The Gonzo Historian

Rick Perlstein’s massive chronicle of “the whackadoodle far-right” gets ever more manic.

Perlstein, who calls himself a “social historian,” now finds rumor more illuminating than fact. His first book drew on more than a dozen archival collections. He has since adopted the methodology of the Web aggregator: his preferred sources are digitally accessed news clippings and TV shows. Some might find this intellectually lazy, but Perlstein proudly Googles in the name of grass-roots activism. “My effort here is about intellectual democracy, in the spirit of the open source software movement,” he explains in the online notes for The Invisible Bridge, adding, “I welcome messages about errors, omissions, broken links and any questions.” He means it, too: he has included a Gmail address.

This crowd-sourced scholarship of the people’s historian is in keeping with the Greek-chorus theme of his new book, with its lurid picture of the mid-1970s as “death-haunted times” when the “survival of the republic” seemed uncertain and apocalypse awaited just offstage. “What madness couldn’t be visited on America next?,” Perlstein asks as he inches the story forward from the Watergate investigation to the 1976 election, lavishing attention on political and cultural events—the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the box-office triumph of The Exorcist, the “est” fad, the goofy skits on Saturday Night Live—and mixing them in with “a sort of biography of Ronald Reagan.”

“Sort of” because the story ends with Reagan’s one major electoral setback, his long-shot campaign to unseat the unelected incumbent Gerald Ford. The parallels with Goldwater’s insurgency a dozen years earlier are clear, and so are the differences. This time the defeat is really a victory, which will be realized one election cycle later and lead, in our own time, to Reagan’s enshrinement as the most beloved of modern Republican presidents, whose current acolytes—some of them in their teens when he was in office—still huddle in the penumbra of his remembered glow.

The Invisible Bridge follows Nixonland in its hyper-reductive psychobiographizing. Perlstein rehashes the familiar story of Reagan’s boyhood and youth, plus his years in Hollywood and as a General Electric pitchman, when he perfected a line of extremist patter at once alarmist and soothing. “At turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty, Ronald Reagan’s power was simply awesome,” Perlstein writes. “As an athlete of the imagination, he was a Babe Ruth, a Jack Dempsey, a Red Grange.” The cartoon prose obscures rather than explains. Garry Wills has as little use for Reagan as Perlstein does, but his book Reagan’s America, published in 1987, makes the more nuanced case that this most elusive of American political heroes was “just as simple, and just as mysterious, as our collective dreams and memories.” Thus he seemed the right man “at a time when the nation needed some reassuring.”

Perlstein does much better on different terrain. He reminds us that the other dark horse in 1976, Jimmy Carter, was a canny political strategist who read Watergate disillusionment more accurately than any other Democrat and shrewdly juggled personas, presenting himself both as a humble evangelical Christian and as an outsider technocrat-businessman. Perlstein also captures the beginnings of the culture wars in all their rawness. His retelling of a textbook controversy in West Virginia offers much useful new detail, and he deftly links it with anti-busing protests in Boston. Both reflected the “politics of rage” that continue to shape so much of conservative politics, including the Tea Party revolt.

But Perlstein seems unwilling, or unable, to acknowledge that the genie of the New Right might have been loosed by anything other than anger, almost all of it channeled through the Republican Party. “There were two tribes of Americans now,” he writes. The virtuous liberal tribe, appalled by Watergate and other Nixon-era revelations, embraced “a new vision of patriotism produced in the 1960s—a perfect passion for the rule of law, of the fairest possible proceduralism, a longing for political innocence that pundits referred to as the ‘New Politics.’ ” The other tribe, gathering behind Reagan, comprised “the people who had elected Richard Nixon in 1968, in a tangle of rage and piety,” and, like Nixon, believed “our neighbors might be our enemies, and our enemies might destroy us.” In truth, neither side had a monopoly on rage and piety. “The liberals failed,” Norman Mailer wrote after the Watergate hearings:

If Richard Nixon had been standing alone on the street and a thousand nonviolent liberals had been standing around him with flails, they would have beaten each other to death in their rush to get at him. They would have drowned in each other’s slobber in the fury to beat him to a pulp.

In this volume’s 800 pages, Perlstein might have shown how genuinely conservative ideas entered the upper as well as lower reaches of 1970s culture. But you will find only fleeting mention here of the challenge to Keynesian economics made by Milton Friedman and others, or of the reassessments of “the welfare state” in publications like Commentary and The Public Interest, and not a word on the presentiment, in the influential writings of Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Lionel Trilling, that the left, too, would play a part in enfeebling America’s liberal traditions.

The trouble, perhaps, is that Perlstein’s single-minded fixation on one period in American political life has immured him from the history that helped shape those decades. If Perlstein looked further, he would find outbreaks of American Dada in the first days of the republic, and the beginnings of polarization in that most gruesomely “death-haunted” tribal conflict of all, the Civil War.

And imagine the wealth of madness some future Perlstein will uncover by Googling through the first months of 2014: Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling, the Santa Barbara murders, a nation transfixed by the vanished Malaysian airplane, the earnestly legalistic “case” for Obama’s impeachment published in book form by a former federal prosecutor. But how much of our national story is actually contained in those episodes?

In such a climate, it is always tempting to believe that things were once better. No wonder an ideal past has such a tenacious hold on us—the South that is ever rising, the New Deal coalition ever ready to re-form, the saner place America used to be before it became “Nixonland” and built a sinister “invisible bridge” to the toxic enmities of our current moment. “Nostalgia was becoming a national cult,” Perlstein writes of the year 1973. True enough. It remains a cult today, and Perlstein is in danger of becoming its captive. It is a luxury he, and the rest of us, can afford—until the day when the apocalypse is truly upon us.

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Sam Tanenhaus is a writer at large for The New York Times

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