In The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein explains that Reagan “had a way of telling a story that made it uncheckable.” He’d attribute facts and stories to “magazines” and “polls” without specifying which ones had come across his desk. (If you wonder how the existence of Google might have complicated this, remember what happened when Rand Paul started taking stories from Wikipedia.) Reagan defended Richard Nixon during Watergate so resolutely that the media started to write him off. When Gerald Ford was pursuing détente, Reagan warned that a weak America would “tempt the Soviet Union as it once tempted Hitler and the military rulers of Japan.” Perlstein’s every-news-clip-ever approach rewards a long read; he’ll quote Reagan’s welfare dissembling (a welfare-to-work program helped only 0.2 percent of recipients) and a few chapters later a woman on the street in New Hampshire will praise what Reagan did for those welfare moochers.
Perlstein also enjoys quoting the tastemakers who got it wrong. Before the Storm ended with Arthur Schlesinger predicting that Republicans would “lose every election” if they became too conservative. The Invisible Bridge ends with Elizabeth Drew concluding that Reagan is “too old” to run for president in 1980. (Perlstein graciously apologizes to Drew in the endnotes.)
Conservative authors and Republican politicians love those lines, and love (retrospectively) how underrated Reagan was. Perlstein’s Reagan is incredibly talented, but he wins because the conditions are right for him to win. The country’s inward-looking, self-deprecating mood after Watergate was just that—a mood. It passed. It would be replaced by “a liturgy of absolution” and “cult of optimism.” “Others told you Vietnam was a crime, a waste—or, at best, something very, very complex,” writes Perlstein. “It took Ronald Reagan to explain how simple the whole thing was.”
So we remember 1974 and Watergate for the duplicity of a Republican administration. But the total collapse in confidence that government worked and could be trusted was, long term, a victory for conservatism. In the shorter term, the appetite for congressional investigations and exposés was sated in about a year, sped along when Democrats kept finding information that makes the Kennedys look worse than Nixon. One year after Nixon’s resignation, the Washington Post’s Katherine Graham was telling fellow publishers “to see a conspiracy and cover-up in everything is as myopic as to believe that no conspiracies or cover-ups exist.”
Conspiracies do exist. The best of Perlstein’s many, many lost-culture digressions are a study of a school curriculum backlash in West Virginia and a long look at the 1975 bailout of New York City. (You know: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”) Both are examples of how the New Right, with its origins in the Goldwater movement, “could lose a battle, suck it up, and then regroup to fight a thousand battles more.” In the school battles, the young Heritage Foundation found a populist cause that needed intellectual might, and the young direct mail movement found one that still raises gobs of money.
The conspiracy against New York was far more vast. Perlstein describes this as an early application of what Naomi Klein would dub “the shock doctrine.” Bankers saw New York’s crisis as an opportunity to force cutbacks that normal, labor politics would have prevented. Ford’s Treasury Secretary, William Simon, argued “nothing has destroyed New York’s finances but the liberal political formula.” This became conventional wisdom in no time, so much that a young Ken Auletta was soon blaming New York’s failure on a “noble experiment in local socialism and income distribution.”
Again, conservatives aren’t going to disagree with that. They’ll disagree with Perlstein’s view of the crisis, and vehemently disagree with a picture of Reagan that restores how he was viewed before presidency, deification, and landmark construction.
They shouldn’t sweat it. Reagan’s legacy has left too many Republicans hoping that a clone or simulacrum will come along and solve their political problems. Perlstein, while giving Reagan his due, rejects Great Man theory. Conservatives can win when the conditions are right, and when people embrace patriotism while rejecting the state. Imagine what Reagan could have done with Obamacare or the IRS story. Then consider how well Republicans have done, how much they’ve been able to exploit the Obama administration’s failures, without him.
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein. Simon and Schuster.