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Monday, March 28, 2016

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge is Rick Perlstein's third volume in the history of the Republican from Goldwater on. I read the second, Nixonland, and after a long period of time, have finished the third, which is subtitled "The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan."

The book is long--it took me over three months to read, and exhaustive. It basically covers Watergate to the 1976 Republican convention, when Gerald Ford beat back the challenge of Ronald Reagan just barely--by less than a 100 delegates. In between Perlstein covers a lot of stuff, sometimes I think too much, that happened in America during those four years, from The Exorcist to Patty Hearst to Hank Aaron to CB radios. I lived through all that, but it was mostly fascinating to revisit it.

"The boy who told his friends to call him 'Dutch' had cultivated an extraordinary gift  in the act of rescuing himself, the ability to radiate blithe optimism in face of what others called chaos--to reimagine the morass in front of him as a simple tableau of moral clarity." This is what Perlstein says about Reagan, sketching his biography. Here he accomplishes what others have tried--a penetrating biography of a man whom others have come up short on, since the man appeared to have no inner life. Perlstein discusses his childhood in the home of an alcoholic father, living in small towns throughout Illinois, his college days, his getting a job as a sportscaster, on to the movies, his marriage to Jane Wyman, his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, his marriage to Nancy Davis, and then his political career, a quirk of fate that stemmed from a speech he gave for Goldwater. He would run for governor and win in 1966, all while people doubted him. No one thought he could be president, least of all Gerald Ford.

Perlstein goes into great detail about Watergate, and I prided myself on remembering much of it. I kept waiting for the mention of the name Alexander Butterfield, the witness who first brought up the fact that Nixon taped everything in the Oval Office. Even as a kid I remember this being important stuff--they played the hearings on TV in school. It was good refresher course.

Then we get the elevation of Ford, who Perlstein treats almost as a comic figure, a man who is inevitably referred to as "solid," who has no charisma, who was a great athlete but was parodied by Chevy Chase for stumbling, and who was the target of two assassination attempts by women in one four-month period. Perhaps most wounding of all, he had to fight tooth and nail to win the Republican nomination, as Reagan almost because the first to deny an incumbent president the nomination since it happened to Chester Arthur. Perlstein's best story about Ford: "Then he accepted a snack--a tamale--before the cameras, not knowing that before you bit into one you were supposed to strip off the corn-leaf husk. That was the lead story the next day. Poor Jerry Ford."

The race for the nominations was a seesaw battle, with every uncommitted delegate courted like a rich widow. Reagan took the risk of naming his running mate early--liberal Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker--and it was interesting that it was not his idea, his campaign manager made the choice and Reagan signed off on it. It was also interesting to learn that Ford had to get Reagan's blessing on his choice of running mate, Bob Dole. Ford had wanted William Ruckelshaus, but Reagan wouldn't agree.

Of course we get chapters on Jimmy Carter, who came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination. But these passages seem like laying groundwork for the next book, when Reagan will, of course, become president. This volume ends, either ominously or portentously, depending on your point of view, with the lines, "'At sixty-five years of age,' the New York Times noted, he was 'too old to consider seriously another run at the presidency.'"

I enjoyed this book, but it needed some editing. I was annoyed by a reference to the stadium in Cincinnati being called Riverside, not Riverfront, and often Perlstein will mention a person, like "a moderate from Colorado," without giving the name. He often repeats himself, noting in the beginning of the book and the end that Reagan had a talent for finding the camera in the room. But there are some great similes, such as his description of Sam Ervin, the folksy senator who chaired the hearings on Watergate: "White-haired and jiggly-jowled, his long, bushy eyebrows as tangled as a line of Arabic script, with a forehead that all but broke out in spasms in the midst of his high-flown orations, he was almost a caricature of a Dixie pol." Ervin, who was pretty much a back-bencher before that, became a national hero, despite his abominable record on civil rights.

And, having had Bob Dole as a major presence throughout my adult life, I couldn't help but laugh at this, a description of him trying to gavel the Republican convention to order: "He rapped his gavel like a demonic woodpecker."

This is a great book for political junkies or anyone who would like to bathe in the horrors of the 1970s. I look forward to Perlstein's next book, even though it will relive one of my great horrors--the election of Reagan as president.

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