Sunday, November 30, 2014

Crossing Rick Perlstein's Bridge

I recently finished reading Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge:  The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.  Below, you'll find my review, but first some disclosures.  Rick and I were at the University of Michigan together in the early 90s.  We were in different departments, but ran in the same circles.  We were - and remain - friends.  I cannot pretend objectivity here for a man who recently bought me drinks when he was in town.  I contemplated changing all the "Rick"s in the text to "Perlstein"s but that would be disingenuous.  At the same time, as a friend, I feel obligated to give Rick the most critical of readings.  He wouldn't expect less.  Also, I read the Kindle edition.  No page numbers available.  Sorry.  If you don't have time to read the rest of the review here's the TL;DR - Read the book.     

I was born in 1967, and grew up in a Democratic household in a neighborhood on Long Island in which such folks were rarities.  It was Al D'Amato's Nassau County, or more properly, Joe Margiotta's Nassau County.   It was the kind of place where, if you're aunt ran as a Democrat for Town Council, you were liable to have your family phone bugged.  It was Nixonland writ small, and whatever operative that was listening in was treated to lots of calls to neighbors houses by me asking if my school friends could come over for play dates.*  Among my earliest memories were of family arguments over Watergate in which my grandmother defended Nixon to the bitter end, learning the words to the Fixin' To Die Rag, wondering why everybody was freaking out over my oldest brother's lottery number (it was 1973, his was low but they weren't drafting anybody), and the Ford-Carter election.  If I remember correctly, Jon Hilsenrath (now of the Wall Street Journal) and I were the only two kids in our class who supported Carter.  My father, who worked on Wall Street, would return from Manhattan with crazy stories from those dark days as the city teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.  None was crazier than the bombing of Fraunces Tavern, a few weeks after he had taken our family for breakfast there on a day off from school.  The bombing, by Puerto Rican activists in 1975, killed 4 and injured 50 but only earned a half a sentence in Perlstein's book.  That's how crazy the 1970s were.  A bombing of THE Wall Street breakfast spot barely made an 800 page book on how America was falling apart from 1973-6. 

I suppose that's one of the reasons the book appealed to me.  In the book, for the first time really, the chaotic world of my childhood is fully explained.   Some critics have accused Rick of overkill, but I needed every word here.  I needed to understand why my impersonation of Jimmy Carter killed in a class election in 7th grade ("Hi, I'm not Jimmy Carter, but I do want to be your President," I speechified to my class mates in 1979).  I only know The Exorcist from MAD magazine.  I loved Happy Days, and covered my schoolbooks with bookcovers featuring Fonzie.  My mother disapproved of the show, although she approved of Fonzie because Henry Winkler was Jewish playing against type.  Rick explains my own childhood to me.  And this is the book's greatest strength.  It's also the greatest weakness of the book.  Childhoods run through the book thematically.  Specifically, Reagan's and America's.  Rick explores Reagan's childhood to find the future adult, somewhat successfully although he does not identify the source of the magic Teflon quality that everyone identifies with Reagan.  Bur Rick also uses childhood and innocence as a complaint.  Throughout, there is subtext that too often Americans don't want to deal with their problems, that they want to play innocents, that that they won't act like grown-ups.

No where is this more evident than in his disdain for the Bicentennial celebration.  I was there, of course.  Dad worked at 1 New York Plaza at the edge of Battery Park and his firm hosted a party for the families of the stockbrokers and other workers.  I watched the Tall Ships through borrowed binoculars.  We bought crazy souvenirs, among them plastic American flags with Lincoln on them that had a quote about government "of the people, by the people, for the people."     The Bicentennial made people feel good about America. Rick wants them to grow up, his sympathies are with the complexities of (war criminal) Henry Kissinger (!), rather than the Reaganites who see the world strictly in terms of good and evil.  He likes Betty Ford, Gerald less so, and there's a veiled disdain for Carter who comes off as the Democratic version of Reagan.  One suspects that Rick would have liked to have seen Mo Udall, "second-place Mo", "the man too funny to be President" win out.  Or maybe that's just me.  And always, there is Reagan.  Shifting from being a New Dealer to a Goldwaterite.  Selling out the Hollywood craft unions.  Stumping for GE.  Edging ever closer to the right people.  Or at least, the right people of the Right.

Perlstein's Reagan lacks any real convictions except the rightness of his own views, no matter how often he changed them.  And change them he did.  Reagan saw the world in binaries.  Good and Evil.  Commies and capitalists.  Housewives and feminists.  Binaries make for great TV but make for lousy governing.  And, argues Perlstein, that was Ford's problem.   He had to govern in the real world while Reagan and Carter got to spout platitudes.  (By implication, of course, he's also discussing Obama's problem.)   Ford is the grown-up in the room.  "Damned if he did, Damned if he didn't." 

And as the book closes in on it's Final Act, the chaos of the 1976 Republican convention, I started to recognize the names that shaped my adulthood: Rove, Helms, Rumsfeld.  And of course, this is Perlstein's point.  By the end of the convention, we have the birth of the modern Republican party: anti-ERA, pro-gun, anti-abortion, and anti-government.  Perlstein doesn't need to tell us what happened next.  We Gen-Xers are old enough to know what comes next.  But he did an exceptional job explaining my childhood to me and why somebody would tap our phone.  When you divide the world into good and evil, you'll do anything to stop evil, even if it means listening in on "Hello, Mrs. DeStaebler? Can Todd come over today?" 

*Years later my mother would get her revenge.  She and other family members, I wasn't present,  were vacationing at the same hotel as a Nassau County Republican retreat, a few years after my aunt's retirement from politics.  In a reverse ratfuck, she dug up one of my aunt's old bumper stickers and - with family help  - plastered it on Margiotta's car, the one with the GOP 1 plate.  He drove back to Nassau County before he knew it and was apparently livid when someone pointed it out to him.  He died never knowing who did it.   I suppose that Margiotta also did jail time for some of his crimes is also some sort of justice.  


  1. Yet another review making me want to find the time to read Perlstein! I was strongly tempted to use Nixonland when I was preparing my course on The American Character last year, but I ended up going with Cowie's "Stayin Alive." In retrospect, I don't think that was a very good choice, as much as I liked the Cowie book.

  2. OK ... how did you find out your phone was bugged?

  3. I've tried three times to post a comment answering this question. Clearly the ghost of Joe Margiotta doesn't want me to reveal his secrets

  4. "Phone workers" (but in regular overalls not phone company ones) were in the backyard. Their unmarked van was parked on the street behind the houses behind ours. They came into our yard via the back neighbors, if memory serves saying they were "checking the lines). We then would hear a click on every phone conversation. If memory serves, technically our phone was tapped, not bugged. This was in the days of Ma Bell so the phone company showing up without being called multiple times was highly suspicious. Eventually the real phone company came and fixed the line. I'll confirm with my mom to make sure I haven't screwed this up.

  5. Thank you! Huh. It sounds both alarming and Keystone Kops