Historically, the seventies in America encompassed two distinct eras that defy definition by decade. The first part was a virtual continuation of the sixties, the period that began with the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and ended with the August 9, 1974 resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. The second was marked by the awkward Bicentennial celebrations and the Carter presidency. In between was a transitional period that feels so strange and foreign to us today that we seem to shy away from recollecting it, a post-Watergate, post-Nixon age of tumult and chaos and violence that was both reminiscent of the sixties that spawned these forces and something else entirely different, a difficult to define intermediate epoch of societal anarchy and a loss of national confidence, a sharp tear in the political fabric that left an accidental President publicly stumbling and tumbling off airplane steps, in public opinion polls, and through domestic and international crises, as well. Much of the action in Rick Perlstein’s massive tome, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, occurs during this brief but critical and often overlooked transition that most significantly saw the unlikely birth of the New Right with Ronald Reagan literally in the saddle.
The Invisible Bridge opens in the final days of the Nixon Presidency. While Watergate manifests itself as that famous “cancer on the Presidency,” Nixon desperately seeks to change the subject, trumpeting the peace with Vietnam as the great victory it certainly was not, seizing upon the returning POWs as heroic emblems who almost immediately became mythologized instruments for the President’s spin, all the while inventing from whole cloth the MIAs – bodies never recovered that are fictionalized as secret prisoners we are pledged to never abandon. The public could not know this, nor did they know that there was a sharp split between the POWs themselves even before they came home, just as there was a deep palpable split in virtually every cohort of the American population. The spin was actually quite successful, but not nearly successful enough to trump Watergate and the implosion of Nixon’s Administration: there are indictments, a special prosecutor is fired, the vice-president resigns on corruption charges, the tapes are revealed, Congress is defied, the Supreme Court weighs in, and Nixon finally capitulates and resigns.
Much of it is a familiar story, but Perlstein brings a unique new perspective to it: while Nixon is engulfed in flames, the smoke is cleared and the lens is tilted to bring into view an unlikely member of the audience, Ronald Reagan, a former actor, former liberal Democrat, now Governor of California and an unlikely leader of the right. While Nixon’s popularity plummets and his support erodes on both sides of the aisle, Reagan remains an unapologetic supporter of Nixon, of the Vietnam War, of America’s right to do whatever she likes wherever she likes justified entirely upon the doctrine of American exceptionalism. As Nixon goes under, legions of rats flee the sinking ship, yet Reagan lashes himself to the mast and declares that the terrible wrongs that have been revealed by one investigation after another are not really wrongs at all. When the storm is over, Nixon has been jettisoned, but Reagan is still on deck, and he is smiling.
Most Americans have forgotten about this turbulent period, which featured not only the resignations of the sitting Vice President and President of the United States, but ongoing Congressional investigations into criminality at home and abroad, a fuel crisis that touched every American family, severe economic turmoil – Nixon had enacted wage and price controls – and violence that seemed to be everywhere, loudly manifested by scores of terrorist acts that had become almost routine. All of this along with the stark realization that we had actually lost a war shook the American psyche like never before. Hardly a decade had passed since Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” but it was as if the country had grown a full century older, and by all accounts she had not aged well. There was a kind of brief optimism as the solid if colorless Gerald Ford took the helm with the humble declaration that he was “a Ford not a Lincoln,” which was almost instantly shattered by Ford’s unexpected pardon of Nixon, leading many to suspect there had been a secret deal all along.
If the post-World War II political consensus had indeed imploded, in retrospect what we might find most surprising given today’s partisan polarization was the way that antagonists on both sides of the aisle came together to prosecute the crimes in Watergate and beyond while guarding against anarchy. The President resigned. There was a new President. Democrats and Republicans together shepherded that process to fruition. Perhaps also surprising from the vantage point of 2015 was that the Republican Party was much more broadly based with a strong liberal wing, as well as moderates and rightists. The new Vice-President, Nelson Rockefeller, was the leader of that liberal wing. Most members of both parties decried the crimes exposed by Watergate, by the burglary of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, by seemingly countless other examples that revealed that the Nixon Administration ran the country as a kind of extra-legal mafia organization. Most also cringed as it became increasingly clear that Nixon, who had privately conceded long before that the war was unwinnable, in his quixotic quest for the illusory “peace with honor” needlessly prolonged the Vietnam War and expanded it into neighboring countries, both secretly and later openly, with the resulting senseless deaths of tens of thousands of American military personnel, tens of thousands of Vietnamese north and south – and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodian civilians who were counted anonymously as “collateral damage,” if they were counted at all.
Yet, as Perlstein brilliantly demonstrates, there was no decrying or cringing by the emerging Reagan wing of the Republican Party, which stubbornly defended Nixon and Vietnam and resolutely attacked antiwar elements, investigative reporters, reformist Congressmen and Civil Rights leaders. The latter was an integral part of their continuation of the Nixon strategy to capture the once solidly Democratic south, especially the segregationist wing personified by George Wallace. Reagan, significantly, was on record for opposing the Civil Rights Act. Playing to other disaffected audiences – evangelicals, opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, cold warriors who felt abandoned by Nixon-Kissinger policies of détente and the opening with China, as well as the nascent anti-abortion movement – Reagan preached for a return to traditional American values with a blend of myth, anecdote and unashamed prevarication.
Ford, unprepared for this attack on his right flank, saw his nomination for a legitimate full term as President put suddenly in jeopardy. He reacted by tacking to the right, dumping the liberal Rockefeller and repeatedly contradicting himself right and left, as he appeared absurdly tripping and falling on camera in between two failed assassination attempts and a string of gaffes. Perlstein takes us move by move through the uneven Ford waltz to the right and Reagan’s graceful quickstep to the twin tunes of honor and patriotism. Reagan almost pulled it off: a few more votes and the convention would have handed him the nomination instead of Ford. Looking back, it is clear that the Reagan challenge deeply damaged Ford’s electoral hopes, and of course he was to be defeated by unknown outsider Jimmy Carter, whom Perlstein depicts as a conniving manipulator who relies on a vague message to win over a dispirited electorate.
Perlstein, a noted progressive historian and journalist, has taken it upon himself to write a history of modern American conservatism. His first contribution, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, received critical acclaim, and his second installment, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, made his reputation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his scholarship has been the subject of attacks by conservatives, but accusations against him have proved to show little merit. And while those of a less liberal bent will no doubt cringe at his inherent bias and his thesis – that as Nixon went up in flames Reagan unapologetically laid the foundation for his national rise on the ashes that remained – the facts he presents are nevertheless incontrovertible. Nixon really said and did all those terrible things that are chronicled – we have it all on tape! And Reagan really did routinely mouth the rhetoric of a fringe right-wing lunatic (Goldwater, of all people, thought him extreme!) while often spouting anecdotes that were entirely imaginary – we have the press clippings for reference!
At a somewhat intimidating 810 pages, I would suggest that The Invisible Bridge is perhaps longer than necessary, yet despite its length lacks a strong concluding chapter that puts all of the massive data it contains in proper context. Still, political junkies will love this book for its detailed analysis, and members of both parties will find fascination in this fine historical study of the creation of the New Right, which later was to force a marked realignment in American politics and is today unequivocally the dominant force in Republican Party politics.
I reviewed other Perlstein books here: