Musical Accompaniment: “Underdogs” by Liz, feat. RiFF RAFF
Rick Perlstein’s fantastic Invisible Bridge picks up where his equally excellent Nixonland left off: as the skullduggery and intrigue surrounding Watergate begins to bubble up through the surface of the American imagination, leaving terror in its wake. It ends with an event that I, ignorant Canadian, knew next to nothing about: the 1976 Republican National Convention, which saw the incumbent president Gerald Ford go head to head with the ascendant Ronald Reagan for the leadership role of the Party. In between these two touchstones, Perlstein immerses readers in the fear and loathing of the era, perhaps less in your face than the 1960s, but still troubled times. The OPEC oil embargo, the SALT nuclear missile treaties, stagflation, all of these huge events are presented alongside the day-to-day concerns of the populace through periodic check-ins with newspapers and magazines. Capsule reviews of popular movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, The Parallax View, and Nashville help take the temperature of the American filmgoing audience, and links are made between concerns as they appear on celluloid and how they interact with (and are perhaps shaped by) those found in newspapers. The importance of TV in political discourse is addressed, as many campaign ads are dissected alongside the popular shows of the time.
I was initially a little skeptical of The Invisible Bridge, which is weird considering how much I loved Nixonland. While I’ve been interested in Nixon and his pals for a long time, the only emotion prior to reading this I was really able to rouse for Reagan was a simmering dread, as the changes he’s wrought upon the world are pretty much antithetical to my taste. Nixon was a terrible rogue, this is true, but he’s a fascinating one, a kind of American Richard III whose machinations and petty hatreds are at the very least somewhat entertaining in hindsight. To me, Reagan is a much more benign evil, an evil that wears on its face blithe optimism about the doctrine of American Exceptionalism co-mingled with conservatism and the religious right.
So, imagine to my surprise that I kind of felt for Reagan after reading this book? I found the sections about his life growing up and then working in Hollywood pretty riveting, and I was even on his side on some things, at least until he dropped a dime on some Hollywood fellow travellers to the FBI. I listened to the audiobook of The Invisible Bridge, so perhaps it’s difficult to maintain a loathing for the guy after spending 35-some hours with him? As opposed to Nixonland, which was for the most part told in chronological order, The Invisible Bridge jumps around a lot in time, checking in with Reagan at various points in his life when there’s an interesting connection with events in the 1970s modern day. I don’t know if this is always successful in telling the story of this time period, but it is a good way around rehashing some of the historical happenings that would have also occurred in Nixon’s day. Reagan coming to politics later in life than Nixon also means that less of his story is directly related to the Republican power struggle that is the book’s main focus. We see his difficult upbringing, his time spent as a radio sports announcer, his Hollywood career, and then a really fascinating section where he hosts a TV program sponsored by General Electric. The book has also helped me to gain a newfound appreciation of Gerald Ford. At times, even the audiobook narrator seemed to feel bad for the guy, who inherited some of the most fractious and dangerous times in American history with little to no easy fixes in sight. Still, it is funny to hear about how new media venues like Saturday Night Live parodied the gaffe-prone Ford, who I really only knew from that one episode of The Simpsons (again, ignorant Canadian).
I don’t think Perlstein ever hits upon a central metaphor to Reagan’s life that has the same power as the “Franklins vs. Orthogonians” one found in Nixonland (in short, these two groups of people were originally student organizations at Nixon’s school, but they eventually come to symbolize the method by which Nixon’s politics of division worked so well, basically by inculcating a “snobs vs. slobs” mentality). Perlstein continually brings up Reagan’s wanting to see his best self reflected in the eyes of others, and his perpetual search for strong father figures, which works well enough. The book also shines when talking about the rise of “anti-politics”, post-Watergate suspicion about the democratic process that led to the election of ultimate underdog Jimmy Carter (and a few years later, Reagan).
My favourite moment out of these two books, though, remains Perlstein’s putting readers into the shoes of a person watching the 1968 Democratic Convention on TV, which is found in Nixonland. There, he made sure to mention all of the increasingly incongruous commercials going alongside the bizarre events happening onscreen, in a way that really made me realize the enormity of what was happening in Chicago that week, and how little sense it might have made to the lay person. I don’t know if anything in The Invisible Bridge really reaches that height, apart from maybe the play-by-play of the 1976 Republican Convention, which was by all accounts a nail biter. It’s a little weird, actually; I could easily Google these events and find out what happens, but I’d rather not, as Perlstein has a way of making the driest parliamentary jargon and chicanery seem like a tense thrill ride. He also deserves to be commended for almost never ever “breaking character” and telling the reader what’s going to happen with certain recognizable names, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc. I can’t recall a single occasion where he winks at the reader about these kinds of guys, or hints at darker undercurrents behind their actions.
Before the Storm, Perlstein’s examination of the 1960s through the lens of Barry Goldwater, has immediately risen to the ranks of books I’d like to read as soon as I can. What Perlstein has given us here is a way for people like myself, who are about as far from cultural conservatism as possible, to understand the allure of the concept and why it has gained so much power. The conservative movement is made much clearer by these tremendous excavations, and the writing actually makes it fun to see how it came about! Perlstein does an amazing job of collating what must have been thousands of newspaper/magazine articles and hundreds of hours of TV broadcasts and interviews into an appealing and monumental work. Definitely seek this book out, as well as its predecessors, if you have any interest in American history.