediate post-Vietnam, post-Watergate years to a reaffirmation of belief in the country’s abiding values. “This book is about how that shift in national sentiment took place,” Perlstein writes.
In Perlstein’s earlier volumes, Barry Goldwater and Nixon were his organizing protagonists; here Reagan serves the purpose. Perlstein walks us through Reagan’s youth, his Hollywood career and his two terms as California governor. Perlstein sees Reagan as a polarizing figure, despite his repeated appeals to a unifying recognition of America’s historical mission.
The polarization was political, but it was also social and cultural. Perlstein is a prodigious and effective consumer of newspaper articles (he acknowledges his debt to Google on this score). The narrative bounces entertainingly and revealingly from high policy to low humor; it segues from the sentencing hearing of the Watergate burglars to Johnny Carson commenting on the rapid increase in the price of meat, which had risen so high that “Oscar Mayer had his wiener appraised.” Hank Aaron chases Babe Ruth’s career home run record while cops at Columbia University chase streakers across campus, prompting an editorial cartoonist to portray a nervous Nixon looking out a White House window and saying: “Oh, it’s only a streaker. For a moment there I thought you said leaker!”
The movies “The Exorcist” and “Jaws” set a tone of horror and suspense as congressional committees uncover the skulduggery of the CIA. Werner Erhard peddles the snake oil of “est” mind-training seminars while politicians of both parties peddle the traditional political version. “Killer bees” invading the United States from Central America strike fear into American hearts already anxious about the parlous condition of the economy. The New York Post characterizes Washington’s response to New York City’s financial distress as “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” Betty Ford tells McCall’s that reporters ask all manner of impertinent questions about everything short of how often she and the president have sex. “And if they asked me that I would have told them, ‘As often as possible.’ ”
Perlstein covers the 1976 race for the Republican presidential nomination in greater detail than anyone has done before. He doesn’t much like Ford, but he likes Reagan even less. And what he doesn’t like about Reagan is Reagan’s insistence on seeing only the good in America. For the most part, Perlstein’s own politics enter his account obliquely, as in the extensive coverage he gives Sen. Frank Church, the scourge of the CIA. The closest Perlstein comes to an outright admission of belief appears at the end of his preface. “What does it mean to truly believe in America?” he asks rhetorically. “To wave a flag? Or to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag wavers — to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent?” He allows himself to observe that America needs that dissenting spirit in 2014 — “a time that cries for reckoning once more, in a nation that has ever so adored its own innocence, and so dearly wishes to see itself as an exception to history.”
Perlstein ends his tale abruptly at the moment of Reagan’s defeat by Ford for the GOP nomination. He gives the last word to the New York Times, which asserted that Reagan, at 65, was “too old to consider seriously another run at the Presidency.”
Cue volume four.
THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE
The Fall of Nixon
and the Rise of Reagan
By Rick Perlstein
Simon & Schuster. 856 pp. $37.50