Reagan’s bizarre defenders: Rick Perlstein, phony centrism and the strange attack on history

tags: Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

Weigel’s summary goes to the heart of why Rick Perlstein’s latest book, “The Invisible Bridge,” has been received so differently from his first two histories of modern conservatism. It’s not that Perlstein has changed, but the stature of his subject matter most certainly has. Barry Goldwater had long been a neglected, if not a forgotten historical figure, and Perlstein’s sharply observed account of his turn at the apex of American politics earned wide praise from conservatives for exactly the same reason that his account of Reagan’s rise has earned such enmity. A bogus plagiarism charge was even mounted to not only muddy the waters, but to actually try to prevent publication of his work.

Because the shift in conservatives’ attitudes has been so dramatic, fewer have noticed how others have also shifted. Perlstein, understandably, has picked up on it.

“My stupidest reviews come from centrists desperate to cling to myth of a sensible right,” he tweeted on Dec. 15, linking to his response to a review by Jacob Weisberg in the journal Democracy. Weisberg, not incidentally, is working on his own Reagan biography, but there’s something much deeper than preemptive turf war tensions brewing between them. And when UC Berkeley economist/econoblogger Brad DeLong tweeted back, “OK, I will grant you Jacob Weinberg. Who else?,” Perlstein responded, “Sam Tanenhaus. Damon Linker [here] (he wasn’t all that bad). Robert Kaiser [here],” clearly indicating he had a body of reviews in mind. (When Salon spoke with him, Perlstein added Geoffrey Kabaservice and Michael Kimmage to the list.)

Perlstein’s got a point. Dispelling centrist and progressive myths about the right has been one of his key motivating factors as a historian from the beginning, and nobody really likes having their myths smashed to pieces—though some mind a lot more than others. However, Perlstein’s myth busting is not just to “expose conservative hypocrisy” or some related concern, as some have mistakenly supposed, but to get centrists and progressives to actually see what conservatives are doing, and why it’s not hypocritical in light of their worldview and values. “To beat conservatism, grasshopper, learn to think like a conservative,” Perlstein wrote in a blog post I’ll return to below. Thus, far from distorting his vision with respect to conservatism, as his centrist critics suppose, Perlstein’s political commitments fuel his motivation to be accurate, precise and insightful.

All this seems to go right over his critics’ heads, and indeed much of their criticism devolved into methodological griping—some of it sloppy to the point of being grievously inaccurate. At first Perlstein expressed a reluctance to respond, when Salon contacted him.  “I’m hesitant to say too much because it’s kind of ungrateful to complain about reviews. I really am flattered and thrilled,” he began, echoing his opening remarks in the Atlantic, when he responded to its review by Sam Tanenhaus, titled “The Gonzo Historian.” But he did open up, though he repeatedly qualified his remarks.  “I’m getting reviewed in the Atlantic. I’m on the bestseller list, getting to travel around and write books. It ain’t that raw. But I don’t think he’s helping advance an understanding of what’s going on in America.… I don’t think it’s helping our historical discussion.” ...

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