“The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan” (Simon & Schuster), by Rick Perlstein
Even Republicans piled on President Richard Nixon as the Watergate scandal wore on. But not California Gov. Ronald Reagan. He said Watergate was being “blown out of proportion” and was “none of my business.” Rick Perlstein writes that incredulous reporters thought Reagan was acting like a “genial ostrich” ignoring the looming reckoning for American government.
Ostrich or no, Reagan’s point of view resonated with people — or at least some people. “There were two tribes in America now,” Perlstein writes early in the book. And Reagan spoke powerfully to one of those tribes: the ones who were organizing around grievances like forced busing, the ones who had the sense that the orderly America they loved was receding.
“The Invisible Bridge” is the story of “the right-wing insurgency bubbling barely beneath the surface” through the mid ’70s. And it’s the story of the national rise of the politician who benefited the most from that insurgency.
Perlstein wrote about Sen. Barry Goldwater and the rise of modern American conservatism in “Before the Storm” and continued his political and cultural history with “Nixonland.” This third book ends with Reagan’s narrow loss to President Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican convention, which served as a marker to how far the conservative movement had come in a generation.
To call this book rich in anecdotes is an understatement. Perlstein adopts a you-are-there narrative that gives the reader a sense of what average Americans took in during the turbulent period from Watergate to the 1976 elections.
Readers learn about Nixon and Reagan, sure, but also about the only-in-the-’70s phenomena like EST workshops, in which people paid $250 to have insults screamed at them. The account of John Dean’s televised Watergate testimony includes both blow-by-blow details and a snippet from the commercial aired during the hearing for Final Net (“So you finally got little Jamie married!”).
Reagan fans looking for a heroic tale will be disappointed. Perlstein’s default mode is irreverence, and his Reagan is a storyteller who does not let the messy complexity of reality get in the way of simple answers. He calls the future president an “athlete of denial.” Democrat Jimmy Carter fares no better here. Perlstein portrays him as an opportunistic candidate happy to tell people what they want to hear.
At more than 800 pages, the narrative bogs down during the Watergate hearings and in some other places. But the mini-biography of Reagan nestled in the pages is a page turner, as is Perlstein’s climactic account of the nail-biter presidential nominating convention in 1976. Ford won the nomination but Reagan won the hearts of many Republicans who wondered if they had just launched the wrong candidate into the general election.
Even Reagan couldn’t please everyone, though.
Perlstein writes that Goldwater, Mr. Conservative himself, complained that Reagan had become “one of those people, the really ideological ones who won’t change.”