Not since Edmund Morris???s bizarre semi-fictional biography of Ronald Reagan has there been such a deeply disappointing Reagan book as Rick Perlstein???s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. No sooner was it published than it was greeted with charges of plagiarism, egregious misstatements, and ???invisible??? footnotes.
It is always useful to know what the Other Side is doing, and Perlstein is a committed liberal journalist who writes for the far left The Nation and was a senior fellow at the Campaign for America???s Future that describes itself as ???the strategy center for the progressive movement.???
I first met Perlstein more than a decade ago when he was researching his book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. He usually quoted me and other conservatives accurately but not always. And there were times when he lifted portions of my Goldwater biography without citing my work. For example:
Goldwater to political aide Robert Mardian [who had been dispatched to persuade the senator to be more pragmatic in his speeches]: ???You go back and tell your crowd that I???m going to lose this election. I???m probably going to lose it real big. But I???m going to lose it my way.??????Perlstein
Goldwater to Mardian: ???You go back and tell your crowd that I???m going to lose this election. I???m probably going to lose it real big. But I???m going to lose it my way.??? –Edwards
A central theme of Before the Storm is that the liberal establishment, especially its pundits and journalists, failed to understand that the 1964 Goldwater candidacy was not the end but the beginning of a tectonic shift in American politics from liberalism to conservatism. This was not an original insight???I and other conservatives had already written that Goldwater had laid the political foundation for Reagan???s triumphs in 1980 and 1984. But because a liberal said it, Perlstein was widely praised and even hailed as the ???Herodotus of the American Century.??? There was an important difference between Perlstein and conservatives as to Goldwater???s end game. We said that his goal was to encourage limited government and individual freedom. Perlstein wrote that Goldwater tapped ???the fears??? of the American people and divided rather than united the nation, making him a precursor of the Great Divider, Richard Nixon.
In Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Perlstein continues to develop his thesis that the Republican triumvirate of Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan split America asunder by using ???the angers, anxieties, and resentments produced by the cultural chaos of the 1960s.??? He also insists that ???America has always been divided and will always be.??? He refers to a ???myth of consensus??? promoted by ???the punditocracy??? which, because it was repressed, resulted in the murderous furies of the 1960s. The only solution, he argues, is to admit not cover up the divisions.
Perlstein presents a usually accurate portrait of the deeply flawed Nixon presidency but sometimes stumbles under the sheer weight of his 748-page book. For example, he erroneously writes that Republican Congressman Buz Lukens was an ???architect??? of the Draft Goldwater movement???the architects were F. Clifton White, William A. Rusher, and Congressman John Ashbrook. He omits that it was Barry Goldwater as much as Strom Thurmond who kept the south solid for Nixon at the 1968 Republican convention. He writes that Reagan passed the largest tax increase in the history of California but leaves out that Reagan then passed the largest tax cut in the history of the state.
Perlstein has a special antipathy for political leaders like Ronald Reagan, who deny what he calls the great American divide, who try to patch it over or even, God forbid, try to repair the divide. The Invisible Bridge is filled with loaded adjectives and cheap shots such as Reagan was ???a sullen little kid,??? ???in essence a divider??? not a uniter,??? ???a phony and a hustler,??? ???a former actor in B movies,??? ???a ludricous sham,??? ???diarrhea mouth,??? ???ill equipped for the real world,??? ???the Candidate from Disneyland,??? ???a dim figure.???
Ironically in Before the Storm Perlstein offers a perceptive analysis of Reagan???s famous TV address ???A Time for Choosing,??? writing that ???the language had the sweep of poetry.??? There are no such encomiums in The Invisible Bridge.
What enrages Perlstein is simple: Reagan insists on accentuating the positive and seeing America as an exceptional nation. Such a cult of optimism, Perlstein almost screams, papers over our differences, ignores our problems, even stifles dissent. We must, he says, struggle ???toward a more searching alternative to the shallowness of the flag-wavers.???
Such an solution ignores the uplifting rhetoric of the most successful presidents of the 20th century???Franklin D. Roosevelt and Reagan???as well as Barack Obama, who was elected on a promise of Hope and Change.
It was, after all, Reagan???s optimism that lifted the sagging spirit of Americans after Jimmy Carter???s malaise, Nixon???s Watergate and the U.S government???s lies about the Vietnam War and led them out of a profound psychological depression. Perlstein almost seems to be celebrating the divisions in our society and castigating those who seek to bring people together.
Perlstein has also been criticized and I believe rightly for a controversial innovation???the use of on-line sources rather than endnotes in the text. Although the author insists that the source notes are easily findable on the Internet I and others have not found this to be the case. Indeed in many cases the sources are invisible. For example:
Reagan ???intervened to have a black man arrested??? with whom his daughter Patti liked to chat (while she was at Northwestern) (543) No source.
Robert Bork ???had opposed outlawing racial segregation.??? (188) No source.
Jerry Ford ???wanted in 1964 to be Barry Goldwater???s running mate.??? (441) No source.
???Others [in his Des Moines radio days] thought him a ludicrous sham.??? (246) No source.
Writing in Open Letters Monthly, reviewer Steve Donoghue said that ???the only possible aim of an arrangement like this is to discourage the confirming of citations.??? I concur.
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley, who has written widely praised books about Reagan???s 1976 and 1980 presidential campaigns, has accused Perlstein of plagiarism, citing 45 times in which Perlstein uses information and passages from his book Reagan???s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All without proper attribution. Perlstein???s publisher Simon & Schuster denies the charges. A law suit looms.
Perlstein has discovered that heavy hangs the head that bears the mantle of Herodotus, the father of history. Perlstein is no Herodotus but an entertaining diligent writer who can spin a fast-paced narrative. I offer some advice: Write off The Invisible Bridge as a failed experiment in ideography and return to your first book Before the Storm when you had your ideology under control–most of the time–and were willing to reveal your sources openly. Otherwise, you might be consigned to the ash heap of histories like Edmund Morris.
Lee Edwards is a Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation. Among his many words are biographies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.