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‘The Invisible Bridge’ goes far beyond political history

  • Richard Nixon performs the last acts of his devastated presidency in the White House East Room, August 9, 1974, as he bids farewell to his Cabinet, aides, and staff.  Nixon said only a man in the deepest valley can know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.  (AP Photo)

    Richard Nixon performs the last acts of his devastated presidency in the White House East Room, August 9, 1974, as he bids farewell to his Cabinet, aides, and staff. Nixon said only a man in the deepest valley can know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain. (AP Photo)

  • Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy take time away from campaigning for a relaxing ride around their ranch just North of Santa Barbara, Monday, June 29, 1976. Reagan hosted a party for members of the traveling press which included an outdoor barbecue. (AP Photo/Walter Zeboski)

    Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy take time away from campaigning for a relaxing ride around their ranch just North of Santa Barbara, Monday, June 29, 1976. Reagan hosted a party for members of the traveling press which included an outdoor barbecue. (AP Photo/Walter Zeboski)

  • Original tapes from the Nixon White House are shown in this undated handout photo. Decades after the fighting over his tapes began, Richard Nixon is finally getting at least part of his wish. The National Archives, under a court order it had fought for years, on Monday, August 10, 1998 will begin cutting up the original tapes from the Watergate years and returning portions dealing with private matters to the late president's estate. (AP Photo/National Archives)

    Original tapes from the Nixon White House are shown in this undated handout photo. Decades after the fighting over his tapes began, Richard Nixon is finally getting at least part of his wish. The National Archives, under a court order it had fought for years, on Monday, August 10, 1998 will begin cutting up the original tapes from the Watergate years and returning portions dealing with private matters to the late president's estate. (AP Photo/National Archives)

  • FILE--Named in Watergate affair are from left to right: G. Gordon Liddy, White House Counsel John W. Dean III, Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and Former Deputy Canpaign Manager for Nixon's Re-election Jeb Stuart Magruder. (AP PHOTO)

    FILE--Named in Watergate affair are from left to right: G. Gordon Liddy, White House Counsel John W. Dean III, Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and Former Deputy Canpaign Manager for Nixon's Re-election Jeb Stuart Magruder. (AP PHOTO)

  • This picture shows President Richard Nixon's letter of resignation to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, August 9, 1974.  (AP Photo/White House )

    This picture shows President Richard Nixon's letter of resignation to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, August 9, 1974. (AP Photo/White House )

  • Jimmy Carter hugs his eight-year-old daughter, Amy, as he makes his way to the podium to begin his acceptance speech as the Democratic presidential candidatey, July 15, 1976 in New York. (AP Photo)

    Jimmy Carter hugs his eight-year-old daughter, Amy, as he makes his way to the podium to begin his acceptance speech as the Democratic presidential candidatey, July 15, 1976 in New York. (AP Photo)

  • Gerald R. Ford takes the oath of office as the 38th president of the United States as his wife, Betty, right, stands at his side in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4. 1974.  Administering the oath is Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger.  Ford is sworn in following the resignation of Richard M. Nixon as chief executive.  (AP Photo)

    Gerald R. Ford takes the oath of office as the 38th president of the United States as his wife, Betty, right, stands at his side in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4. 1974. Administering the oath is Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger. Ford is sworn in following the resignation of Richard M. Nixon as chief executive. (AP Photo)

  • South Vietnamese soldiers carry a wounded soldier across a flooded canal in the lower Mekong Delta, Vietnam on June 23, 1973, after engaging Viet Cong troops in a firefight. (AP Photo)

    South Vietnamese soldiers carry a wounded soldier across a flooded canal in the lower Mekong Delta, Vietnam on June 23, 1973, after engaging Viet Cong troops in a firefight. (AP Photo)

  • Seen from the New Jersey shore, fireworks at the Statue of Liberty light the sky as New York City celebrates the Declaration of Independence bicentennial anniversary, on July 4, 1976. The display ended a day of festivities in the New York Harbor, with boats and tall ships from across the world gathered for Operation Sail. (AP Photo)

    Seen from the New Jersey shore, fireworks at the Statue of Liberty light the sky as New York City celebrates the Declaration of Independence bicentennial anniversary, on July 4, 1976. The display ended a day of festivities in the New York Harbor, with boats and tall ships from across the world gathered for Operation Sail. (AP Photo)

  • Richard Nixon performs the last acts of his devastated presidency in the White House East Room, August 9, 1974, as he bids farewell to his Cabinet, aides, and staff.  Nixon said only a man in the deepest valley can know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.  (AP Photo)
  • Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy take time away from campaigning for a relaxing ride around their ranch just North of Santa Barbara, Monday, June 29, 1976. Reagan hosted a party for members of the traveling press which included an outdoor barbecue. (AP Photo/Walter Zeboski)
  • Original tapes from the Nixon White House are shown in this undated handout photo. Decades after the fighting over his tapes began, Richard Nixon is finally getting at least part of his wish. The National Archives, under a court order it had fought for years, on Monday, August 10, 1998 will begin cutting up the original tapes from the Watergate years and returning portions dealing with private matters to the late president's estate. (AP Photo/National Archives)
  • FILE--Named in Watergate affair are from left to right: G. Gordon Liddy, White House Counsel John W. Dean III, Former Attorney General John N. Mitchell, and Former Deputy Canpaign Manager for Nixon's Re-election Jeb Stuart Magruder. (AP PHOTO)
  • This picture shows President Richard Nixon's letter of resignation to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, August 9, 1974.  (AP Photo/White House )
  • Jimmy Carter hugs his eight-year-old daughter, Amy, as he makes his way to the podium to begin his acceptance speech as the Democratic presidential candidatey, July 15, 1976 in New York. (AP Photo)
  • Gerald R. Ford takes the oath of office as the 38th president of the United States as his wife, Betty, right, stands at his side in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., Aug. 4. 1974.  Administering the oath is Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger.  Ford is sworn in following the resignation of Richard M. Nixon as chief executive.  (AP Photo)
  • South Vietnamese soldiers carry a wounded soldier across a flooded canal in the lower Mekong Delta, Vietnam on June 23, 1973, after engaging Viet Cong troops in a firefight. (AP Photo)
  • Seen from the New Jersey shore, fireworks at the Statue of Liberty light the sky as New York City celebrates the Declaration of Independence bicentennial anniversary, on July 4, 1976. The display ended a day of festivities in the New York Harbor, with boats and tall ships from across the world gathered for Operation Sail. (AP Photo)

You can learn a lot by reading newspapers, especially if you have helped write them. Frederick Lewis Allen was a journalist of the 1920s who became a book author by taking what he and other journalists had written about the decade and reshaping it into the 1931 best-seller Only Yesterday. Allen’s contemporary Mark Sullivan did something similar on a grander scale, eventually producing six volumes on American life during the first quarter of the 20th century. The secret of the success of Allen and Sullivan was not that they broke new ground in reporting, which they did not. Their secret was just the opposite: that they reminded readers of what the readers already knew but were starting to forget. They took readers for a ride down memory lane, pointing out the sights that conjured up moments from the readers’ collective and individual pasts.

Rick Perlstein currently lands midway in page count between Allen and Sullivan. Perlstein, who has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, among other newspapers and magazines, positions The Invisible Bridge as the third installment of his history of the emergence of modern American conservatism. In fact it is much more. Like Allen and Sullivan, Perlstein ranges far beyond political history, in his case touching on just about everything interesting that happened in the United States between 1973 and 1976. The familiar stories are here: the dispiriting end of the Vietnam War, the unfolding of the Watergate scandal, renewed conflict in the Middle East, the first oil shock, Richard Nixon’s resignation and his pardon by Gerald Ford, the revelations of wrongdoing by the CIA, the puzzlingly simultaneous experience of high unemployment and high inflation, the near-bankruptcy of New York City, the midterm elections of 1974, the national political conventions of 1976 – which is where Perlstein ends this book.

Perlstein acknowledges his debt to the work of other authors, “upon which my work is all but parasitic.” And he doesn’t claim any particular revelations on subjects that were thoroughly covered by journalists at the time and historians since. Yet he tells those stories with a verve that carries readers along, even when they know they’ve heard the stories before.

Perlstein identifies certain themes. “This is a book about how Ronald Reagan came within a hairs-breadth of becoming the 1976 Republican nominee for president,” he writes. Readers might wonder at this choice of topic, since not only did Reagan not win the Republican nomination, but the Republican nominee, Gerald Ford, lost to Democrat Jimmy Carter. “This book is also a sort of biography of Ronald Reagan,” Perlstein continues. Again a bit curious, given that the book stops well before Reagan achieves the only thing that makes him interesting to biographers or anyone else: the presidency.

Perlstein’s broadest theme resolves the puzzle, partly. He describes a shift in the American mood roughly coincident with the bicentennial celebrations of July 4, 1976 – a shift from the disillusionment of the immediate post-Vietnam, post-Watergate years to a reaffirmation of belief in the country’s abiding values. “This book is about how that shift in national sentiment took place,” Perlstein writes.

In Perlstein’s earlier volumes, Barry Goldwater and Nixon were his organizing protagonists; here Reagan serves the purpose. Perlstein walks us through Reagan’s youth, his Hollywood career and his two terms as California governor. Perlstein sees Reagan as a polarizing figure, despite Reagan’s repeated appeals to a unifying recognition of America’s historical mission.

The polarization was political, but it was also social and cultural. Perlstein is a prodigious and effective consumer of newspaper articles (he acknowledges his debt to Google on this score). The narrative bounces entertainingly and revealingly from high policy to low humor; he segues from the sentencing hearing of the Watergate burglars to Johnny Carson commenting on the rapid increase in the price of meat, which had risen so high that “Oscar Mayer had his wiener appraised.” Hank Aaron chases Babe Ruth’s career home run record while cops at Columbia University chase streakers across campus, prompting an editorial cartoonist to portray a nervous Nixon looking out a White House window and saying, “Oh, it’s only a streaker. For a moment there I thought you said leaker!” The movies The Exorcist and Jaws set a tone of horror and suspense as congressional committees uncover the skullduggery of the CIA. Werner Erhard peddles the snake-oil of mind-training seminars while politicians of both parties peddle the traditional political version. The “killer bees” invading the United States from Central American strike fear into American hearts already anxious over the parlous condition of the economy. The New York Post characterizes Washington’s response to New York City’s financial distress as “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD.” Betty Ford tells McCall’s that reporters ask all manner of impertinent questions about everything short of how often she and the president have sex. “And if they asked me that I would have told them, ‘As often as possible.’ ”

Perlstein covers the 1976 race for the Republican nomination in greater detail than anyone has done before. He doesn’t much like Gerald Ford, but he likes Reagan even less. And what he doesn’t like about Reagan is Reagan’s insistence on seeing only the good in America. For the most part, Perlstein’s own politics enter his account obliquely, as in the extensive coverage he gives Sen. Frank Church, the scourge of the CIA. The closest Perlstein comes to an outright admission of belief appears at the end of his preface. “What does it mean to truly believe in America?” he asks rhetorically. “To wave a flag? Or to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag wavers – to criticize, to interrogate, to analyze, to dissent?” He allows himself to observe that America needs that dissenting spirit in 2014 – “a time that cries for reckoning once more, in a nation that has ever so adored its own innocence, and so dearly wishes to see itself as an exception to history.”

Perlstein ends his tale abruptly at the moment of Reagan’s defeat by Ford for the GOP nomination. He gives the last word to the New York Times, which asserted that Reagan, at 65, was “too old to consider seriously another run at the Presidency.”

Cue volume four.

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