In 1994, the historian Alan Brinkley lamented that academics had neglected American conservatism. Few scholars had studied the right wing, argued Brinkley, because they dismissed it as the ideology of crazies, or morons, or both.
Since Brinkley’s essay, an entire field of what might be called Conservative Studies has flourished. The Invisible Bridge is Rick Perlstein’s third contribution to the field. "Before the Storm" and "Nixonland," the first two, convey as nothing else has the background against which the right wing transformed from minority status to the preferred ideology of half the country.
Perlstein is not a trained historian. His approach is to go through newspapers and magazines of the era, extracting revealing but long-forgotten quotations, anecdotes, and events, in addition to relying on primary sources such as archives. Such as this one, about Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record: “He drew ten thousand extra fans in any opposing ballpark he visited. He hit his 711th home run at home – and only 1,362 Atlantans showed up.” [Editor's note: This review originally misstated Perlstein's use of sources.]
The fact illustrates the prevalence of racism in 1973, which led so many whites to abandon the civil rights-friendly Democratic Party for the Republican Party. The line also underscores Perlstein’s primary argument in "The Invisible Bridge." After the successive shocks of the Vietnam War, urban riots, Watergate, and the oil crises, Americans yearned to return to a more stable, peaceful past. They were tired of feeling guilty and disappointed about their country – they wanted to believe in America again.
It was Ronald Reagan’s genius that he both understood this nostalgia and had the ability to convincingly offer a return to a placid past. He was an incurable optimist with a simple message: If Americans got government out of their business, the country would return to greatness. (Defense was and remains exempt from this belief in small government.) "There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers,” he promised. Tens of millions of Americans believed him.
Part of what made "Before the Storm" and "Nixonland" so impressive was that Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, the books' central characters, both appeared sympathetic, despite Perlstein’s liberalism. That’s one reason conservatives admired both books. Reagan gets no such sympathy. He is portrayed in "The Invisible Bridge" as delusional and dim-witted, a man of infinite charisma but little compassion.
Perlstein explains Reagan’s appeal as due to the sense among American citizens that their country was in decline. And that’s where "The Invisible Bridge" shines. Whereas most authors describe politics as an isolated world or one in which a single variable such as the economy matters, Perlstein understands that the politics of most voters are shaped by many things, from the crime they encounter to the air they breathe to the roads they drive on.
The book focuses mainly on the years 1973 to 1976. And Perlstein has an unmatched ability to convey the sense of an era. Even readers who didn’t live through 1970s America will feel as if they did after reading this book. Hijackings, line-ups at gas stations, kidnappings, returning POWs, new age quackery, anti-abortion fanatics, skyrocketing crime, revelations of CIA crimes – all combine to form an almost nightmarish backdrop. "The Invisible Bridge" is the non-fiction equivalent of a Don Delillo novel.
Perlstein gets little things wrong. Though it’s tangential to the book, he actually suggests that the Cold War began with and because of Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech in Missouri that declared an “Iron Curtain” to be falling across Europe. And he sets up two sides in the contemporary American civil war: the suspicious circles (liberals) versus the true believers (conservatives). Whereas the former want to criticize their country because they love it, the latter defend it uncritically because they believe that illustrates their patriotism. Such a view is too kind to liberals and too harsh on conservatives. The New Right, after all, arose precisely because many voters felt that America was abandoning God. Nothing worshipful about that.
But these occasional missteps are easily outweighed by Perlstein’s unequalled ability to juxtapose astute political analysis with what Philip Roth called the “indigenous American berserk.” At times, as with Watergate or the disclosures about 30 years of intelligence-agency malfeasance, the two merge. Now relegated to history books such as this one, the Senate Church Committee revealed in 1975 that the CIA and FBI had employed “anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.” They also spied on innocent people, and lied directly to Congress. But by the time the Committee released its report, the public was weary of self-criticism. They wanted to feel good about themselves. They wanted Reagan.