Perlstein offhandedly notes that Nixon had “proposed programs of such dubiously conservative provenance as wage and price controls, a guaranteed minimum income, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency,” yet also had been expert at “damping the ideological passions of his party’s right wing.” How did he maintain that balance? (And can someone let John Boehner in on the secret?) Perlstein also refers in passing to the “delirious” welcome Nixon received from millions of Egyptians on a visit to Cairo in 1974, after which he went on to almost as rapturous a reception in Jerusalem. Why was that, and doesn’t it seem a bit strange in view of America’s current unpopularity in the region? And isn’t it odd that Nixon, the realpolitik exponent of a foreign policy rooted in pragmatic recognition of the relative decline of American power, should be presented as an enabler of national innocence?
PERLSTEIN’S REAL focus, however, is on his main villain, Ronald Reagan, whose biography unfolds in flashbacks through the first half of the book. Perlstein brings considerable verve and originality to the oft-told tale of Reagan’s midwestern boyhood and college years, his radio and movie career, and his job as a pitchman for General Electric. His digressions through Reagan’s cultural influences (including Frank Merriwell novels and the Golden Age of Sports) and mentors (such as Hollywood’s Lew Wasserman and GE’s Lemuel Boulware) are fascinating.
But Perlstein’s portrait of Reagan is deeply unflattering. Reagan comes across as a near-lifelong fantasist: “An athlete of the imagination, a master at turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-hearted certainty.” Perlstein implies that Reagan lied about virtually every aspect of his life, consciously molding his past, his physical presentation and his persona in order to come across as a hero and leader to other people. (Not, of course, that Perlstein believes his subject was a truly principled hero, as he infers that Reagan was willing, as head of the Screen Actors Guild, to countenance corrupt insider deals for Wasserman and then to shave his political convictions to meet the business needs of Boulware’s GE.) As a politician, Reagan used his appeal to make his blithe optimism and innocence into America’s unofficial cult. Reagan promulgated “the belief that America could do no wrong. Or, to put it another way, that if America did it, it was by definition not wrong.” Reagan’s black-and-white moral certainties helped to put an end to the budding American Enlightenment of the 1960s and 1970s, “encouraging citizens to think like children, waiting for a man on horseback to rescue them: a tragedy.”
The book’s curious title comes from some cynical advice Nikita Khrushchev once gave Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” The core of Reagan’s appeal, in Perlstein’s view, was that he used his considerable political gifts to allow people to forget the traumas of the 1970s and recover their cherished myth of America as a blessed and exceptional nation.
Perlstein’s assessment of Reagan as a human being is ungenerous at best. He does make some perceptive points about Reagan’s preternatural awareness of the camera—the book’s stunning cover photo of him campaigning in his Illinois hometown, arms outstretched and poised dramatically on the bumpers of two cars, is ample testimony to that—and ably dissects Reagan’s rhetoric. But he has almost nothing to say about Reagan as a practitioner of politics. This lacuna is highlighted by Perlstein’s bizarre decision to devote no more than a few pages to Reagan’s eight years as governor of California, or more than a few paragraphs to his seminal 1966 election.
The result is that Perlstein fails to grapple with what made Reagan a successful conservative politician in a liberal state, who would use his broad appeal first to come close to toppling Ford in 1976 and then to win the presidency outright in 1980. Perlstein equates Reagan’s early 1960s conservatism with the paranoia of the John Birch Society, but makes little effort to figure out why Reagan was able to campaign as a big-tent Republican or govern as a pragmatist. Perlstein claims that Reagan’s goal was to purify the GOP by kicking out all who did not subscribe to rigid conservative principles, when in fact Reagan opposed this sort of ideological cleansing. Reagan told California’s conservative activists in 1967 that they had an obligation “not to further divide but to lead the way to unity. It is not your duty, responsibility or privilege to tear down or attempt to destroy others in the tent.” He warned that “a narrow sectarian party” would soon disappear “in a blaze of glorious defeat.” The conservatives would have booed anyone else off the stage for offering this diagnosis, but they obeyed Reagan.
It’s still a mystery why a governor who passed the largest tax increase in his state’s history, signed the nation’s most liberal abortion bill and no-fault divorce law, and supported gun control and pioneering environmental legislation could have remained a hero to the conservative movement. It would never happen nowadays, but Reagan somehow threaded the needle. It’s not enough to say, as Perlstein does, that Reagan was merely opportunistic or sought to blame his actions on the liberals in the California legislature, who were “furtive and diabolical in ways unsullied innocents could not comprehend.”
PERLSTEIN LOOSELY ties Reagan’s ascent to that of the New Right, a populist and antiestablishment political movement he outlines without defining and which he views as an entirely pernicious development in American history. He dolefully relates the growth of conservative evangelical churches, the creation of political action committees, the rise of activist organizations like the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council to supplement existing outfits like the American Conservative Union (ACU) and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), and protests against busing and abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. Ironically, however, Perlstein buys into conservatives’ triumphant accounts, written after Reagan’s 1980 presidential election, of the movement’s irresistible rise, internal harmony and exquisite coordination. In fact, few of the right-wing impulses of the 1970s cohered into a unified movement, and conservatism likely would have had limited national impact if not for the singular figure of Reagan.
Take, for example, the perspective of William Rusher, publisher of National Review and an important and well-respected liaison between the Old and New Right. In June 1975, he complained that he found it impossible to make contact with the leaders or institutions of the social conservatives:
Does anybody speak for these people? Is there anybody I can sit down and have a drink with, who has the slightest influence over them and their actions? We traditional or economic conservatives are, as you know, organized up to the eye teeth: in ACU, YAF, etc. But where on earth are the social conservatives?1
Nor were all of these developments working in Reagan’s favor in the mid-1970s. The incipient religious Right, for example, was drawn to Jimmy Carter in 1976 rather than to anyone on the Republican side. (Rusher thought Carter’s nomination “makes it likely . . . that the Democratic Party itself will turn out to be the vehicle of the anti-Establishment conservative-populist trend.”2) The conservative movement was hardly unified around Reagan, as many preferred younger or harder-edged potential candidates like John Ashbrook, James Buckley, Phil Crane and George Wallace. A lot of conservatives who supported Reagan’s challenge to Ford did so out of a sense of resignation; as Ashbrook put it, “Ron has always looked for easy answers and yet, he is the only one conservative at the present time who has national visibility.”3 And Reagan secured the presidency in 1980, despite his role in torpedoing Ford’s 1976 candidacy, precisely because he was the one conservative leader who was able to win over a majority of the GOP’s moderates.
FOR A WRITER who insists that respect for complexity is a moral virtue, Perlstein proffers a surprisingly simplistic analysis. Part of this stems from a lack of original archival research. Before the Storm was a splendidly researched book, but in this one he relies mainly upon newspaper clippings available online. Perlstein’s analysis is also weakened by his bogus dichotomy of sophisticates versus innocents and his insistence that American society was completely bifurcated into hostile opposing camps, an assertion that was no truer in the 1970s than it is now.
Other shortcomings in Perlstein’s analysis stem from the defects of his New Journalism style and his penchant for overstatement. It may be that Spiro Agnew was “that pathetic man a heartbeat away from the presidency,” or that “no one trusted much of anything” in the 1970s, or that the 1970s were “suspicious times. Or maybe not. America couldn’t decide.” These and a dozen other overgeneralizations may be true—but as they say in the writers’ workshops, “Show, don’t tell.”
And while New Journalism–influenced historians can borrow from the techniques of fiction, they have no business at all inventing history, as Perlstein does by giving us the thoughts of an imaginary audience at a Reagan speech on the Panama Canal: