Friday, October 31, 2014

Seventies Presidents: Minus the Marble Togas

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein - some views from a reader at sea in the text.

I bought an electronic copy of Rick Perlstein's book, the third of his trilogy on Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan because I thought I could use a fast easy read or two to spell the relatively dense astrophysics textbooks I was working my way through. If it had occurred to me to check the hardcover page count (880 pages) I might have rethought the fast and easy part.

Perlstein is not mainly interested in telling a tale of competing ideologies, much less one of horse races, but rather of drawing a fully fleshed picture of the country, as the blurb puts it:

a dazzling portrait of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the tumultuous political and economic times of the 1970s.

Of course I was there in those years, present as an adult voting citizen, or at least as a graduate student who happened to be a military veteran. Military friends of mine were killed in Vietnam and others were bombed by Reagan at U C Berkeley. It's interesting, though, how much I had forgotten. One thing I had forgotten was the quantity of terrorism the country was subjected to at the time, almost all of it by American terrorists with American political objectives. Leftists targeting their latest crackpot targets, murdering an Oakland school official and a physics grad student among others. Racists blowing up Churches and schools. Soreheads of all political stripes targeting mostly innocent third parties.

Perlstein does not seem to be one of those historians who likes to glorify his Presidential subjects. Of course Nixon was well beyond his Presidential triumphs, such as they were, and working his way toward his paranoid crackup when the book opens, but he still comes off as a particularly contemptible human being. Ronald Reagan is central figure in the book, and Perlstein works pretty hard to find the man beneath the myth. It's not clear that he entirely succeeds, but Perlstein has a theory, and he makes a persuasive case.

Reagan came from a family just barely keeping it together. An alcoholic father and a mother who spent most of her energies outside the home, on her church work and her amateur theatrical career provided only minimally. In his earliest photographss, Reagan, claims Perlstein was always a lost looking outsider, the image of a bookish and nerdy outsider. At some point in his early teens, though (according to RC) there is a dramatic transformation in the pictures. He moves to center stage, shows a dominating presence and learns to present himself the better to show off his striking good looks. From that time on, he was always the hero of the personal drama he learned to construct about himself.

He had lots of friends but very few claimed to really know him. His children, perhaps especially, always felt like outsiders. His son Michael, for example, reported that when Reagan gave the graduation speech at his high school, Reagan shook his hand and introduced himself, seeming not to recognize him. His daughter claims that he concealed her mother's abusiveness, which apparently included regular beatings, and ordered her not to talk about them. All of his children seem to have tales of neglect or abuse and most have struggled to build lives of their own - something probably true of a lot of non-political Hollywood children as well.

His presidential rivals don't fare much better. Ford became perhaps unfairly famous for physical stumbles, but he is portrayed as not too bright and far from principled.

Jimmy Carter has spent much of his post-Presidential career running for the office of national saint, but Jimmy Carter the candidate gets the Perlstein treatment too. Behind the much practiced political smile was a mind both devious and when convenient, dishonest. Carter presented himself as a man who would be all things to all people, nuclear physicist, farmer, good old Southern boy and early advocate of black civil rights. In fact, he wasn't really quite any of these things - engineer rather than physicist, warehouseman rather than farmer, military officer more than good old boy, and a guy with a rather ambiguous record on civil rights.