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Book Review: The Invisible Bridge

The Invisibile Bridge by Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is the third in his series examining the political landscape starting with Barry Goldwater’s presidential run in 1964.  In this installment, Perlstein traces the years from 1973-1976 when Nixon resigned and Reagan ran against Gerald Ford for president.  It was a time of growing pessimism as angry citizens complained about the disgrace of politics and government, and this pessimism also affected how Americans saw their own country.

Perlstein is most effective in using cultural and political history to trace how this pessimism manifested itself.  He brings in political developments like Watergate, Spiro Agnew’s resignation, and the Church Committee, along with how popular entertainment like television and the movies reflected a changing time. 

Amidst this growing cynicism came Ronald Reagan.  For Perlstein, Reagan had a great gift for optimism, but he was also a divider: people either loved him or hated him. 

Perlstein raises an interesting point at the end of the book that America was not ready for Reagan in 1976.  They would be ready in 1980 as the country’s morale plummeted with huge domestic and foreign challenges with an uninspiring style of a Jimmy Carter.

A couple of issues about the book: it could be tighter as the reader feels lost in too many details.  Second, as in his earlier books, Pearlstein seems to editorialize with many phrases such as “cue the Star-Spangled Banner” (pp. 181) or “sad sack sort of crew” (pp. 184) that might add to the drama, but seems unnecessary to further his narrative.

The Miller Center did a Ronald Reagan Oral History Project, and these quotes from the project illustrate some important points about Reagan during Perlstein’s time period:

Howard Baker [Chief of Staff]: “Part of it is he’s quick and insightful. He was a quick study. By the way, the least deserved thing about the Reagan legacy is that he wasn’t very bright. He was very bright, very quick. The idea that he forgot stuff is sort of true, but is more in the nature of a delete key than it was actual forgetting. When things were done he just deleted them from his mind and went on to other things. The dimensions of the Reagan political personality have not yet been fully explored.”

Lyn Nofziger [Assistant to the President for Political Affairs]:  “He was not a campaign thinker, no, never was. Never saw that as his job. It’s always amused me, people come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to run for dog catcher, and I want to talk to Ronald Reagan and see how you run for office.’ That’s like asking me how you operate on somebody’s appendix.”

Stuart Spencer [Campaign Advisor]:  “He [Nixon] was always worried about Ronald Reagan because, as I said, Nixon was a much better political manager than he was a candidate. He would have been a tremendous manager. He understood timing. He understood everything. With that skill he looked around and said, ‘This guy’s a threat.’ He always wanted to know where Reagan was, what he was doing, but they weren’t close.”

Read more from the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project.

Click here for the Presidential Recordings Program’s exhibit on Watergate.

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