Tuesday, September 8, 2020

As it so happens, you can judge a book by its cover, at least “Reaganland” by liberal activist and Ronald Reagan hater Rick Perlstein.

The dust jacket, created by Simon & Schuster, is amateurish and slapdash; not the cover of a memorable work of history which, of course, it is not. Covers for Jon Meacham’s, Doug Brinkley’s and David McCullough’s books are majestic, dignified and memorable. Not so Mr. Perlstein’s.

The title leaves little to the imagination. “Reaganland.” His previous book was “Nixonland.” Is this the best he can do? Apparently.

We last heard from Mr. Perlstein when he was caught lifting more than 50 phrases from one of my Reagan books, “Reagan’s Revolution.” The error-strewn “The Invisible Bridge” had no sources, footnotes, subscript or superscript; conveniently designed to conceal his plagiarism.

He also committed the historical crime of fabulism; he just made stuff up.

His historical crime now is omission. Mr. Perlstein writes falsely about Ronald Reagan and the Neshoba County Fair, repeating the lie so often used by liberals such as Hillary Clinton and Steve Kornacki that Reagan made racist appeals at the Mississippi gathering. Simply not true. What he excludes is that Jimmy Carter launched his fall 1980 campaign In Tuscumbia, Alabama; long a hotbed of KKK activity. At the rally, after Mr. Carter wheeled George Wallace on stage, he had his daughter, Amy, plant a big one on the old “seggie’s” cheek. In his remarks, Mr. Carter paid homage to the Confederate battle flag and to Wallace.

Such omissions are legion. He repeatedly implies Reagan was a racist with such childish digs as “Next Reagan visited the most racially segregated city in America, Milwaukee … .” He deliberately misrepresents Reagan’s opposition to an anti-gay referendum in California in 1978, when Reagan courageously opposed Prop 6, which would have dealt harshly with gays. He implies Newt Gingrich, the principal figure behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, was a racist. Mr. Gingrich was endorsed by the Black-owned Atlanta Daily World in every election.

How can one write about Reagan’s campaigns and not interview Frank Donatelli, Ken Khachigian, Ed Rollins, Charlie Black, Mr. Gingrich, Jim Baker, Ed Meese, Mari Will, Stu Spencer, Jim Hooley, Jerry Carmen, Cindy Tapscott or Dick Allen — to name a few — all principal players in the 1980 Reagan campaign? Or journalists: Lou Cannon, George F. Will or Tom Brokaw? How can one write of the 1980 campaign without interviewing President Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale or Jerry Rafshoon? Significant individuals, who are still with us, thank God.

“Reaganland” is as bad as “The Invisible Bridge,” if possible; although, he has a notes section (but no bibliography) this time. The author simply follows the era’s newspapers for four years to construct a story line. Newspaper research is fine unless it becomes bogged down by a multipage discussion of the moral implications of “The Godfather” and “Star Wars” which tend to distract from the real story.

Mr. Perlstein devoted a page-and-a-half to the 1978 movie “Superman,” then makes the foolish analogy to newspaper reporters of the era, implying that Woodward and Bernstein were akin to comic book super heroes.

Seminal events for Reagan in the 1980 campaign such as “I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Breen!” and “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” receive short shrift. Mr. Carter’s notorious malaise speech is barely mentioned. “Reaganland” is also error-filled, poorly edited, laden with typos and untruths.

For his research on conservatism, does the author rely on historians George Nash, Lee Edwards or Russell Kirk? No, Mr. Perlstein relies on ultra-leftists like Sidney Blumenthal, Leo Ribuffo, Alexander Cockburn and Susan Faludi, whose enmity of conservatives is chronic. Nowhere does he consult Paul Kengor, Steven Hayward, Marty Anderson, Cannon, or other recognized Reagan scholars.

Mr. Perlstein hates Reagan. We get it. Mr. Perlstein hates conservatives. We get it. He reminds us often. Only liberal publications like The Nation, New Republic and The Washington Post care for this mess of a book. Natch.

Mr. Perlstein is not a historian but a misanthrope. He would not be invited to speak at the Reagan Library, the Reagan Ranch, the Buckley Center at Yale or CPAC, not simply because of his hatred of Reagan, but because his scholarship is nearly nonexistent. Other reviews have taken note of his sloppiness and rampant contempt for conservatism.

“Reaganland” is rambling and pointless, and reading it is an inconsequential exercise; after all, how would you reclaim that wasted time?

• Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and presidential historian, is the author of five books on Reagan, taught a class at UVa. on Reagan, lectures often at the Reagan Library and is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College. He is the author of “December, 1941” (Thomas Nelson) and is working on “April, 1945.” He is president of Shirley & McVicker Public Affairs. 

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By Rick Perlstein

Simon & Schuster, $40, 1120 pages

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