Rick Perlstein explains what politicians can learn today from Reagan’s unexpected rise to power (interview)

Historians in the News
tags: Rick Perlstein, Invisible Bridge



Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross professor at the School of Social Service Administration and co-director of the Crime Lab at the University of Chicago. He is a nonresident fellow of the Century Foundation.

Defeat in Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, Watergate, rising crime rates, and the first signs of the collapsing blue-collar economy marked the mid-1970s as among the toughest periods in American history.

Rick Perlstein’s current best-seller, Invisible Bridge, chronicles that time. Its 880 pages and accompanying Web site portray the rise of Ronald Reagan from the Nixon presidency’s Watergate demise to the 1976 Republican nomination fight between Reagan and then-incumbent president Gerald Ford. Although Ford narrowly prevailed in that bitter contest, Reagan and his conservative followers seized the reigns of the modern Republican party. Four years later, Reagan himself ascended to the presidency.

Perhaps inevitably given the book’s protagonist, Invisible Bridge’s critical reception exemplifies the polarization Perlstein seeks to depict. Writing in the New York Times Sundau Book Review, Frank Rich labelled Invisible Bridge an “epic work,” calling it “both enjoyable as kaleidoscopic popular history… and telling about our own historical moment.” The National Review’s Michael Knox Beran was less favorable. His review, titled “The decline of liberal history,” allows that Invisible Bridge “has a certain energy, derived from the hysterical flippancy of the writing.”

I caught up with Perlstein last Friday. We discussed Reagan’s improbable success. We also discussed many other things: The OPEC oil embargo, the Patty Hearst kidnapping, whether President Obama underestimated the implacability of his political opponents. Finally, we discussed what Perlstein himself has learned from critical essays written about his book.

Below is an edited and shortened transcript of our conversation.

Harold Pollack: Thanks so much for joining me. Maybe you should mention how Invisible Bridge is situated in your larger body of work.

Rick Perlstein: This is the third book in what is now to be a four-book series. My first book was called Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. I covered the rise of the conservative movement in the late 50's and early 60's through Barry Goldwater's landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson. Nixonland picked up where that left off. It started out with the Watts Riots in summer 1965 and went through Richard Nixon's 1972 landslide. In the preface, I wrote that book was not so much about Richard Nixon as about “the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president, because to do anything else …seemed to court civilizational chaos and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason.”

Invisible Bridge was originally planned to go until 1980, but I found myself narrating something that no historian had ever quite done before: what it was like to experience Watergate for the American public. This was such an engrossing thing that I ran out of pages by the time I got to what turned out to be this book’s dramatic climax: the 1976 Republican nomination fight. Ronald Reagan did something extraordinary, which was to challenge a sitting president and almost win.

I'm doing one more book. I have a contract with Simon & Shuster to take the story forward. At first, I thought I would go through the election of 1980. But I think I'm going to go to the 1981 inauguration of Ronald Reagan, because the battle to shape the Reagan administration during that transition was very dramatic and very interesting. That should be done in three years or so. Out in four years.




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