Rick Perlstein is going to be late. “TRUCK FIRE on expressway! Missed first flight from Chicago,” he texts. The author is on his way to New York City for a party at Grand Central Station to celebrate the launch of the new CNN show The Sixties, for which he’s a commentator. We reschedule, and that afternoon, at the Waverly Restaurant in the West Village, Perlstein talks expansively and enthusiastically about his latest book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Schuster, Aug.), an engrossing historical survey that starts with Watergate in 1973 and ends with Reagan’s challenge to President Ford in the Republican primary of 1976.
Perlstein’s account is a sharp reminder of how deeply unsettling this era was for many Americans. Disappointment and frustration were rampant: political corruption, oil embargoes, the collapse of South Vietnam, and a national media that seemed convinced that America was in decline (a Time magazine cover in 1975 asked, “Can Capitalism Survive?”). The Invisible Bridge brings those disconcerting years to life, pulling together newspaper clips, letters to editors, TV news broadcasts, campaign rallies, and other media to create a collection of fascinating overview. “I always want people to keep turning the pages, keep paying attention, so I really have a style of writing that is about grabbing readers by the lapel,” says Perlstein. He does not limit himself to the political. “Political history is also cultural history,” he says, adding, “We don’t experience politics or culture in a vacuum.” Patti Hearst’s abduction, reactions to films like The Exorcist, Hank Aaron’s home run chase, and Chevy Chase’s impersonation of Ford on Saturday Night Live (a show that first aired in 1975) are all fodder for Perlstein. He delves into more obscure historical details as well, describing bumper stickers from the height of the Watergate scandal (“Don’t Blame Me. I voted for McGovern”) and Wacky Packages—humorous stickers for kids drawn by the likes of Art Spiegelman, who went on to create Maus. As Perlstein puts it, “I just want my readers to have fun and enjoy the ride.”
To build this wide-ranging assemblage, Perlstein has an “idiosyncratic and very personal” means of researching and writing. He’s “constantly jotting things down, and coming up with ideas from the news,” he notes, adding that he doesn’t want his process to be too streamlined. “Efficiency is the enemy of creativity.” He mentions a documentary he saw about hip-hop deejays that shows them searching through record shop basements, saying that it’s the “closest representation of what my process of research feels like to me.”
Perlstein, who was born in Milwaukee, Minn., attended the University of Chicago and then spent two years in an American studies program at the University of Michigan. He moved to New York in 1994 and became an intern at the now defunct magazine Lingua Franca, before rising to the position of associate editor there. In 1996, after writing an article for Lingua Franca titled “Who Owns the Sixties?,” he attracted the interest of an agent, and then a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant.
The result was Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang, 2001), Perlstein’s breakthrough book, which won him critical acclaim and the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for History. In it, he describes Goldwater’s upset of Rockefeller during the 1964 Republican presidential primary as the origins of the modern conservative movement. Perlstein continued the story with 2008’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of a Nation (Scribner), which picks up where the previous book left off, in early 1965, with conservatism left for dead after Johnson’s defeat of Goldwater in the general presidential election the previous year. Perlstein catalogues the horrors, triumphs, and aftershocks of the 1965–1972 period, from the nightmare of Vietnam to the Moon landing, the Manson killings, and Nixon’s clobbering of McGovern in ’72.
When he began the process of researching Reagan for The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein was underwhelmed by what he found. He says that most of the writing about the former president is hagiographic, “as if he was put on Earth providentially to deliver Earth from the satanic forces of communism.” Meanwhile, he found works about Reagan by more left-leaning writers to be merely mocking: “Let’s laugh at Reagan and talk about how stupid he is.” This divide is what gives Perlstein’s book its edge. “When I started this project,” he says, “I had the very strong sense that I could be a part of the first generation of writers to square that circle and appreciate Reagan’s political and cultural accomplishments with some kind of detached air.”
One of Perlstein’s more intriguing sources is a daily radio show that Reagan began broadcasting after leaving the California governorship in 1975, the recordings of which are housed at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. Perlstein says of the recordings: “I really was astonished at the sheer density of falsehood in his utterances.” In one broadcast, Reagan criticized federal bureaucrats for ordering a paddle-wheeled tourist boat named the Delta Queen to be brought up to fire code, even though, he claimed, it had never had a fire. But there was a fire on the boat only two years prior—a fact that Perlstein discovered almost immediately when he looked up the boat online after listening to the recording. “This guy could never have survived in the age of Google,” he says.
Perlstein had a mixed reaction to his research on Reagan: “My sense of his accomplishment as a molder of minds and as a rhetorician could only approach awe, but my sense of him as a truth teller [suffered].”
But The Invisible Bridge is not a book about Reagan’s triumph. (Spoiler alert: Reagan loses to Ford in the 1976 primary.) It’s about the shift among voters that would make it possible for Reagan to crush Carter in 1980. As Perlstein puts it, “America had not yet become Reagan’s America. Not yet.” Following the collapse of South Vietnam, Watergate, and the Church Committee’s investigations of CIA overreach, “America was really—in a very concerted and kind of mature and broad way—taking a look at the flaws in its own self-conception and its own history.”
To Perlstein, Reagan offered an alternative, albeit a regressive one. “What Ronald Reagan was doing was inviting people to stop worrying and love America—what I call in the book ‘a liturgy of absolution’—and I ultimately find that that’s a bad thing. To me, that’s the political culture that makes it impossible for Americans to truly grapple with global warming. That’s the political culture that makes it de rigueur for every politician—including, or especially, Barack Obama—to ritually utter that America is the greatest country that has ever existed, which is basically another way of saying, ‘Well, do we really need to look hard at what we’re doing wrong?’ ”
Perlstein plans to conclude his account of the rise of conservatism in America with a final volume that will chronicle Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1980, a plan he has had since he began working on Before the Storm. “The theme of all my work, all my history, and all my journalism, is what a hard time America has in dealing with conflict, and this longing for consensus.” Perlstein excels at showing the fault lines that run through our history, which have left us divided for far longer than we think.
Lucas Adams lives in Brooklyn. He draws comics for the Rumpus and Modern Farmer.