A fan­ci­ful view of tu­mult on a bridge

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - By Peter Han­naford

THE IN­VIS­I­BLE BRIDGE: THE FALL OF NIXON AND THE RISE OF REA­GAN By Rick Perl­stein

Lib­er­als will like Rick Pearl­stein’s “The In­vis­i­ble Bridge” for it will af­firm their sense of moral su­pe­ri­or­ity and the cer­tainty that their mo­tives are al­ways pure. It will also re­in­force their view that con­ser­va­tives are ill-mo­ti­vated haters and ya­hoos.

The book’s theme is the grad­ual shift from the Repub­li­cans of Nixon to the party of Rea­gan. The au­thor does not like Repub­li­cans, gen­er­ally. He es­pe­cially dis­likes Nixon, who the au­thor seems to think was born with horns and a forked tail and spent most of his life try­ing to hide them. As for Rea­gan, Mr. Pearl­stein drops quo­ta­tions into his nar­ra­tive that make the man look shal­low and will­fully ig­no­rant, a charm­ing dem­a­gogue.

Mr. Perl­stein, in his Wikipedia bi­o­graph­i­cal sum­mary, is de­scribed as a “jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian.” He writes for pub­li­ca­tions on the left, such as The Na­tion. The New Repub­lic, Rolling Stone, Vil­lage Voice and Salon. This is not sur­pris­ing since he is, as the say­ing goes, “left-lean­ing.” His “lean­ing” is like that of the Lean­ing Tower of Pisa — firm and per­ma­nent.

His two pre­vi­ous books, one on Gold­wa­ter, the other on Nixon, echo his left­ist slant.

He is not an aca­dem­i­cally trained his­to­rian, although he took his­tory cour­ses in col­lege.

He is best de­scribed as a “chron­i­cler.” To give him his due, he en­gag­ingly traces the ma­jor events be­tween Nixon’s 1972 vic­tory, then down­fall, and the Rea­gan-Ford cam­paign for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 1976.

Through more than 850 pages, he cap­tures the drama of the un­fold­ing Water­gate saga and the roller-coaster ride that was the 1976 Repub­li­can cam­paign. He also gives an un­flat­ter­ing por­trait of Jimmy Carter and cov­ers the other Demo­cratic Party hope­fuls. In be­tween he gives us vivid ac­counts of sev­eral big news events of those years, such as the Patty Hearst kid­nap­ping, the bomb­ings and other crimes car­ried out by rad­i­cal left groups, the res­cue of Is­raeli hostages at the En­tebbe, Uganda, air­port and op­po­si­tion to school bus­ing (cen­tered in Bos­ton and West Vir­ginia).

The au­thor re­vis­its late as­pects of the Viet­nam War, es­pe­cially the emo­tional home­com­ing of Amer­i­can POWs after years in cap­tiv­ity. He treats the cel­e­bra­tions as con­trived events, ap­par­ently dis­miss­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that many peo­ple, worn down by a long and neg­a­tive war, were re­lieved to find some­thing they could cheer about; namely, the brav­ery of th­ese men in their cap­tiv­ity.

Be­ing a writer, Mr. Perl­stein knows how to mine news­pa­per morgues (mostly done by com­puter th­ese days) to gather bits of daily life to at­tempt to sug­gest the zeit­geist of par­tic­u­lar times. In a coun­try with some 300 mil­lion peo­ple it is not hard to find plenty of out­landish ac­tiv­i­ties to make what­ever point one wants to make.

He also re­traces Rea­gan’s child­hood and up­bring­ing, re­ly­ing almost en­tirely on one book as his source (Anne Ed­wards’ “Early Rea­gan,” a good book, but by no means the only one for those years). Shoe leather on his part would have found ex­cel­lent ar­chives at Rea­gan’s alma mater, Eureka Col­lege, and the sev­eral towns and small ci­ties in north­west­ern Illi­nois where he was born and lived (ex­cept for a few child­hood months in Chicago) un­til his col­lege grad­u­a­tion.

The au­thor’s ac­knowl­edg­ments cover 3 pages, cit­ing help from many peo­ple, but none from Rea­gan’s se­nior cir­cle. Since he did not men­tion the Rea­gan Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary or the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion at Stan­ford, it ap­pears he did not use th­ese re­sources, ei­ther.

The lack of con­tact with Rea­gan sources has led him to sev­eral in­cor­rect con­clu­sions and state­ments. Two ex­am­ples: Shortly be­fore the North Carolina Repub­li­can pri­mary in 1976, Rea­gan sup­port­ers ob­tained and ran widely on in-state tele­vi­sion sta­tions a “talk­ing head” speech Rea­gan had given at a Mi­ami TV sta­tion about a month ear­lier. Close ob­servers credit this as a strong fac­tor in Rea­gan’s vic­tory in the pri­mary. Mr. Perl­stein, how­ever, says th­ese tele­casts brought in a large amount of money. He has con­flated this with a na­tional net­work speech Rea­gan gave at the end of March. That event brought in well over $1 mil­lion.

The other ex­am­ple (of sev­eral er­rors) in­volves his ac­count of the brief speech Rea­gan gave on the last night of the Kansas City con­ven­tion, when Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford, hav­ing just given his nom­i­na­tion ac­cep­tance speech, called on Rea­gan to come down to the podium and speak. The au­thor, re­ly­ing on an ac­count in a book, says Rea­gan knew about this the night be­fore. He im­plies that Rea­gan wrote the speech well in ad­vance of giv­ing it.

The truth is dif­fer­ent. On the day be­fore, just after break­fast with his se­nior staff and two or three key sup­port­ers, I said to Rea­gan that I had done noth­ing about draft­ing an ac­cep­tance speech. (We both knew there would not be one after the rules vote the night be­fore, but we pre­tended oth­er­wise.) He replied, “Don’t worry about it, Pete. The other day, rid­ing home from the ranch, I was think­ing about the Los An­ge­les city time cap­sule I’ve been asked to con­trib­ute to. Here’s what I thought I would send them.” He then pro­ceeded to give me per­haps four min­utes of vin­tage Rea­gan rhetoric that turned out to be what he said from the con­ven­tion podium the fol­low­ing night.

The next morn­ing, Thurs­day, his chief of staff, Mike Deaver, said to me, “They want Ford to ask him to come down to the podium tonight.” “Does he know about it?” I asked. “No,” Deaver said, “but I’ve told Mrs. Rea­gan.” That meant he would know, be­cause they shared ev­ery­thing. It was co­in­ci­den­tal that the words that would go into the Los An­ge­les time cap­sule — to be opened in 2076 — pro­vided just the right words for the con­ven­tion. Peter Han­naford was a mem­ber of Ron­ald Rea­gan’s se­nior staff in 1976. His lat­est book is “Pres­i­den­tial Re­treats” (Thresh­old Edi­tions).

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