Friday, August 22, 2014

My Amazon Review of Rick Perlstein's, "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan"

Rick Perlstein has written a long book, perhaps too long. “The Invisible Bridge…” is really three books: a biography of Ronald Reagan, a political history with an emphasis on the continued rise of the Republican Right and a social history of the mid-1970s. This book follows his two prior books, “Before the Storm…” and “Nixonland…” on the emergence of the Republican Right. Perlstein is a man of the Left, but he tries to understand the motivations behind the success of the Right. In some respects he succeeds, but in others he doesn’t fully emphasize that the period he discusses was one of retreat abroad and recession at home. With the latter along with virulent inflation ends the Keynesian consensus that ruled economics in the postwar period up to that time. Thus the way was open for a politician who offered hope to a nation where it seemed there was only despair. That politician was Ronald Reagan.

Pearlstein enabled me to relive the period that I remember all too well. It seemed that the wheels were falling off the train of history. For example the 1973-76 period encompassed the following:
   * Defeat in Vietnam
   * CIA scandals
   * The rise of OPEC which triples gasoline prices
   * Assassination attempts on Jerry Ford
   * Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army
   * The widespread distribution of porn
   * The bankruptcy of New York City
   * The growth of weird self-improvement groups like est.

Into this milieu comes the former actor and former governor of California who offers what appears to be simplistic solutions to the liberal elite, but to a yearning public he offers hope and a return to the greatness of America that as Perlstein notes resonates with the 1976 Bi-Centennial. Always under-rated by the pundits Ronald Reagan was far smarter and cannier a politician than his critics realized. And boy did he know how to give a speech.

Perlstein spends a great deal of time on the 1976 Republican convention where Reagan almost rests the nomination from Jerry Ford. Much of this ground was covered by Craig Shirley’s very pro-Reagan, “Reagan’s Revolution.” In fact Shirley has sued Pearlstein for infringing on his material. Shirley’s book is a good read and I recommend it.

What Perlstein gets wrong is his treatment of Reagan’s failed attempt to pass Proposition 1 his tax and spending limitation initiative in 1973. He highlights what he perceives to be its radical nature. In my opinion had Proposition 1 passed the far more “radical” Proposition 13 of 1978 might never have seen the light of day. Pearlstein also get wrong the notion that California coastal development was banned in 1973; not true. What actually happened was new permitting regime under Proposition 20.

Although he opens his book the the return of the Vietnam POWs, he doesn't really deal with the moral crisis associated with the treatment of the returning veterans. To the Right they were drug crazed losers and to the Left they were war criminals. The resentment that this engenders adds fodder to the growth of the Right later in the decade.

One last point Perlstein should remember Eric Ambler’s maxim in “A Coffin for Demitrios,”  “In a dying (although I would use “threatened”) civilization political prestige is the reward goes not to the shrewdest diagnostician, but to the man with the best bedside manner.” Most dour liberals fail to understand this while an optimistic liberal like Bill Clinton knows this in his guts.

All told for readers who have the time for this very long book, it very well worth the read.

The Amazon review appears at the following url:

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