'The Invisible Bridge' review: From Nixon to Reagan

Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, en route Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, en route to the Republican Convention in Kansas City, August 1976. Photo Credit: AP / David F. Smith

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REVIEW

THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein. Simon & Schuster, 856 pp., $37.50.

It says a lot about the quality of Rick Perlstein's material and storytelling that more than 700 pages into his latest cinder block of ink and tree, I could still keenly relish yet another tasty fact, another aside: quoting columnist Charles Bartlett on the 1976 Republican convention, Perlstein identifies Bartlett as the man who "once set up Jacqueline Bouvier's blind date with Senator John F. Kennedy."

"The Invisible Bridge" is the third beefy volume in Perlstein's chronicle of postwar U.S. conservatism. Its 810 pages of text (before notes, bibliography and index) join 520 on Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 campaign ("Before the Storm," 2001) and almost 750 on Richard Nixon's comeback in '68 and big win in '72 ("Nixonland," 2008).

With "Bridge," Perlstein looks at the punishing decline that quickly followed for Nixon. Vietnam, Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, the Ford pardon and other traumas raised questions about America's greatness.

If the '60s were marked by sharp political and generational polarization, the next few years were notable for national self-doubt and suspicion of Washington. It was into this miasma that Ronald Reagan strode so purposefully, with his preternaturally blithe response to everything: the "performance of blitheness in the face of what others called chaos was fundamental to who Ronald Reagan was," Perlstein writes, and "why he made so many others feel so good." Among many other things, "Bridge" describes Reagan's role in the start of a "shift in national sentiment" away from feeling bad about America.

But it was only the start: What's dismaying, for me to report and doubtless for readers to learn, is that Reagan didn't just lose the nomination in 1976; he loses it near the top of page 794 in "Bridge." And that means -- at least one more tome to go.

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Meanwhile, there's much to enjoy here. Perlstein begins with what he calls "this opera's overture," Operation Homecoming, a sad melange of public relations and patriotism that had returning POWs serve one last time as distractions from the Vietnam debacle. Then it's on to a thorough review of Watergate and an extraordinary dissection of the presidential campaigns leading up to and through the Republican convention in Kansas City, Missouri.

Also extraordinary is the writer's herculean research and the many relevant or just colorful items he uses to fill in the edges and corners and form the frame of this sprawling portrait: the orgasm and Gay Talese; the surge in meat prices and "Soylent Green"; the Yom Kippur War and the Saturday Night Massacre; "M*A*S*H" and WIN (Whip Inflation Now); or this from a Jesse Helms letter to former Goldwater supporters: "Your taxes are being used to pay for grade school courses that teach children that cannibalism, wife swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior."

Percolating through the narrative is a biography of Reagan, from Depression boyhood to football aspirations at Eureka College; B movies and unionizing in Hollywood ("I tried to go to bed with every starlet in Hollywood and damn near succeeded"); honing his oratory as a flack for General Electric; and then his tenure as governor of California, battling campus militants and cheerleading for small government. Soon the Ronald is a national phenom.

He came within a Brylcreemed hairbreadth of beating Gerald Ford at the '76 convention, in part because he had a fierce, tireless team that knew shoe-leather campaigning and its higher-tech offspring. "The emerging conservative infrastructure began with Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, which ingathered an army," Perlstein writes, and after that crusade failed, "spawned combat divisions in its wake." After Kansas City, "in an interview, [Goldwater] sounded like Dr. Frankenstein surveying the work of his monster," referring to how vicious his former supporters now working for Reagan had become. I'm sure this army will march again in the next installment.

Historians and academics may dispute Perlstein's analysis. (Many of them should envy his clear and sinewy prose.) Conservatives may shriek over his undisguisedly liberal bent ("running against Ronald Reagan for anything must have been excruciating for those who wished to honor truth"). Honest readers of all stripes will concede that he tells a great tale, in every sense.

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