Friday, November 6, 2015

Book Review: The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

The author, Rick Perlstein, says that on the surface his book – The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan - is about how Ronald Reagan, “came within a hairs breath of becoming the 1976 Republican nominee for president.” In reality, though, it is as much a study of the American psyche in the years between 1973 and 1976. In telling that story, Perlstein charts the shift in the national mood from one of despair to one of hope.

A public service note here: this tome is 800+ pages long, so if you’re planning on reading it in one sitting you might want to catheterize yourself to save trips to the bathroom.

Writing from the far-Left, Perlstein says that many of Reagan’s critics believe that he and his political army on the far-Right precluded any chance the American people had to, “finally reflect critically on its power, to shed its arrogance, to become a more humble and better citizen of the world - to grow up…“, after the turbulence of the 1960s and first half of the 1970s.  According to Perlstein, the rise of Reagan, “foreclosed the opportunity for Americans to learn to question leaders ruthlessly, throw aside the silly notion that American power was always innocent, and think like grown-ups.” Instead, Perlstein says, Reagan made us feel good.

The book opens in 1973 with Nixon newly inaugurated for a second term and just starting to feel the slings and arrows of outrageous journalists and congressmen regarding Watergate.  Perlstein looks at the returning of the Vietnam Prisoners of War [POWs] – called “Operation Homecoming” – and how the Nixon Administration orchestrated it to project a “feel-good” image for Americans to divert their attention from the rising Watergate scandal.  Nixon – and Reagan from his post as Governor of California – lauded the returning POWs as war “heroes”.  Yet, as columnist Pete Hamill noted in the New York Post at the time, “the vast majority of the prisoners were bomber pilots, and thus were ‘prisoners because they had committed unlawful acts’”, according to the North Vietnamese.  According to the North, they were guilty of, "killing civilians in an undeclared war." Similarly, Yale psychology professor Robert J. Lifton wrote in the New York Times, “It was the American people who now are being brainwashed - in the very act of sanctifying men whose job was saturation bombing of civilian areas with minimal military targets," but who were now held up as vessels of "pure virtue", propaganda tools for the, "official mythology of peace with honor," in order to prevent the possibility, of "extracting from this war its one potential benefit: political and ethical illumination arising from the hard appraisals of what we did and why we did it."

Operation Homecoming had returned 587 American POWs - but for years Nixon had referred to 1,600 Americans being held in North Vietnam. Perlstein says the discrepancy came because that number folded in more than 1,000 personnel, mostly pilots, who crashed in North Vietnam.  According to Perlstein, in previous wars these men would have been classified as “killed in action/body never recovered”. The Nixon Administration, however, ordered them reclassified as “Missing in Action” [MIA] so the President could make the North Vietnamese look like sadistic torturers to the American public.  But now that 587 had returned, the families of those other 1,013 remaining wanted to know what was the government going to do about their missing loved ones? Thus was born, Perlstein says, the POW/MIA campaign – looking for the release of men that were, in fact, long dead.

Soon, though, Watergate was everywhere.  And as unpopular as Nixon was becoming, Ronald Reagan was becoming just as popular.  Perlstein writes that, one of the reasons for Reagan's popularity, was that nostalgia was becoming a national cult in the wake of Watergate. Of this nostalgic rise Perlstein writes, "Everyone wanted to be somewhere else. A somewhere else with clear-cut heroes and villains. Anywhere but the 1970s, which just kept getting less innocent each day." This nostalgia manifested itself in many ways: one of the most popular new television shows was The Waltons, set in Appalachia in the 1930s; artists from the past like Frank Sinatra and Kate Smith were suddenly everywhere [Perlstein erroneously claims that Kate Smith sang “America the Beautiful” at Philadelphia Flyers’ games as part of this longing for nostalgia.  We all know it was “God Bless America”]. 

Although not addressed in the book, I’ll take a moment to add to the thesis regarding Mr. Sinatra: his ‘return’ to show business after a self-imposed retirement earlier in the decade was a classic example of the longing to return to an earlier day on the part of the American people. One example is the reception Sinatra got after introducing – and again after completing - “The House I Live In” at his famous Main Event Concert at Madison Square Garden.  The song – from 1945 and for which Sinatra won an Oscar – is a tale of America as everyone working together; with no prejudice; all for the common good. Keeping in mind that Richard Nixon had only resigned two months earlier – and it had been only weeks since Gerald Ford had pardoned him – Sinatra’s words and the crowd's reception of those words [which included a loud “Frank for President!” scream at one point] are a clear example of Perlstein’s thesis:

“This next song is quite personal to me, and I think it is to you. I’d like to take just a minute or two to tell you why it’s a personal song to me – and should be to you – it’s a song about this great big wonderful imperfect country. I say ‘imperfect’ because if it were perfect it wouldn’t be any fun trying to fix it, trying to make it work better, trying to make sure that everybody gets a fair shake – and then some. My country is personal to me because my father, who wasn’t born here, rest his soul he made sure that I was born here. [Applause]. And he used to tell me when I was kid that America was a land of dreams and a dream land.  Well, I don’t know if our country fulfilled all of his dreams while he was alive, but tonight with all of us here together for this hour – it sure fulfills my dreams, [Applause].  And to all of you in the country, and to all of you watching tonight, here’s a song about a place we call home.”

After the song, Sinatra concludes with:

“And with all of the problems we’ve had, and we’ve licked them, and we’ll have more problems and we’ll lick those – it happens, but we’ll keep beating the problems.  We’re that strong. And, uh, I just think that it’s nice to live in this country, that’s all [enormous applause].”

This longing for nostalgia would continue.  Brought on by a another 18 months of Watergate hearings, Nixon’s resignation, and – perhaps most important, Perlstein says [even more important than Nixon’s actions] the pardon Ford granted Nixon.  Ford’s press secretary, Jerald terHorst – a friend of Ford’s for 25 years –  had been kept completely in the dark on the decision. Worse, it was terHorst who had told the press on his first day on the job that Ford would not give Nixon a pardon [terHorst based this answer on the one given by Ford when asked about a pardon during his Senate confirmation hearings to become vice president]. In the uproar, terHorst resigned immediately. By lunchtime that day, a throng set upon Lafayette Park, calling for Ford’s resignation. Not exactly the way Ford had promised – and hoped – to start his administration.

With this nostalgia came the fruition of a political movement that began in the early-1960s.  It was Kevin Phillips, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, who coined the phrase "new Right". As Perlstein writes, "One of the things Richard Nixon had been the most expert at as president was dampening the ideological passions of his party’s Right wing. Now, with Nixon gone, those passions thronged. And when Ford appointed Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller as his vice president, those passions exploded.… [The Right] saw Rockefeller’s pick as Ford’s declaration of war against them."

In an effort to hold onto the presidency, Ford spent the beginning of 1975 tacking to the right politically. At the same time, however, the Right’s new leader – Reagan – now had his own radio program and newspaper column from which he could let folks know when Ford veered back to Center [or Left].  The author accurately points out that one of the reasons for the popularity of Reagan’s broadcasts and columns was that they came in a time before Google and Wikipedia – in other words, before it was easy for anyone to immediately check the accuracy of what Reagan was saying. Perlstein concludes that – more often than not – Reagan's "facts" were inaccurate or taken out of context.

The story of Reagan’s ‘conversion’ to the Right is covered nicely by Perlstein.  He identifies the years between 1948 and 1952 as, "a slow, subtle ideological shift...stirring in Ronald Reagan's breast." By 1956, "he was about as far Right as a public figure could be". In Perlstein’s opinion, income taxes were a driving force that changed Reagan’s outlook. After Reagan’s death, a researcher discovered a document showing a tax lien against Reagan from the late 1940s in the amount of $24,911 [about $200,000 today]. Reagan fought the IRS on the matter and, Perlstein concludes, his frustration with them exploded.  Perlstein writes, "Who knows what frustrations, during this most frustrating period of his life [after his divorce from Jane Wyman and as his acting career plummeted], laid behind that [frustration]? What endless phone calls with IRS bureaucrats, what torturous discussions with accountants, what fears that this man - for whom appearances counted for everything - might be found out?” We’ll never know the truth because, “If he ever talked about it, no one ever told."

For Reagan, there was good and there was evil. And they were locked in an eternal battle.  Perlstein argues that the real reason that Reagan left the Democratic Party was that the Democrats stopped believing in the good vs. evil narrative [particularly about an invisible communist conspiracy].  Perlstein writes, “[Democrats] considered it an embarrassing relic of a too-paranoid time. Ronald Reagan did not."

According to Perlstein, Reagan’s rise shocked pundits. That Reagan’s attacks against Ford were working surprised them even more.  Perlstein says that you could argue that Gerald Ford was the most conservative president since Warren Harding: he’d sought the vice presidential nomination on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 ticket; and he’d been Nixon’s point man in the effort to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Yet the new Right, led by Reagan, considered him an apostate. Why? Perlstein says pundits slowly started putting it together, writing that they, “saw conservative activists behaving as if the ordinary act of government, which is to say compromising, was offensive in and of itself - almost as if they were policing the membership in a tribe."

One of the last to pay attention to the new Right was Ford himself.  As late as May 1975, Ford still considered Reagan and his movement “a joke”.  As he would soon find out, it was not.  While the post-Watergate period was supposed to be a cynical, skeptical time, Perlstein writes, “the longing for the conservative innocence Ronald Reagan was selling was strong for those with eyes to see - in all sorts of quarters."
Reagan announced that he would run against Ford on November 20, 1975. In the first month of the campaign, Reagan went from trailing Ford by 23 percentage points among Republicans to a 40%-32% lead over Ford - an unprecedented one-month jump."

The primaries were a brutal, see-saw battle.  By late-June 1976, David Broder was predicting that Reagan was down by only 55 delegates [997 to 942] and he predicted that by the time state conventions [ending on July 17] were done, at that point Ford might be no more than 25 votes ahead of Reagan - maybe even a little bit behind. Broder went on to say, "in either case, the balance of power will live with the block of uncommitted delegates now numbering 159."

Indeed, the 1976 Republican nomination came down to those uncommitted delegates.  Specifically, it came down to Mississippi. It was at this point, Perlstein says, that Reagan’s team threw a “hail Mary”.  Reagan campaign chief John Sears – without telling Reagan – decided that he would make sure Reagan’s momentum kept moving forward.  He would break precedent and announce a running-mate before securing the nomination. Not only that, Sears decided it would be a liberal running mate, from a Northeastern state. In Sears’ reckoning, such a move would force Ford to respond with his own selection. The choice for Reagan was U.S. Senator Richard Schweiker [R, Pa.]

The Schweiker pick was a disaster that nearly killed Reagan’s candidacy before the convention.  After the Schweiker announcement, support for Reagan plummeted. But Sears wasn’t done.  He now wanted to force Ford to pick a running mate before the nomination was sewn up.  Sears believed if he could force Ford to do so, the President would then have to face the same criticisms [from whichever side – Left or Right – opposed to the choice] that Reagan was facing.  The tool was called “Rule 16c” and – if passed by the Republican committee before the votes started to be cast at the convention – it would mandate that any candidate name a running mate prior to the casting of ballots.  Although it was eventually defeated, Rule 16c contributed to the chaotic and frenzied atmosphere at the Republican National Convention in Kansas City.

In the end, Ford got 1,187 votes, Reagan got 1,070 votes.  Reagan had lost.  Or had he?  As we now know, losing out on the 1976 nomination may have been the best thing to happen to Ronald Reagan.  There is of course no way of knowing if Reagan could have defeated Jimmy Carter in 1976.  Still, Ford couldn’t do it and it seems more than likely that Reagan did not yet have the level of support he would have four years later. Plus, the intervening years between 1976-1980 provided an even greater longing among the American people to feel good once again.  As Perlstein notes, "people want to believe. Ronald Reagan was able to make people believe."
Perlstein concludes that – in 1976 – “Reagan’s America” had not yet become “Reagan’s America” as it would four years later.  Perlstein writes, “Reagan's America would embrace an almost official cult of optimism - the belief that America could do no wrong. Or, to put it another way, that if America did it, it was by definition not wrong. That would come later. But signs were already pointing in that direction."

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