June of this year marked the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan's earthly departure, while October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the speech thought by many to have signaled his political arrival. That address, “A Time for Choosing,” was his endorsement in 1964 of Barry Goldwater for president, and has in the words of Jonathan Chait “become a cherished relic in the Reagan myth,” not just for the mythic impish charm with which he delivered such lines as: “We were told four years ago that 17 million people went to bed hungry each night. Well that was probably true. They were all on a diet.” (This was some years before Republicans promulgated the coinage "compassionate conservatism.")
Between these bookends arrived Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge, eight hundred and ten pages (not including index, but including a two-page note on sources--more on that later) detailing American life and politics between 1973 and 1976, spanning Watergate, the Ford presidency, and the Republican national convention in Kansas City. Or, as Perlstein contextualizes in the book’s subtitle: “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” a Robert-Caro-like framing that necessitates the marshaling of Caro-like amounts of fact, much of it predating the book’s ostensible period of examination.
The book is the third in Perlstein’s social history of the postwar rise of American conservatism, following Before the Storm and Nixonland, and the first to feature Ronald Reagan as a main player. I trace a personal fascination with Reagan to the fact that his presidency and personality dominated the period of my adolescence and early adulthood; I remember where I was when Reagan was first inaugurated, when he was shot, when he quipped that he’d signed new legislation outlawing Russia forever and bombing would begin in five minutes (August was the thirtieth anniversary of that), and when it became clear he would be absolved of knowledgeable participation in the Iran-Contra affair despite evidence of direct involvement.
But I was less familiar with the particulars of his rise and the interplay of political and cultural forces that, in retrospect, would seem to have made it foreordained.
Thus my engagement with The Invisible Bridge, which delivers these particulars (and then some), plus many others that are arguably less germane. To the former category belong Perlstein’s accounts of Reagan’s uncanny and perhaps unconscious appropriation of the style of 1920s and ‘30s sports journalism in the creation of his own public persona; the lasting intensity of his McCarthy-like anti-communist crusade well into the 1960s, after it had gone politically out of fashion; his stalwart and simplistic defense of Nixon throughout Watergate; and his decade as a spokesman for General Electric. It was during this period that he honed his right-wing message, thanks in no small part to Lemuel Boulware, the company’s self-titled public and community relations specialist. Boulware, according to Perlstein in a fascinating sketch of several pages, was dedicated to “reshaping the nature of the capitalist firm itself,” to teaching GE’s 225,000 employees, their families, and the communities in which they lived “to identify their most intimate interests with the well-being of the company—and their company’s with the well-being of the free world itself. In other words, to turn millions of Americans into right-wing conservatives.” Boulwarism was for Reagan the “perfect conduit: through its sluices he absorbed a right-wing politics that imagined no necessity for class conflict at all.”
All of that, along with Perlstein’s accounts of the returning Vietnam POWs and the 1976 convention, is compelling and even useful. Less so: the pages dedicated to ’70s trends and TV shows, the bicentennial celebration, and anecdotes about a young Nancy (nee Davis) Reagan’s reputation in postwar Hollywood. Notably, and perhaps beneficially from a paper-saving point of view, is that Perlstein doesn’t include sources for all of this in the book itself, but rather points readers to notes on his website and offers tips on using Google’s newspaper archives.
For those who decades later remain mystified by Reagan’s appeal, Perlstein doesn’t offer much to supplement generally held notions about his sunniness, avuncularity, and ability to connect with an audience. He was good with a line: About the Watergate break-in, Reagan said he didn’t know why Democrats were so upset about being bugged, they “should have been happy that someone was willing to listen to them.” But Persltein dutifully gathers early evidence of Reagan’s well-known propensity for conflating fiction with fact; his inability or unwillingness to bother with details; his disregard for what friends, other politicians, and his advisors understood as complexity; his contempt for those who might not benefit from the policies he implemented and positions he took. Of a student killed by police while merely observing a campus protest at Berkeley, then-Governor Reagan said that’s what you get for being at a protest, a foreshadowing of his administration’s blaming of four American churchwomen for their execution at the hands of El Salvador’s U.S.-backed government in 1980. Some might criticize Perlstein for playing to the crowd (“liberal bias permeates Perlstein’s time capsule,” said the Miami Herald; “sneering” and “pettifogging,” declared Commentary), but it’s important to keep these facts in front of readers who nearly thirty years after Reagan's presidency hear mostly encomiums on his character, and not just from acolytes or contenders for his mantle (thanks, Obama?).
Such is a benefit of a book like Perlstein’s: If it doesn’t reach the bar of scholarly history, it at least invites consideration of how the past continues to live in the present. The Reaganisms my contemporaries parroted in adolescence (“welfare queen,” “there you go again,” “government is the problem”) shaped sensibilities that hardened into worldviews and are now influencing lawmaking on guns, policing, voter identification, taxation, and fossil fuel extraction. “If Ronald Reagan Were Alive today, He Would Be 103 Years Old” was the headline of a November piece in Commentary, which asks those who’d lead the GOP to move beyond Reagan. But why should they, when they grew up with him and are, like good children, just following the example they were given?