Retracing The Rise Of The Right

by Dish Staff

800px-1976_Republican_National_Convention

The big non-fiction book of the moment for political junkies is Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, the third volume in a series that began with Barry Goldwater’s insurgent 1964 presidential campaign, charted Nixon’s rise to power, and promises to take readers through Ronald Reagan’s winning the White House. George Packer offers a taste of Perlstein’s approach in this latest installment:

“The Invisible Bridge” covers the three years between the return of the P.O.W.s and the Republican National Convention in the summer of 1976—years in which “America suffered more wounds to its ideal of itself than at just about any other time in its history”: a criminal Presidency; oil shock; inflation, followed by stagflation; America’s first military defeat, with the ignominious fall of Saigon; congressional revelations of dark deeds by the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.; violent, bankrupt cities; failed leaders; and on and on. Perlstein has looked under every rock. He has dug up the long-buried meat-inflation crisis from the spring of 1973, and he knows what the Birmingham News editorial page had to say about the bicentennial. The barrage of artifacts is arranged to convey a sense of panic, nervous breakdown, “a world gone mad.” At one point, Perlstein riffles through the March 15, 1975, issue of the Milwaukee Journal and finds “a cabinet of horrors”: a Purdue coed kidnapped by a professor, devastating tornadoes in the South, a bribery conviction in Oklahoma, a French journalist murdered in Saigon, new leads in the search for Patty Hearst, an attempted hijacking in Ethiopia, purse snatching in Milwaukee. “Horrors, of course, drench the news in any decade,” Perlstein admits. “By the middle of the 1970s, however, the perception of the density of horrors was so much worse.”

Emmitt Rensin, following Perlstein, connects these conditions to Reagan’s ascendency:

Reagan offered the easy way out: the story of America that had never lost its innocence, where all the apparent upheavals of our trauma were not rooted in our national character, but in forces outside of it.

“Carter’s appeal at the time was that he spoke to this mood in the dominant political culture that something was deeply wrong,” Perlstein told me, “but for Reagan, the idea was that the things that were wrong were foreign forces, things that weren’t really America at all. All our troubles with race, with violence, with corruption: they had somehow invaded America like a bacillus.”

“What Reagan was saying was that there is nothing in Watergate, for example, that’s essential to the American character. That it can be wished away because America is fundamentally decent and good. He just kept on saying it. And the fact that he said with such confidence gave people a kind of psychological permission to believe the same thing.”

This is what Perlstein calls the “liturgy of absolution”: Ronald Reagan’s capacity to cleanse America of its transgressions without the pain of self-reflection. For those who saw the heroic hometown lifeguard, this liturgy was the salve that put their troubled minds at ease. But for those who saw the man in search of a medal, it was the essence of Reagan’s sin, the moment we surrendered our last, best chance to heal ourselves. The fairy tale was more appealing. The division of a people, laid bare by their reaction to a leader: in exposing this, at least, The Invisible Bridge achieves Perlstein’s stated goal.

While praising Perlstein for being upfront about his “left-liberal commitments,” Damon Linker questions how fairly he portrayed conservatism:

Perlstein’s subject is conservative ideas and their impact on political reality. But he is so utterly unsympathetic to those ideas that he finds it impossible to see them as anything other than expressions of animus and anxiety, and an outgrowth of a childish refusal to face and accept the moral and historical complexity of the world.

Sure, that’s part of the story. But does he really think that’s the whole of it? In implying that he does, Perlstein ends up wandering at least partway down the same gloomy path that Corey Robin exhaustively charted in his thoroughly unhelpful history of conservative ideas, The Reactionary Mind. Neither author finds anything particularly insightful or useful in the ideas they’ve devoted themselves to exploring and examining.

That would be fine if it didn’t result at times in tendentious, one-sided history. Take Perlstein’s treatment of the neoconservative intellectuals who (unbeknownst to them, of course) were in just these years laying the groundwork for what would become the Reagan Revolution’s domestic policy agenda. Perlstein mentions the crucially important neocon quarterly journal The Public Interest on just two pages of his book, and he has little to say about it beyond noting that it was “inaugurated in 1965 and financed by a former CIA agent who was now a stockbroker.”

Debates about the book, however, haven’t been confined wrangling over history – claims about plagiarism already have been made (NYT):

The most serious accusations come from a fellow Reagan historian, Craig Shirley, who said that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized several passages from Mr. Shirley’s 2004 book, “Reagan’s Revolution,” and used Mr. Shirley’s research numerous times without proper attribution. In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.

Mr. Perlstein and his publisher said the charges are unfounded and noted that Mr. Perlstein cited Mr. Shirley’s book 125 times on his website, rickperlstein.net, where he posted his endnotes, which include thousands of citations and links to sources.

Weigel sees political motives behind the charges:

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.

(Image: Ronald Reagan on the podium with Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention after narrowly losing the presidential nomination, via Wikimedia Commons)