News becomes history in a second. That's one of the reasons history stays alive — people will always discuss the past as long as there's something to disagree about, and there's always something to disagree about. "A fog of crosscutting motives and narratives," writes Rick Perlstein, "a complexity that defies storybook simplicity: that is usually the way history happens." Beyond the names and dates, history never offers any easy answers. It doesn't even offer easy questions.
It takes something like a miracle worker to synthesize history — especially recent history — in a way that's coherent, intelligent and compelling. That's what Rick Perlstein did in his two previous books, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, and that's what he does in The Invisible Bridge, his best work yet.
Perlstein's latest is the third in a series of books about the modern American conservative movement (or, more accurately, movements), but it would be inadequate to describe it simply as the history of an ideology. He's written something like a national biography, a deep exploration of both the politics and the culture of the late 20th century.
The Invisible Bridge covers the years between 1973 and 1976, from the first whispers of the Watergate scandal to Gerald Ford beating out Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Perlstein's narrative of Nixon's downfall is devastating — Watergate, he writes, was "a battle over the meaning of America" that would forever change the way citizens of the U.S. looked at their government.
Perlstein clearly has no love for Nixon, but his assessments of the other major political figures of the era aren't much kinder. He depicts Gerald Ford as an ideological twin of Nixon, in well over his head; Jimmy Carter as a man of "overwhelming" arrogance who "got away with lies"; and George Wallace as an intolerant blowhard. (It's rather hard, of course, to argue with the last one.)
As for Reagan, Perlstein argues that the former actor was dissembling, dishonest and as divisive in his own way as Nixon. But, he adds, "understanding the precise ways that opinions about [Reagan] divided Americans ... better helps us understand our political order of battle today: how Americans divide themselves from each other." He is fascinated by Reagan's "cult of optimism" where everything "would work out in the end, gloriously."
Perlstein does an admirable job recounting the political stories of the era, but it's his keen understanding of larger social and cultural trends that make the books in his series so essential. "The 1970s were throwing up so many new ways for Americans to disagree," he writes, in an almost certainly intentional understatement. The three years covered in the book brought America not just Watergate, but the violent Boston busing crisis, the abduction of Patty Hearst, and scores of murders, bombings and terrorist acts. Citizens began to feel that their country had lost its collective mind: "The sane were a fragile coalition," as Perlstein has it.
The decade also brought a darkening of the American mood — Perlstein notes that the feel-good nostalgia comedy American Graffiti gave way at the box office to The Exorcist, still one of the darkest films ever to become a national smash hit. It was this suddenly cynical culture that Reagan railed against, though unsuccessfully (at least in 1976).
Perlstein weaves all of these narratives — the political, the social and the cultural — into one fascinating, gripping story. The Invisible Bridge, like its two predecessors, reads like a well-paced novel — he creates an expertly done sense of suspense and tension, even though most people already know how the story turns out. (If you don't, then, well, spoiler alert for everything above.)
But it's not what happened to Nixon and Reagan that's so interesting, it's how and why it happened, and what that means. And Perlstein makes his case convincingly, with skepticism, caustic wit and a unique voice. The Invisible Bridge covers three years in 800 pages, but somehow, you don't want it to end. As a single volume, it's one of the most remarkable literary achievements of the year. As the third book in a series, it makes clear that Perlstein, like Robert A. Caro and H.W. Brands, is one of the most impressive, accomplished writers of history in the country.