The opening backdrop to Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is 1974, when Americans reeled from humiliation in Vietnam, the shambles of Watergate, an Arab petroleum embargo and “stagflation” – a recession combining high unemployment with high inflation, deeply frustrating to policy makers habituated to Keynesian pump-priming as a cure-all for capitalist disequilibrium.
Forty years ago next week, on August 8, came the Republican shipwreck of President Richard Nixon resigning to fend off impeachment. His feckless successor Gerald Ford was bested two years later by Jimmy Carter, who rose from national obscurity to enter the White House with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Few then would have predicted that so conservative a Republican as Ronald Reagan would soon occupy the Oval Office.
The Invisible Bridge places the pivotal turnabout of conservative fortunes well before 1980. It might indeed just as well have been given the title 1976, since the better half is devoted to a fascinating pointillist rendering of that year’s now-forgotten primary race, when Reagan came within a millimetre of deposing the Ford-led moderate Republican establishment.
By the mid-1970s, unsparing national self-examination over Vietnam and Watergate was meeting a pushback from a nostalgia-laced conservatism that focused animus on government itself. The bicentennial year saw a renascent American patriotism – one no longer defined in the slightest by the antagonism towards Britain that fuelled it two centuries before. (Among the priceless details Perlstein relays is Ford’s use of invitations to a state dinner at the White House with Queen Elizabeth as inducement to key party delegates to remain loyal.)
This book extends Perlstein’s saga of the American right, the earlier instalments being Before the Storm (2001), on Barry Goldwater’s races of 1960 and 1964, and Nixonland (2008). A left-liberal historian and journalist whose formative years were in the 1980s, Perlstein remains permanently impressed by conservatism’s power and finesse. Despite a tone of whimsical mockery in places, The Invisible Bridge is, if anything, overly awestruck at the US right’s self-actualisation, its will to power and will to believe.
So deft is the portrayal of Reagan’s personal magnetism, for example, that the reader somehow roots for him to win even as the future president is portrayed as a self-seeking propagator of fiction. The book ends with Reagan’s exit stage right at the 1976 Republican National Convention. Ford’s defeat by Carter is still to come; only such a peculiar cropping allows for the moment to be a picture of rightwing success, although Perlstein certainly has a point in seeing Reagan’s near-miss as initiating the enthusiasms that would carry him over the top four years later.
So heavily reliant is The Invisible Bridge on quotations from the writings of journalists past that it can have the feel of pastiche. Like the best of the journalists he quotes, Perlstein has an eye for telling detail, understands the potency of American regionalism, and is shrewd about electoral technique and rhetoric. He vividly captures personalities, and his biographical chapter on Reagan is an especially masterful distillation. He is empathetic in entering into his subjects’ perspectives, gifted at recounting the sheer bizarreness of history’s twists and turns.
There is also repetitiousness, a paucity of explanation, long stretches of tedium particularly around the year 1975, and inelegant grammatical tics such as a fondness for sentence fragments beginning with the word “which”. (Which can be annoying. Which an editor ought to have fixed.)
For Perlstein, the real excitement of politics is in campaigning. His accounts of legislation and policy are few, and his description of Watergate, though lively, is inadequate. The Invisible Bridge brings precious few archival findings to light. Only sporadically is its attention directed to the movements and interests that shape political outcomes from outside, such as the corporate boardrooms so pivotal to the Republican shift of the 1970s. It is as if a time capsule arrived containing old issues of Time magazine, full of the antics of streakers, serial murderers, The Exorcist and the Symbionese Liberation Front but short on the inner workings of the power elite.
Still, there is courage and insight in Perlstein’s analysis of how the Nixon administration built up the “POW/MIA” issue – the idea that some of those American soldiers reported missing in action in southeast Asia languished in communist dungeons. Although no evidence has since emerged that any such prisoners-of-war remained captive after the US withdrawal, the author sees in the issue an invisible bridge from the Vietnam debacle to Reagan’s militaristic assertiveness. Reagan’s apologetics for Watergate, well catalogued by Perlstein, are equally revealing, and he is correct to perceive them as strength rather than weakness – for what better way to bury Watergate than to deny it?
Why, though, did the radical and liberal idealisms of the 1960s dissipate so swiftly? Could a shrewder left-of-centre positioning have fended off Reagan, or did Keynesianism’s quandary make that impossible? Perhaps more analysis, more explanation, of the great right turn will grace Perlstein’s next blockbuster – sure to be worth the price of admission – on the inevitable topic of Reagan’s 1980 victory.
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25/$37.50, 880 pages
Christopher Phelps is a senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Nottingham