The Reagan sideshow

Ronald Reagan colour

The Invisible Bridge, Rick Perlstein, Simon and Schuster

Rick Perlstein has just released the third volume in his amazing series of political histories of modern conservatism in America. An indication of the esteem he is held in is that the hardcover edition of his first book (on 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater) sells for over $100 second hand. The Invisible Bridge covers the period from Nixon’s fall after Watergate to Carter’s election win, cycling back constantly to the sideshow (and central story here) of Reagan’s aspirations for the presidency. It takes its title from some political advice of Kruschev’s, and relates to Reagan’s tendency to propose simple solutions to perceived, but non-existent or exaggerated problems. The title perhaps could be read also as meaning that Reagan was the not often obvious link between the conservatives of the sixties and the uncompassionate conservatism of the 1980s.

Perlstein writes in great detail, but also makes jokey asides, and, as other reviewers have noted, he makes other political histories, populist as they may be, look dead boring. As original as his style might seem, I can’t help thinking though that he has read and absorbed some of Garry Wills’ remarkable, literarily flamboyant 1970 book on Nixon, Nixon Agonistes.

This is one of the best books on Watergate, even though that is only a minor part of the book, because Perlstein not only replays the history, but also how that history was played out in the media, and how the person in the street perceived the unfolding drama. As for Reagan, when everyone else was wringing their hands, Reagan seemed to think it was not that much of an issue. He probably would have agreed with Nixon’s dumbfounding assertion to David Frost that if the president does it, it’s not illegal.

For Reagan, it was also a case of: if the US does it, it’s not illegal. He may have been a manipulator, but his skill was in making Americans believe in America again, after their loss of political innocence in the seventies, a breakdown Perlstein documents in detail, and brilliantly. He comments consistently that Reagan’s view of the world seemed to be unrealistically optimistic – that everything turns out OK, that the sun always rises (echoes of his memorable election slogan), that in America everything is possible if people just apply themselves.  The big problem with Reagan was that, as Perlstein shows, Reagan consistently got the facts wrong, and always in his favour. One is reminded of Seinfeld character George Costanza’s quip that “it’s not a lie if you believe it”.

Sadly, when Reagan the up-and comer made it, he no longer had any sympathy with the people that couldn’t make it. But he could simply rearrange the facts to make it appear that those in society who were, let’s say, problematic, had disappeared. This would all be relentlessly depressing, if it weren’t for the fact that Perlstein makes it so entertaining.

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