Why Are Conservatives Attacking Rick Perlstein’s History of Conservatives?

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2014 11:55 AM

The Simplifier

The third volume of Rick Perlstein’s history of modern conservatives chronicles the rise of Reagan.

Presidential candidate Ronald Reagan signs autographs.
Ronald Reagan signs autographs after a 1976 campaign speech in Los Angeles.

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

If anyone is able to buy a copy of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, we’ll know that Craig Shirley lost. Last week, in advance of the Tuesday release of the third volume of Perlstein’s conservative movement history, right-winger Shirley claimed that Perlstein had plagiarized his book about Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to President Gerald Ford. Shirley was asking for every copy of The Invisible Bridge to be destroyed, and for $25 million to be kindly deposited in his bank account.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Perlstein’s publisher did not budge. Shirley was credited in the book, after all, for saving the new author “3.76 months in research,” and the endnotes (published online, not in the book) slathered him with attributions. Simon and Schuster quickly rebutted the charges. The “plagiarism” story rocketed around the righty Internet anyway. The Daily Caller phoned up Shirley, who called the new book “a liberal’s version of conservative history.” The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, who had written the foreword to Shirley’s book, dutifully warned readers of the new controversy.

It was already plenty surreal, and then Roger Stone showed up. On Twitter, the Republican dirty trickster (whose avatar shows off his Richard Nixon back tattoo) asked whether the “lefty propagandist” was guilty of plagiarism. On Facebook, Stone continued his Purple Rose of Cairo act, walking from his history pages onto Perlstein’s wall, challenging and tweaking him. “Everyone in this controversy is a partisan,” wrote Stone, “but then, controversy sells books.”

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This just isn’t what happens when Rick Perlstein releases a book. The first in his series, 2001’s Before the Storm, was praised by William F. Buckley. George Will called it “the best book yet on the social ferments that produced Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy”—in a largely positive review of Perlstein’s second book, Nixonland, which became a best-seller. What changed? This time Perlstein is writing about Ronald Reagan.

Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan—Perlstein has moved from covering a minor saint, to a martyr, to God. Thirteen years ago, when Perlstein profiled Goldwater’s movement, there had been only one recent biography of the Arizonan. There will be at least half a dozen new Reagan books this year alone, everything from a deep dive into the 1986 Reykjavik summit to a collection of leadership tips. Perlstein is challenging an image of the 40th president that is built on many such books, celebrated at Republican county dinners, and quoted by everyone from Ted Cruz (in his arguments for conservative revival) to Joe Scarborough (in his argument that no one should listen to Cruz).

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Yes, technically, The Invisible Bridge is a history of January 1973 to August 1976, and Reagan’s own presidential campaign does not start until Page 546 (of 810). But in Perlstein’s telling, Reagan was the essential figure who understood that Americans wanted to revise their history in real time. The Invisible Bridge starts with Operation Homecoming, the negotiated release of Vietnam POWs that was preceded by years of patriotic kitsch. Perlstein recreates the mood by quoting copiously from letters to the editor, from columnists, POW speeches and TV broadcasts. He recalls that it was future right-wing Rep. Bob Dornan who came up with yellow armbands as trinkets of POW solidarity, and recovers forgotten tidbits about them, like how “a Wimbledon champ said that one cured his tennis elbow.”

The Invisible Bridge is bursting with these kinds of details. Perlstein seems to have inhaled every piece of news and pop culture from the period he’s covering. He finds reporters having to explain to their readers what “pro-life” means, the director of the CIA calling a reporter a “killer” (live on camera), and an Illinois legislator warring with the Equal Rights Amendment because “in Colorado, where they have ERA, men want to marry horses.”

The details matter—Ronald Reagan only made sense when the rest of America didn’t. Perlstein’s Reagan was introduced in Before the Storm as a talent who could explain conservatism for all the reasons Goldwater couldn’t. “Goldwater hardly ever mentioned a statistic,” Perlstein wrote. “He presumed you already knew what he meant. Reagan showed you … the stories went by faster than thought, like a seduction.”

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