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Didn’t Everybody Love Reagan?

Rick Perlstein’s 856-page tome is not just about history. Rather The Invisible Bridge is a multi-leveled lament about America’s majority not embracing the Great Society—and not rejecting Ronald Reagan and conservatism. Perlstein focuses on a narrow window in time, running from the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection until the 1976 election of Jimmy Carter and everything in between. He writes at length about the end of the Vietnam War and the plight of the returning soldiers, and he effectively captures moments of societal change and unrest. But one thing he does not do is look at America with a benign gaze.

Perlstein’s book is a dissent and a critique. It is his attempt to settle his own score with the recent past. From the get-go, Perlstein complains of “America the Innocent, always searching for totems of a unity it can never quite achieve—even, or especially, when its crises of disunity are most pressing.” Presenting the Nixon-Ford era as a time of fracture leading to more under Reagan, he refuses to acknowledge that consensus and bipartisanship were in fact more alive 40 years ago than they are today.

It is almost as though Perlstein forgot that even as Nixon’s impeachment was looming large, Gerald Ford and then-House Majority Leader Tip O’Neil remained golfing buddies, colleagues as well as key players in a constitutional crisis. Unlike President Obama’s outing on the links with House Speaker John Boehner, Ford and O’Neil’s time together was not staged.

Indeed, the reality was that Nixon’s reelection and his impeachment both reflected the national will and a consensus. Americans—Democrat, Republican, and independent alike—were open to argument and persuasion. Religion was still religion, and politics was still politics, though the two would eventually bleed into each other. (Perlstein captures that occurring in the rise of the religious right and Jimmy Carter’s continuous references to his evangelical faith as he marched to the White House.)

For the record, in 1972 Nixon had won reelection in a popular landslide, with two-thirds of the white vote, better than one-sixth of the African-American vote, and more than a third of the Latino vote. Nixon even ran ahead of his Democratic rival, George McGovern, among Americans under 30—a feat a Republican presidential candidate, George H.W. Bush, would repeat for the last time in 1988.

Yet just two years after being reelected, Nixon was dispatched from office by a public convinced of his guilt and a bipartisan impeachment vote by the House Judiciary Committee. Back then Southern Democrats like Walter Flowers of Alabama and James Mann of South Carolina managed to find common ground with Hamilton Fish, a New York Republican whose namesake served as Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of state and as a governor of New York. Caldwell Butler—a House Judiciary Committee member and a Virginia Republican whose ancestors included a Confederate general who received a deathbed promotion from Stonewall Jackson—made common cause with Texas Democrat Barbara Jordan, a descendent of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and slaves. It was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s 1964 presidential nominee and godfather of modern conservatism, who told Nixon that his time was over and that impeachment by the full House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate were inevitable.

Just how strong the American consensus was can be seen in the fact that Nixon and Reagan won their reelections in popular landslides—the only presidents in the last half-century to do so. Both successfully hijacked FDR’s New Deal coalition, which rested on northern ethnics making common cause with white Southerners. Not surprisingly, Perlstein is disturbed by that political jiujitsu.

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama never came close to sustaining this kind of broad support for their reelections. Against this backdrop, Perlstein should have asked whether America really is less divided today than it was back then, or whether today’s version of broken politics is just more palatable to Perlstein because Obama is president and the McGovern coalition has finally won a place in the sun.

Perlstein captures the cultural tensions that were unleashed in the 1960s, played out in the 1970s, and are still with us. But he has a difficult time acknowledging the validity of Middle America’s resentment towards Lyndon Johnson’s welfare state and its consequences. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nowadays 23.1 percent of Americans are on welfare. The fact that more than 46 million people receive food stamps and that 72 percent of African-American children are raised in single parent homes is not cause for celebration. The Great Society wasn’t so great.

Perlstein narrates how New York City teetered on the precipice of bankruptcy in 1975, even as he describes the city as supporting “a program of middle-class entitlement unlike anything else, a sort of socialism in one city: subsidized housing and day-care centers.” Yet he refuses to draw any parallels to the Great Society and its shortcomings. Instead, he takes Nixon to task for scaling back some the excesses of Johnson’s legacy.

The author also spills a lot of ink on opposition to court-ordered busing from working- and middle-class Bostonians to make his point about the turmoil of the era and focuses on the late Louise Day Hicks, who won national attention for her opposition to busing in the North. Hicks’s sentiments were, in fact, raw and ugly. Perlstein, however, shows little sympathy for the parents and students who would be living in a sea of change—even as he acknowledges that Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy was sending his own children to private schools.  thisarticleappeared-novdec14

Perlstein feels compelled to tweak Americans for celebrating their country’s bicentennial despite the nation’s setbacks, and he particularly attacks Reagan—campaigning for the Republican nomination in 1976—for displaying optimism at a time when Perlstein believes an elegy, jeremiad, or sneer would have been more fitting. Perlstein meticulously details good-natured patriotic excesses like a “sixty-square-foot cherry pie on display in the aptly named town of George, Washington.” True to form, Perlstein follows up with a three-word paragraph: “YOU COULD MOCK.”

These days, the country is alarmed at how America is viewed overseas. Americans may be disenchanted with the Middle East, as they once were with Southeast Asia, but they have an even greater distaste for losing a war or abandoning primacy of place. Reagan understood that. McGovern in 1972 may have gotten Vietnam right, but America still cared about honor. As Perlstein observes, Nixon said Americans did not surrender, and he went on to win reelection with a 49-state “mandate.”

Invisible Bridge is, among other things, Perlstein’s attempt to take down the conservative movement and Ronald Reagan personally in a single shot. But his account gets stale as he rehashes a standard litany of Reagan’s shortcomings. The gap between Reagan’s defense of traditional family values and the drama that was the Reagan family is hardly news. Ford in 1976 and George H.W. Bush in 1980 had tidier families. But all that was irrelevant to the Republican base: it was Reagan who sounded an alarm about where things were heading. The tenor of voters’ concerns is summed up by a slogan deployed against the Equal Rights Amendment: “Don’t Let Satan Have His Way—Stop the ERA.”

Yet lack of originality aside, Perlstein’s take on Reagan and Republican social rhetoric should not be dismissed out of hand: modern conservatism’s amalgam of pro-market, pro-family, and pro-religion politics is laden with contradictions. Markets can build up individuals and families, but they can also destroy them. Our last 14 years have been a bipartisan debacle of war and economic stagnation, with the fusion of religious observance and intact families emerging as the province of high-end suburban America—in blue states as well as red—and globalization wreaking havoc on the working-class and middle-income families below.

The 1976 Republican platform contained over a dozen references to trade, all of them non-critical if not glowing. In the words of the platform, “We shall bargain hard to remove barriers to an open economic system, and we shall oppose new restrictions to trade.” These days we are seeing how well that has worked out, in a universe where GDP expansion is sclerotic and wage growth for most is a thing of the past. Amid this economic turmoil, social issues have lost some of their resonance and credibility, and as Republicans begin to vie for the 2016 GOP nomination, they would do well to be mindful of this disconnect. The past may be prelude, but it is still not the present.

As a read, Perlstein’s book is informative, and he has clearly mastered his sources. In that sense, the great length of Invisible Bridge is a backhanded tribute to Reagan, who like Nixon was a colossus of the modern Republican Party, and Perlstein rightly notes that the Nixon campaigns were incubators of future Republican political talent. But what Perlstein ignores is that we are more partisan and divided today than we were in 1976. In contrast to present politics, the Reagan era and the years of his rise to leadership in the 1970s look almost like a golden age of consensus.

Perlstein apparently forgot that it was Obama himself who announced that he wanted to be as transformative a president as Reagan. In Obama’s telling, “Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that, you know, Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.” According to Obama, Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path … he tapped into what people were already feeling, which was, we want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.” Unfortunately for Perlstein—and Obama—Reagan remains our last iconic president.

Reagan led America along a path it was willing to try and to take. Obama, on the other hand, has been engaged in a continuous and exhausting exercise of imposing his will on an unwilling public. To put things in perspective, even as a lame duck Reagan won tax reform and arms reduction. He managed to find allies across the aisle like Democratic Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, while Obama is left to an ever smaller circle of believers and just as few levers of power.

Lloyd Green was opposition research counsel to the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992. 

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