Book Review: “The Invisible Bridge” — Stranger and Scarier Than Fiction

As our current group of GOP presidential contenders make their ritual obeisance to the sacred memory of the Ronald Reagan, it’s useful to be reminded that the record shows the revered All-American icon to be more simulacrum than savior.

The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein. Simon and Schuster, 880 pages, $21.


By Matt Hanson

Rick Perlstein is one of the few popular historians writing today whose work deserves to be called epic. For political junkies, it’s easy to be engrossed in Perelstein’s witty, informative, and unpretentious storytelling. Every page of his three massively detailed histories combines novelistic sweep, insightful anecdotes, colorful period detail, and all-too-true tales of backstage political chicanery with a surprisingly brisk readability. Like any well-told story, the reader wants to keep turning pages whether or not they already know how it ends.

In addition to his narrative gifts, Perlstein has the authority of expertise. His multigenerational chronicle of the modern right began with Before The Storm, which revisited Barry Goldwater’s insurrectionary 1964 presidential campaign and continued with Nixonland, an absorbing account of Richard Nixon’s political career and the seething social tensions he knew intimately, manipulated masterfully, and that set the stage for Nixon’s tenacious rise and cataclysmic fall.

The Invisible Bridge, newly published in paperback, begins where Nixonland left off, guiding the reader through the upheavals of the mid-seventies. Beginning with the fall of Saigon and the ambivalent return home of alienated G.I.’s; the crackling suspense of the Watergate hearings and their bitter aftermath; the hapless clumsiness of the Ford administration; the lackluster 1976 bicentennial celebration; and the optimistically rosy campaigning of Jimmy Carter.

Perlstein’s novelistic eye for the significant detail keeps his narrative compelling, offering intimate glimpses of history in the making. In the tense weeks leading up to his Watergate testimony, John Dean chose his iconic pair of glasses because he noticed that his eyes twitched under pressure. In the febrile last days of the Nixon presidency, his cabinet started telling staff members not to heed any of the President’s orders for fear of his increasing mental instability. Perlstein also knows how to make a historical set piece vivid: the raucous 1976 Republican national convention in Kansas City that closes the book might have turned out differently if the air conditioning in the overheated auditorium had worked.

The Invisible Bridge only covers three years but culls a tremendous amount of social critique out of its timespan. As Perlstein puts it, in the seventies “everyone wanted to be somewhere else.” Blockbuster films like Jaws and The Exorcist portended doom and damnation, befitting a jittery public’s private dread. Looking for a sense of meaning, crackpot fads like EST and Scientology became popular. New York City went bust and the President essentially told it to “drop dead.” It’s not surprising that when the morality of public institutions, political and otherwise, began to be undermined for their corruption and venality for all to see, a new political space was being created for someone to fill the idealistic hole in the smoking crater of conservatism. Soon, Ronald Reagan became a weary GOPs preferred leading man.

It’s obvious to us now that Reagan’s massive political appeal was based in folksy authenticity: crowds turned out in droves to cheer on the avuncular politician who still believed in the All-American innocence and righteousness whose avatar he was. Or was he?

What isn’t as widely understood is how long and hard Reagan had worked to contrive the image of himself he wanted others to see: “If a camera was present, he was aware of it — aware, always, of the gaze of others, reflecting it, adjusting himself to it, inviting it…to be seen as he wished others to see him.” As our current group of GOP presidential contenders make their ritual obeisance to the sacred memory of the Gipper, it’s useful to be reminded that the record shows the revered All-American icon to be more simulacrum than savior.

Reagan’s political history before his presidential run is dubious at best. He told reporters that poor Nixon had suffered enough from Watergate and was content to let the whole matter drop. His stance on abortion, until the religious vote became an important one to court, was much more mild and ambiguous than contemporary conservatives could ever be. Reagan said he could find no “moral justification for repudiating” the loathsome John Birch Society and didn’t think the civil disobedience of Martin Luther King was right to break the law. Family values was a consistent theme on the campaign trail, but he let his first marriage to the disregarded Jane Wyman fall apart and his children turn into basket cases partly because he was too busy soapboxing about traditional values to notice.

Reading through Perlstein’s narrative, it isn’t hard to tell that the author is philosophically unsympathetic to many of the politicians appearing in his pages. Yet he clearly enjoys telling their stories, and this enthusiasm doesn’t invalidate the book’s usefulness or accuracy as history. Perlstein is judicious enough to present various politician’s agendas and ideals in context, quoting them largely in their own words and explaining their actions within the larger context of the times. Given the immediate gratification of the 24-hour news cycle, getting a larger perspective on the historical currents that got us to where we are today is more important than ever.

Perlstein doesn’t just catalogue an endless list of political misdeeds; he explains in knowing detail the ideological grievances that compelled zealous politicos to commit them in the first place. Liberal bias isn’t what makes men like E Howard Hunt and G Gordon Liddy so creepy or Nixon and Kissinger so megalomaniacal; it’s watching the record of their works and days unfold over hundreds of pages that does it. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves. It’s not the historian’s fault if, more often than not, the truth does indeed turn out to be stranger — and scarier — than fiction.

Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

1 Comment

  1. Steve on October 9, 2015 at 11:40 am

    As touched on, the 24-hour news cycle and the oft-cited shrinking attention span of current events consumers make work like Perlstein’s and reviews like this one even more significant in contrast.

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