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From Nixon to Reagan

“Melodrama is the fundamental mode of popular American moving pictures,” the film scholar Linda Williams once argued. Even if Hollywood movies were superficially realistic, she said, this was mere effect in service of a style that was “a peculiarly democratic and American form.”

The silver screen is a suitable place to begin a review of a book about Ronald Reagan; after all, it is where Reagan himself began. Not literally — though his Midwestern roots in rural Illinois and Iowa themselves belong to the classic Hollywood tale of the burgeoning star arriving in the big city — but certainly politically and philosophically.

Hollywood was where Reagan first found political success, as a union leader and anti-communist activist. And it’s where he found his conservatism, while filming televised “anthology” shows sponsored by General Electric.

Presidents, historian Rick Perlstein writes, “are always also storytellers, purveyors of useful national mythologies.” The stories Reagan told, whether of politics or his own past, were, like the Horatio Alger tales he loved as a youth or the Westerns and war films in which he starred, melodramas.

“They frequently feature great, melodramatic traumas,” Perlstein writes of Reagan’s narratives of his own childhood. “The sinking of a great ship, a saboteur’s explosion, a near explosion in the family flat. Almost always, they end in some sort of redemption.”

And here is Williams defining the melodramatic arc: “a story that generates sympathy for a hero who is also a victim and that leads to a climax that permits the audience, and usually other characters, to recognise that character’s moral value.”

“Melodrama,” Williams continues, “is by definition the retrieval of an absolute good in which most thinking people do not put much faith.”

The Invisible Bridge is Rick Perlstein’s account of how millions of thinking Americans put their faith in Ronald Reagan, propelling him to within inches of the 1976 Republican nomination. Subtitled “The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” it acts as a sequel of sorts to what is becoming a franchise of histories of American conservatism.

First was Before the Storm, Perlstein’s account of contemporary conservatism’s cotillion, the 1964 presidential run of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Next was Nixonland, Perlstein’s magnum opus — the Godfather II of his trilogy — which posited that Richard Nixon had imprinted his personal pathologies and resentments on to the American polity in a way that even in the present day undergirds the nation’s electoral landscape.

Nixonland ended with Nixon triumphant, routing his 1972 Democratic opponent George McGovern in a 49-state landslide. We know what happened next, and The Invisible Bridge describes that unravelling of the Nixon White House and, with it, America’s confidence in its government, its institutions, and the moral order of the world itself.

Energy shortages and inflation loom. An oil crisis hits. The United States retreats from Vietnam, defeated. Protests erupt in response to court-ordered bussing of students. Congress begins investigating the Watergate scandal, culminating in Nixon resigning in the face of certain impeachment, the only president to have ever done so, and with the nation’s bicentennial celebrations less than two years away.

“All that turbulence in the 1960s and ’70s had given the nation a chance to finally reflect critically on its power,” writes Perlstein, channelling the hopes of liberals of the time. “To shed its arrogance, to become a more humble and better citizen of the world — to grow up.”

And yet this course of events was not inevitable, even though it might have seemed natural, which is a lesson Perlstein returns to time and again throughout his oeuvre. “Liberals get in the biggest political trouble,” is how he formulated it in Nixonland, “when they presume that a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress.”

Even as the America of the post-Watergate era was learning “to struggle toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag-wavers — to criticise, to interrogate, to analyse, to dissent,” an alternate response to the era’s anxieties was materialising in the form of Ronald Reagan’s moral clarity. And the longing was bipartisan; Democrats had their own counterpart in the earnest Jimmy Carter.

Carter figures strongly in the text, but this is Reagan’s book; Perlstein marvels at the future Republican president’s talent for “turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stoutheartedness and certainty ... As an athlete of the imagination, he was a Babe Ruth, a Jack Dempsey, a Red Grange.”

“They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong,” is how Reagan himself put it as early as 1964. “There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

Reagan did not suffer, as pundits of the day predicted he would, for downplaying the wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal, or for defending America’s actions in Vietnam long after Saigon had fallen. He was telling an uncertain nation that it could feel good about itself, and he told compelling, clarifying stories as to why. From this, he found success.

Reagan told Americans their story in melodramatic form, one with which a nation that conceives its apotheosis not in the historical realities of its 1776 birth but in the spiritual and ideological resonances of the sentiments expressed in its founding documents is infinitely comfortable. The American pursuit of the paradoxical “more perfect union” that its constitutional preamble envisions — its eternal longing to turn away from contemporary messy realities and, through an innate moral goodness, reassert its unblemished ideals, and in so doing restore the abstract innocence of its moment of inception — is a melodramatic impulse. As the bicentennial approached, Ronald Reagan was the man to help America follow through on this impulse.

Except, ultimately, he wasn’t. He was — just barely — beaten to the Republican nomination by incumbent President Gerald Ford, who was himself defeated by Jimmy Carter. This is a weakness of The Invisible Bridge; for a tome about a nation’s search for narrative clarity, it offers little of it itself.

That is hardly Perlstein’s fault; history is always messy and often does not resolve neatly. In 1976, movement conservatism’s ascendant moment coincided with a failed challenge, fervent protests by Republican feminists who wanted the party to stand by the pro-choice and pro–Equal Rights Amendment planks in its platform, and, ultimately, the election of a Democratic president.

These complications, as well as the due weight Perlstein’s narrative affords to Ford, Carter, and Nixon’s contributions to the period, make for a woolly account. So too does the length; a snipe about an 846-page — “more than ordinary book length” — tract by Phyllis Schlafly has the misfortune to appear on page 777 of Perlstein’s own work.

His psychoanalysis of Reagan — whom the author conceives as eternally blithe in the face of complexity and constantly aware of any audience — is less explanatory than when he afforded Nixon the same treatment. The occasional references to a Reagan “humiliation” seem curious, too, as if Perlstein longs to return to his old subject: it is Nixon who is weighed down so heavily by embarrassment; Reagan’s defining moments are his successes.

The Invisible Bridge lacks the stark narrative coherence and thematic unity of Nixonland, but it retains many of Perlstein’s strengths. He favours an expansive and detail-oriented view of history, interspersing Congressional hearings and political speeches with accounts of contemporary news and cultural events: big cities soaked in crime, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the openings of blockbusters Jaws and The Exorcist, sketches from new comedy program Saturday Night Live, Hank Aaron breaking a longtime Babe Ruth record, the sudden popularity of the Unification Church. Of particular note is his exploration of the culture-war inflammations caused by the nation’s response to the prisoners of war returned from Vietnam, and a blow-by-blow account of the tumultuous 1976 Republican National Convention, which stands as a remarkably overlooked moment in the Republican Party’s transition from an organ of ideological pluralism to the citadel of conservatism it is today.

The effect is immersive, conjuring the dread and uncertainty of the era. When the text mentions political luminaries like Karl Rove or Dick Cheney in their pre-prominence era, or highlights events with unmistakable resonance with today’s politics, like a tax protest consisting of mailed tea-bags, it is temporarily befuddling to be pulled out of the 1970s with the realisation that these moments have been deliberately highlighted by an author writing in the present day.

If only because he is so effective at these close studies of a political age, Perlstein could go on writing these books for as long as he lives. The late 1970s surely holds as much conflict and revelation as the years prior from 1964 to 1976, which have already received his close study. 

But would they offer the cohesion Nixonland had and The Invisible Bridge sometimes struggles for? Linda Williams, the film scholar, like Ronald Reagan, understood the power of a psychologically satisfying narrative trajectory. That’s not history, but it’s not always undesirable.