|From Perlstein's webpage|
Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and Rise of Reagan picks up where Nixonland left off, with Richard Nixon at the pinnacle of his power and then falling from the triumphant political height he had finally attained into the disgrace of his resignation. Nixon’s fall allowed the enigmatic former governor of California, pitchman, and movie star to emerge as a beacon for (extremely) conservative Republicans. As Perlstein provided a mini-biography of Nixon in Nixonland, so he provides a mini-biography of Reagan as the central character in The Invisible Bridge. These mini-biographies provide context for the roller-coaster narrative of political, social, and economic upheaval that Perlstein chronicles.
I began this period as a college sophomore, and as the book ends, I'm about to enter law school. In between, I married. To say that for all of my interest in politics, I wasn't paying as close attention to events as I might have is an understatement. In fact, I learned or was reminded of a lot that I didn't know or recall about this era, and for the most part, it wasn't a good time. The 60's were a time of significant change and some chaos, but events unfolded with a certain sense of hopefulness that was a counter-current to the shocking violence of that decade (1962-1972). The 70s, too, were a time of change, but the underlying theme during this period was one of pessimism and despair. Watergate, the War, inflation, crime, race relations, and a host of other problems poisoned the political atmosphere—except perhaps for one person: Ronald Reagan. He seemed (or was) oblivious to the downsides, except to use them (in his loose-with-the-facts way) as campaign fodder.
Perlstein is as much a chronicler as he is a historian. He rarely comments on the narrative, letting the facts speak for themselves (a deceptive turn of phrase). Indeed, one shortcoming of his work stems from his lack of comment and explanation. Perlstein baths--perhaps more accurately, drowns--the reader in facts. (802 pages of text.) But other than following a central character (Reagan), Perlstein imposes no unifying theme or provides no explanation. I recall reading somewhere that Perlstein reported himself a disciple of R.G. Collingwood, the greater British philosopher of history. Collingwood argued that history properly understood must (as it were) get inside the heads of the characters and experience their world and their choices as they did, but I don't think he argued that a historian could not use his own perspective, which has the benefit of knowing "the end of the story", to augment those original perspectives. But Perlstein takes little advantage of his perch from the future to provide further context. That said, Perlstein immerses the reader in the period by his exhaustive use of multiple original sources and thereby provides the reader with a “You Are There” feel.