I’ve been blogging about books for over half a decade. During that time, I hopefully I’ve learned a thing or two. Beyond a doubt, one of the things I’ve learned is it’s painfully hard for me for me to write about a book I truly enjoyed. Let’s face it, if it’s a book you hated or even didn’t care much for, your job is easy. You just write anything, not caring or feeling obligated in any way. But if it’s one of those rare books that grabbed you from the start and never let go, then you have a problem.
How then, can my review do any justice to Rick Perlstein’s outstanding 2014 book The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan? This 800-plus page book I found myself reading every spare moment. This is a book as deep as it is wide. While devouring it not once did I find myself bored or overwhelmed. I easily found it readable, fascinating, revealing and entertaining. Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is all things almost at once: a Reagan biography, an expose of the morally bankrupt Nixon administration, a detailed look at American politics in the years following the Vietnam War and lastly, a comprehensive survey of pertinent American social history. Since I’ve always felt outstanding books demand outstanding reviews, I’m not sure I’m up to the task to adequately reviewing The Invisible Bridge. But alas, I must. Therefore, I’m left with no other choice but to follow Jedi Master Yoda’s advice of “do not try, only do” and proceed.
I have the good people at Real Clear Books to thank for bringing this outstanding book to my attention. After following their posted link and reading the featured review, I was intrigued enough to put the book on my to be read list. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me so I placed a hold on the book with my public library. Once a copy became available I dived in. As you can guess Perlstein’s book did not disappoint.
Perlstein’s book spans the years, roughly speaking, from 1972 to 1976. Employing a kind of framing, The Invisible Bridge is bookended at the beginning with the release of American POWs in early 1973 and ends with the Republican Party political convention. Perlstein’s choice in doing so seems fitting not only because of the events’ significance, (one symbolizing the end to US military involvement in SE Asia and the other a restart of America’s political order in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate) but also how both events were utilized as political theater, since Nixon spent a year parading the former POWs around to bolster his sagging popularity.
While no small part of this book is a Reagan biography, Perlstein in no way ignores the other major personalities of this era. True to the book’s subtitle, Perlstein traces Nixon’s slow, painful implosion. Taking into account Nixon’s reckless demagoguery, morose nature and poor company that he kept (Google Spiro Agnew and G. Gordon Liddy sometime and you’ll see what I mean), in addition to his paranoia, antisemitic rants, drunkenness and deep-seated hatred of East Coast elites one wonders how in the world the man got elected not once but twice. Perlstein also recalls the brief administration of Gerald Ford , a man perhaps a bit forgotten to history. With his pro-choice, pro-ERA wife Betty as First Lady, it’s doubtful by today’s Republican Party standards he could win his party’s nomination.
The Democrat’s Jimmy Carter is here as well. Perlstein charts in detail his rise from obscurity to presidential nominee and all of it made for interesting reading. While liberals reading this book will relish in Reagan’s shortcomings like his messed up family, (Nancy sounds completely awful) his almost pathological pro-big business stance and the like, Carter also takes some hits. Even during is early days running as an anti-Washington, dark horse reform candidate he quickly earned a reputation for speaking out of both sides of his mouth. He also drew scrutiny for having a cozy relationship with segregationist George Wallace. Yes, tales of his “born again” experience might have won over many of America’s devout voters, leaving pundits and journalists intrigued. However, this conversion did not occur within the respectable confines of his local Baptist Church. Oddly enough, it was his sister, portrayed as Perlstein as a kind of religious eccentric who was instrumental in bringing about this spiritual re-awakening.
After reading The Invisible Bridge you get a pretty good idea just how seminal an era this was. As Watergate dominated the news a young Karl Rove enlisted Republican college students in supporting the beleaguered President Nixon. Although Ford’s time in the White House didn’t last very long, it nevertheless jumped started the careers of both Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Modern political fundraising through direct mail was also born. Watergate, the Church Commission on CIA abuses, New York City’s bankruptcy, and windfall profits made by Big Oil during the energy crises would all help erode America’s confidence in traditional institutions. The first 1970s energy crises, was the result of an Arab oil embargo protesting America’s support of Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Bloodied but emboldened from the war, several years later Egypt would make peace overtures to Israel. These first steps would lead to the Camp David Accords and with it Egypt’s separate peace with Israel. But Camp David did not resolve the Palestinian problem. And that problem is with us to this day.
Each year, in late December I post my list of the year’s best nonfiction. Right now the question isn’t whether The Invisible Bridge makes that list or not. The question is whether or not it ends up being my favorite book of 2015. Like I mentioned at the beginning, this is an outstanding book. Consider it highly recommended.