- - Tuesday, October 21, 2014


By Rick Perlstein
Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 856 pages

Liberals will like Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge” for it will affirm their sense of moral superiority and the certainty that their motives are always pure. It will also reinforce their view that conservatives are ill-motivated haters and yahoos.

The book’s theme is the gradual shift from the Republicans of Nixon to the party of Reagan. The author does not like Republicans, generally. He especially dislikes Nixon, who the author seems to think was born with horns and a forked tail and spent most of his life trying to hide them. As for Reagan, Mr. Perlstein drops quotations into his narrative that make the man look shallow and willfully ignorant, a charming demagogue.

Mr. Perlstein, in his Wikipedia biographical summary, is described as a “journalist and historian.” He writes for publications on the left, such as The Nation. The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Village Voice and Salon. This is not surprising since he is, as the saying goes, “left-leaning.” His “leaning” is like that of the Leaning Tower of Pisa — firm and permanent.

His two previous books, one on Goldwater, the other on Nixon, echo his leftist slant.

He is not an academically trained historian, although he took history courses in college.

He is best described as a “chronicler.” To give him his due, he engagingly traces the major events between Nixon’s 1972 victory, then downfall, and the Reagan-Ford campaign for the presidential nomination in 1976.

Through more than 850 pages, he captures the drama of the unfolding Watergate saga and the roller-coaster ride that was the 1976 Republican campaign. He also gives an unflattering portrait of Jimmy Carter and covers the other Democratic Party hopefuls. In between he gives us vivid accounts of several big news events of those years, such as the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the bombings and other crimes carried out by radical left groups, the rescue of Israeli hostages at the Entebbe, Uganda, airport and opposition to school busing (centered in Boston and West Virginia).

The author revisits late aspects of the Vietnam War, especially the emotional homecoming of American POWs after years in captivity. He treats the celebrations as contrived events, apparently dismissing the possibility that many people, worn down by a long and negative war, were relieved to find something they could cheer about; namely, the bravery of these men in their captivity.

Being a writer, Mr. Perlstein knows how to mine newspaper morgues (mostly done by computer these days) to gather bits of daily life to attempt to suggest the zeitgeist of particular times. In a country with some 300 million people it is not hard to find plenty of outlandish activities to make whatever point one wants to make.

He also retraces Reagan’s childhood and upbringing, relying almost entirely on one book as his source (Anne Edwards’ “Early Reagan,” a good book, but by no means the only one for those years). Shoe leather on his part would have found excellent archives at Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College, and the several towns and small cities in northwestern Illinois where he was born and lived (except for a few childhood months in Chicago) until his college graduation.

The author’s acknowledgments cover 3 pages, citing help from many people, but none from Reagan’s senior circle. Since he did not mention the Reagan Presidential Library or the Hoover Institution at Stanford, it appears he did not use these resources, either.

The lack of contact with Reagan sources has led him to several incorrect conclusions and statements. Two examples: Shortly before the North Carolina Republican primary in 1976, Reagan supporters obtained and ran widely on in-state television stations a “talking head” speech Reagan had given at a Miami TV station about a month earlier. Close observers credit this as a strong factor in Reagan’s victory in the primary. Mr. Perlstein, however, says these telecasts brought in a large amount of money. He has conflated this with a national network speech Reagan gave at the end of March. That event brought in well over $1 million.

The other example (of several errors) involves his account of the brief speech Reagan gave on the last night of the Kansas City convention, when President Gerald Ford, having just given his nomination acceptance speech, called on Reagan to come down to the podium and speak. The author, relying on an account in a book, says Reagan knew about this the night before. He implies that Reagan wrote the speech well in advance of giving it.

The truth is different. On the day before, just after breakfast with his senior staff and two or three key supporters, I said to Reagan that I had done nothing about drafting an acceptance speech. (We both knew there would not be one after the rules vote the night before, but we pretended otherwise.) He replied, “Don’t worry about it, Pete. The other day, riding home from the ranch, I was thinking about the Los Angeles city time capsule I’ve been asked to contribute to. Here’s what I thought I would send them.” He then proceeded to give me perhaps four minutes of vintage Reagan rhetoric that turned out to be what he said from the convention podium the following night.

The next morning, Thursday, his chief of staff, Mike Deaver, said to me, “They want Ford to ask him to come down to the podium tonight.” “Does he know about it?” I asked. “No,” Deaver said, “but I’ve told Mrs. Reagan.” That meant he would know, because they shared everything. It was coincidental that the words that would go into the Los Angeles time capsule — to be opened in 2076 — provided just the right words for the convention.

Peter Hannaford was a member of Ronald Reagan’s senior staff in 1976. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats” (Threshold Editions).

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