Friday, May 15, 2015

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein

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.

Over the course of the three books that Perlstein has published to date, beginning with Before the Storm (which I haven't read yet), he's documented the tectonic shift to the right in the American political spectrum. This body of work provides a narrative background upon which other historians and social scientists can work to develop a more comprehensive account of this dramatic change. Could it have been different? If Nixon had served out his term, would the shift to the right have actually faded? (Nixon was by current lights a raging centrist.) One receives a strong sense of the randomness of change from Perlstein's narrative, and it leaves one with a feeling of "if only . . .” But here we are with a Republican Party more reactionary, nativist, and anti-intellectual than at any time in its history (starting with Lincoln). It maintains a libertarian and laissez-faire economics bent that provides a patina of intellectual respectability (and that accords with the money), but that aspect of the party trails in the wake of the angry voters, those cultivated by the simple, optimistic nostrums of the man with the invisible bridge, Ronald Reagan.

1 comment:

Stephen N. Greenleaf said...

I alluded in my review to Perlstein having cited Collingwood's work as a guide for writing history. Here's his quote from Democracy: A Journal of Ideas:

"I try to do it the way my methodological guide, the British philosopher R.G. Collingwood, described the ideal in his 1946 masterpiece, The Idea of History: by providing the reader occasion to empathetically “re-enact” past thought."


Perlstein neatly summarizes Collingwood while providing insight into his own work.

This article provides a fine supplement to the book, as he counters a critic (very effectively) and provides insight into his perspective and intentions.

He also kindly responded to my review via Twitter, and his final volume promises to provide extra value has he pulls back from the narrative to provide some analysis.

@SteveGreenleaf thoughtful stuff. Thx. My conclusion to series will step back 4 more analysis.
10:02 PM - 15 May 2015