TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Rick Perlstein has spent much of his career writing about modern American conservatism. After well-regarded books on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, Perlstein has written a new book about a turbulent three-year period in the mid-'70s when Ronald Reagan emerged as a national figure and nearly captured the Republican nomination from a sitting president. While we often think of the 1960s as a time of social upheaval, between 1973 and '76, Americans saw a president resign in disgrace, a calamitous end to the Vietnam War, long gas lines at service stations, the financial collapse of New York City, two presidential assassination attempts and the kidnapping of a publishing heiress by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Perlstein says Reagan spoke to Americans' anxieties with a simple message about America's inherent greatness and became the leader of a potent political movement.
Our interview with Rick Perlstein was recorded yesterday morning. Later in the day, The New York Times reported that Craig Shirley, author of previous biographies of Reagan, accused Perlstein of using passages from Shirley's 2004 book "Reagan's Revolution" without proper attribution. Shirley is a partner at Shirley and Banister Public Affairs, a marketing firm which represents conservative clients. Perlstein has replied that the accusations are baseless and ideologically motivated and points out that the Shirley's book is attributed over a hundred times in footnotes which are posted on Perlstein's website. Rick Perlstein's two previous books are called "Before the Storm," about Barry Goldwater, and "Nixonland." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan."
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Rick Perlstein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. This book covers a period in which there are some real body blows to American confidence. And we saw the Watergate scandal, which was long and drawn out and painful, and then the president resigns in disgrace. Not so long after that, the Vietnam War comes to end. Our allies in South Vietnam collapse. The U.S. Embassy is evacuated by a helicopter on the roof. But there was a lot of other stuff going on, too. I want to talk some of that, like the economy.
RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, in 1973, when the book begins with, you know, Richard Nixon looking to inherit kind of a triumphant second term, the economy actually is looking pretty decent. And suddenly, inflation is shooting through the roof. And the real trauma, actually, already is showing up kind of in May of that year. We have the kind of Memorial Day driving season, and people start talking about gas rationing. And the thing that's so shocking about that is no one heretofore had even really thought of gasoline as something that was a subject of shortages. I mean, it was like the air and the water. And, of course, it had been the foundation of the American way of life, our prosperity, our lifestyle. But suddenly, you start seeing these articles in which people are thinking about limiting the amount of fuel people can use in the Indianapolis 500. There's a debate in the letters page of The Los Angeles Times over whether the eternal flame at Arlington Cemetery at the grave of John F. Kennedy is a waste of fuel. And, of course, that drives some real economic trauma.
DAVIES: All right, so terrible economic problems - the city of New York goes broke.
PERLSTEIN: And not only that, but the garbage workers go on strike. So garbage is piling up in the streets. And people pile their garbage in the middle of the streets and start lighting it on fire. You have garbage bonfires in the greatest city in the world.
DAVIES: So it was a time when a lot of Americans began to wonder, gosh, are we who we thought we were?
PERLSTEIN: That's right.
DAVIES: Where was the Republican Party after Watergate?
PERLSTEIN: The Republican Party was in terrible straits. They had an internal pollster named Robert Teeter, who later became a Reagan pollster. And he came out with numbers that became public that showed that 18 percent of the public supported or identified with the Republican Party. And things kind of, again, got kind of absurd when the head of the RNC commissioned a series of TV programs that were meant to be fundraisers called "Republicans Are People Too." And it was supposed to be a three-part series - ordinary Americans, you know, explaining why they stuck with the Republicans. And the second one in the series, after they kind of, you know, put the address of the RNC up on the screen and said, you know, send in your donations to this wonderful organization, they raised $5,000. And so they just decided the heck with it and didn't even run the third episode.
DAVIES: Right, and in the congressional elections of 1974, there was sort of a housecleaning. A lot of new blood came in.
DAVIES: And yet, your book reminds us that it was in this period that a whole new, different kind of political movement began to emerge at the grassroots. You use the phrase, at one point, white, anti-liberal politics of rage. Give us an example or two of where we were seeing this.
PERLSTEIN: Well, let's give two examples. Both were introduced to the American public in the 1974 school year. A federal judge named Arthur Garrity announces that he is kind of completely rewiring the Boston school system to correct really egregious patterns of segregation. And one of the main tenets of the decision is that two schools, one an African-American school and one a white one in South Boston - or Southie, the incredibly tribal neighborhood in which kind of, people, as one Southie resident told the reporter, practice ancestor worship - they're going to be paired together. So basically, the sophomores from one school are going to go to the other, and the juniors from one school are going to go to the other.
DAVIES: And they're going to travel by bus. Bussing became a huge issue then.
PERLSTEIN: Yes. And the ironic thing is, of course, you know, kids travelled by bus to go to school all the time before the '70s without incident. But most - a lot of the time, they traveled by bus to go long distances in order to avoid attending integrated schools. So suddenly, judges are ordering them to attend buses to go on integrated schools. So this is kind of like bussing becomes this incredibly talismanic word. And in Boston it becomes the subject for literal running battles in the streets between street-toughs and the Boston police, many of them who are from South Boston, too. So that's pretty familiar. But a lot of people don't know about the same school year in Kanawha County, West Virginia. That is, basically, Charleston, West Virginia and kind of the surrounding, rural areas - kind of the hollers.
And the folks from the kind of rural areas- they're called the creekers as opposed to kind of the sophisticated, cosmopolitan urbanites, who are called the hillers - are very angry about a new set of language arts textbooks that the school board, kind of without controversy and barely with any discussion, institutes for the schools. And another phrase enters a lexicon - the Christian (inaudible) secular humanist textbooks. An example that they cite over and over again is that one of the discussion questions that teachers are supposed to talk to the children about is, after they read "Jack And The Beanstalk," whether Jack was right to break the law - whether it's ever OK to break the law. Or for example, when one of the books has the story of "Daniel In The Lion's Den" and then pairs it with a story from Greek mythology about a - a similar one about a lion. And by kind of placing these stories on the same plane as if they're kind of equally interesting myths rather than, as the fundamentalists consider Daniel, the revealed truth, people get so angry that, before long, they're dynamiting the school board building, which is interesting as a local story. But what makes it a kind of world historic story is that an upstart think tank based in Washington called The Heritage Foundation comes down and helps them organize and pairs them with other angry, white parents from around the country who are feeling the same alienation. And suddenly, there's this entire textbook-banning movement. And what you're seeing is very much the maturation of the organizations that, just a couple years later, by 1976, 1977, are called the New Right.
DAVIES: So we see these grassroots movements popping up in different places. How do they become an effective political movement? I mean, people began to emerge who did direct mail campaigns, for example.
PERLSTEIN: Sure. The figure, of course, whose name is most prominent here is Richard Viguerie, who also comes out of this early '60s Goldwater movement. But by the '70s, he's kind of doing a kind of land rush business for groups who are, to bring it back to Watergate, exploiting a loophole in the Watergate-era campaign finance laws. We now call them independent expenditure groups, groups that run political campaigns that are ostensibly not coordinated with political candidates and therefore, because of the Buckley versus Valeo decision, which is much in the news too, which basically says money equals speech and that you can't regulate campaign finance unless it's kind of voluntary on the part of the candidates, can raise as much money as possible for kind of issue campaigns.
And this guy Richard Viguerie becomes the master at writing these terrifying letters that go out to these mailing lists, many of them dating back to the Goldwater campaign, saying things like, liberals are teaching your children that cannibalism and wife-swapping is acceptable activity. Now, I could go into the details of where that comes from, but again, it's kind of a little bit in the weeds. But it comes from another one of these textbook fights. And they're raising just tons and tons of money by scaring the pants off of people. And the money is going to groups like The Heritage foundation. The money is going, when Ronald Reagan begins to run this primary campaign, into independent ads from these groups on behalf of Ronald Reagan. And again, this is something that completely blindsides the establishment such that, after Ronald Reagan wins the North Carolina primary with kind of the sub rows of help of Jesse Helms, who has his own kind of independent political organization, I quote this astonishing memo from the Ford administration saying, we're being organized by a bunch of right-wing nuts.
DAVIES: This is the Republican establishment using the phrase right-wing nuts.
PERLSTEIN: That's right.
DAVIES: Now, you know, today, we're used to the notion that very wealthy donors will spend a lot of money backing both conservative and liberal political committees that do a lot of independent expenditures in campaigns and issue ads. Was that happening in the mid-'70s too? Were there powerful financial interests behind this?
PERLSTEIN: Well, of course, the right-wing independent spending was - is much bigger now and it was much bigger then. Groups like the, you know, the Sierra Club and things like that were involved too. And the name who was most prominent is Morris Dees on the left, who's now the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center. But, you know, this isn't just kind of grandmothers sending $20 from their Social Security checks. I mean, Reagan is able to win the Texas primary partially because Gerald Ford bites into a tamale without shucking the corn husk off. And everyone kind of laughs at him 'cause that's Gerald Ford, right?- but also because a rich banker gives the campaign a $100,000 unsecured loan. You have massive amounts of money going to the conservative movement from the names that are now familiar with us - to us - Richard Mellon Scaife, people like that.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Rick Perlstein. His new book is "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian Rick Perlstein. His new book is "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan."
So we've talked about this turbulent period between Watergate in 1976 that you write about. Let's talk a little bit about Regan and what he brings to this. First of all, tell us about him as a young man and you know, what kind of guy he became.
PERLSTEIN: Well, it was a terribly chaotic childhood. His dad was an alcoholic. He moved the family constantly whenever he'd kind of, lose a job. They never owned a home, they always rented. And even when he kind of settled down in what is kind of inaccurately and nostalgically called his hometown, Dixon, Illinois, he still kind of moved from house to house to house. And his mother was this kind of inveterate do-gooder who was always off, kind of, doing good. In fact, she was so kind of, trusted in the community as a do-gooder, that they would release prisoners to her custody and the prisoners would kind of stay in the family's sewing room. Now, the irony of that is while prisoners are living in the kind of, the parlor, Reagan and his brother are sleeping two to a bed.
DAVIES: And somehow out of that, he comes out with this sort of incredibly optimistic sort of sense of himself. He reads books about, kind of, poor kids who overcome hardship and through a moment of grace achieve great things. And he just carries that right through his career.
PERLSTEIN: Right. Tarzan, the you know, the kind of outsiders who are kind of apart from their surroundings but kind of rise above their surroundings. So you have, you know, Tarzan of the apes. You have a Horatio Alger books. And they become these kind of superhuman kind of rescuers. And you can kind of almost see his mind kind of casting himself in that role. And you know, he always returns to that when he does interviews. And the other source for that is these sports heroes. The 1920s is the golden age of sports, and guys like Jack Dempsey are treated like they're gods, you know, also from modest circumstances. You know, Babe Ruth grows up in an orphanage.
Now, my evidence of how deeply this was sedimented in his soul; kind of two pieces of evidence that show kind of a straight shot into his subconscious. One is when he was - there was an assassination attempt against him in 1981 and the first thing he says after coming to, to his wife Nancy is, honey I forgot to duck. Well, honey I forgot to duck is what Jack Dempsey told his wife when he was beaten for the first time at Yankee Stadium before like, 90,000 people.
DAVIES: Jack Dempsey the great professional boxer. Yeah.
PERLSTEIN: Yes. The other, it comes from a Ron Reagan - you know, Ronald Reagan's son - his memoir. And he says, when they were losing his father to Alzheimer's and dementia he would kind of wake up in the middle of the night and kind of go into delirious rants about how they needed him. And it wasn't that they needed him at the lot at Warner Bros. or they, you know, needed him in the White House situation room. It was that the guys in the locker room needed him; that the football team needed him.
So this kind of narrative of, kind of simple heroics, really was how he kind of rescued himself from these circumstance and kind of formed his conception of his own role in the world.
DAVIES: He goes to Eureka College, becomes a sportscaster. And there's a lovely story in the book about how he gets to Hollywood and gets his first screen test, has kind of an OK movie career but eventually makes his way into politics. And it's interesting that you write that, in California when he seizes on launching a political career, he attaches himself to the issue of student protests. And a lot of his advisers said, don't bother; that issue doesn't play. What did Reagan see that his advisers didn't?
PERLSTEIN: Well, his advisers had polling that said no one was mentioning Berkeley, that the protests at Berkeley that you know, later became the new left, as an issue that they cared about. And he said, you know, I don't care. Whenever I give a speech and someone from the audience just asks a question about it, there's a standing ovation.
And what he understood was, he could take the temperature of an audience. This was an extraordinary gift for emotional intelligence to understand people's deeper longings you know, at a level kind of deeper than politics. And people who can do that can create political issues. You know, they can kind of mold the terrain in their own image. So he told them to shut up, he was going to do what he wanted to do, which is ironic because liberals always kind of claim - especially in that campaign - that he's kind of a creature of his handlers. And that was his main issue, the idea that privileged kids were kind of rejecting the wrong privilege. And his line was to kids at Berkeley, respect the rules or get out. And that was just a huge message and that was something that Richard Nixon got from him and wrote to the White House.
DAVIES: So he becomes governor of California, stays there until he finally leaves in the mid-'70s to essentially launch a campaign for the White House.
PERLSTEIN: Right. But there's kind of an intervening moment in which he basically makes a living giving speeches, writing columns or ghostwriting columns. But also more importantly, becoming a radio personality. And so he becomes a radio preacher almost. He delivers these kind of five-minute speeches, which I kind of call homilies and I say that what he was kind of preaching was a liturgy of absolution. And, after the Vietnam War ends and South Vietnam falls and Americans are evacuated from the roof of the embassy compound in South Vietnam in the most humiliating possible way and mainstream newspapers are talking about the crimes America committed in Vietnam, what can Ronald Reagan possibly do to make this look like a noble cause? Well, he tells this absolutely astonishing story. He tells a story about the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier, rescuing widows and orphans who were kind of fleeing Vietnam on tiny little boats. And it's almost like he's reciting a roll call of biblical miracles. He says that someone with a double pneumonia was cured, that you know, sailors were giving kids the shirts off their backs. It's this really inspiring story. And he says, this is the kind of thing you don't hear because the media is hiding it from you.
Well, if you listen to Ronald Reagan on the radio, you would think the entire function of the USS Midway in Southeast Asia, you know, between 1964 and 1965 was rescuing widows and orphans. You know, not serving as a platform for bombing raids, you know, that were strafing you know, heavily populated civilian areas in North Vietnam. That was Reaganism to a T.
DAVIES: You tracked down these recordings. He did a daily commentary...
PERLSTEIN: Five days a week. Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah, and you found, well, some questions about the accuracy of the material.
PERLSTEIN: I say that Ronald Reagan could not survive the age of Google. Of course, I'm sitting there in the Hoover Institute where these things repose at Stanford you know, at the Hoover Library. And I'm sitting there of course, with my laptop open. And he's telling a story about out-of-control federal bureaucrats and how they even want a tourist paddle wheeler - that kind of plies the Mississippi River - to get the same kind of fire insurance that commercial ships have, even though this paddle wheeler is this ancient - not a real ship, right? And he says, it's not even had a fire in its entire existence. And all I had to do was Google the name of it and go on Google newspapers and find out that it had had a fire you know, two years before he spoke, right? He found kind of moral truths in the stories that he told. And, you know, a people discovered when he was president, they often didn't withstand scrutiny. But as they also discovered when he was president, it was always hard to make this criticism of the Reagan stick. They called him the Teflon president. And his ability to kind of make people feel good, to kind of preach this liturgy of absolution in which Americans were noble and pure and could absolve themselves of the responsibility with reckoning with alleged sins in America's past. That was, to me, the soul of his appeal.
GROSS: Rick Perlstein will continue his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Perlstein's new book is called "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan."
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Rick Perlstein, author of "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan." It's his third book about the history of the American conservative movement. When we left off, they were talking about how Reagan's optimistic view of America tapped into a growing, conservative discontent, not only with liberalism, but with the leadership of the Republican Party.
DAVIES: So this kind of growing, grassroots movement of people who felt that liberal elites were managing their lives and messing things up - I mean, to them, Reagan said, America is strong and proud. And it will work. It can work again. Believe in ourselves. Limit government, and things will be great. Now, this happens in the '70s as Gerald Ford is President. He had become president. He had been a congressman from Michigan and became president when Richard Nixon resigned after Watergate. And he was going to be running for reelection in 1976. How did Reagan manage to mount a credible challenge to an incumbent president?
PERLSTEIN: It's an astonishing story because he almost won. He really be - came within a hair's breadth of winning. And that hadn't happened to a sitting president, losing his party's nomination, since Chester A. Arthur. And, you know, it didn't start very promising. After a couple primaries, he had lost so badly that his kind of - even his friends were telling him that it was time to quit. The way he turned things around was with - really, you could almost argue, a single issue. Well, first of all, he was deploying this kind of underground network that I talked about - you know, run by Richard Viguerie and Jesse Helms. But as far as issues, he was very good at exploiting the fact that Gerald Ford, who was a very conservative person - I mean, he got, like, a zero from the Americans for Democratic Action, I think, one year - that he had to govern. And one of the things he had to do, governing kind of America's role in the world, was renegotiate this absolutely terrible, imperialist treaty by which we built the Panama Canal in 1904. You know, basically, we invented our own country, Panama, by kind of handing the keys to a bunch of, you know, kind of kleptocrats, you know, who gave us the right to build this canal. And it was still in effect. And all through the '60s and '70s, people were rioting in Panama, in the canal zone, in protest of these arrogant Americans. It just - diplomatically, this kind of had to happen because we were living in the modern world. It wasn't 1904 anymore. And so Ford and Kissinger, kind of behind-the-scenes, begin negotiating this treaty. And first, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond raise this as an issue.
DAVIES: Conservative, southern senators, yeah.
PERLSTEIN: Yes, that's right, conservative, southern senators. And Strom Thurmond comes up with this formulation. We paid for it. We built it. It's ours. Ronald Reagan picks this up in the North Carolina primary kind of out of the blue - this issue in which basically, after Vietnam, this idea that we're kind of selling America off piece by piece. That this glory of American ingenuity and engineering that people kind of learned in their school books and almost as a schoolboy hero - you know, a schoolboy, kind of heroic story...You know, Teddy Roosevelt speaking softly and carrying a big stick. They didn't mention the gunboats that he sent down. This resonates with people. It really, really, really resonates. And I think, again, it completely blindsides Ford. It certainly blindsides Kissinger. It turns Henry Kissinger into a - you know, basically this guy who was really atop the world. He was probably the most popular figure in American politics then. He was the peacemaker - turning him into a villain who, basically, was apologizing for America, to use a phrase that's very familiar, and giving away the Panama Canal to a tinpot dictator who was threatening us. He was threatening us. He was saying, if you don't do this, there will be more riots.
DAVIES: And so Reagan's movement grows. He does well in primaries. He does well in caucuses. You know, the 1976 Republican Convention is a remarkable thing. And I had forgotten this. You know, we're so used to thinking of presidential conventions as being these...
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, these media-managed kind of deals in which there's no real controversy. Nothing's really decided. But that was not true in 1976 in Kansas City, right?
PERLSTEIN: Yeah. Reading the transcripts of, you know, Bob Dole with the gavel, trying to get the audience to shut up when they're screaming at each other - I mean, there's something called - what Time calls the battle of the queens, you know, Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan. Nancy Reagan would enter the hall, and the Reagan people would scream. And they would just basically, you know, stop the proceedings. And the band would play "America The Beautiful" to try to get them to shut up. And the Reagans people would play these air horns. And you couldn't hear anything. And then, Betty Ford would come in, and the same thing would happen on the Ford side. And then, a Reagan delegate from Utah, a minister, you know, kind of walks through the New York delegation with a Reagan sign. And Nelson Rockefeller, the vice president of the United States, takes the sign and tears it in half. And then, one of the angry Reagan people tears the New York delegation's phone out of the floor. The thing erupts into chaos.
DAVIES: There was a fascinating moment, though, where Ford, as the convention ends - and this had been a bitterly contested fight, and Ford had nothing but contempt for Reagan. Reagan's in the hall, and Ford appears to call him to the podium.
PERLSTEIN: That's right.
DAVIES: And Reagan, appearing to know nothing about it...
PERLSTEIN: And Reagan shrugs his shoulders, right, and says, oh, no, no, no, Gerry; this is your moment. And he's stuck way in the rafters because the convention planners have kind of stuck him way in the rafters - 'cause, of course, they're Ford people. And finally, reluctantly, you know, the reluctant profit, he kind of makes his way to the stage with Nancy, you know, and seems to give this spontaneous address, which is an absolutely stunning speech. People in the audience - and you can see this on YouTube, too - are crying. It really looks like they're in church. They're holding hands. And once again, the same thing happened in 1964 when he gave his speech for Barry Goldwater that wasn't on TV. People are like, this guy should have been the candidate.
DAVIES: So Reagan, apparently, as he's walking from the rafters now, in response to this spontaneous call that he speak at the convention at which he has lost the nomination, says to an aide, well, what am I going to talk about? And he kind of comes up with this beautiful story about a time capsule...
PERLSTEIN: I've got to give away the ending, right? It's the legend. The legend is that Ronald Reagan - it's still kind of related in kind of hagiographic histories of Ronald Reagan - the conservatives love to publish that this thing was all spontaneous. But this very irascible Republican operative named Victor Gold wrote a book in 1977 about behind-the-scenes politics. And he's like, nonsense. This whole thing was worked out, you know, in advance. And there were very careful negotiations. So it kind of, like, you know - the book ends with Ronald Reagan, you know, crossing that invisible bridge, to use my phraseology, and completely dazzling the public with another brilliant performance that doesn't quite stand scrutiny. But his fans don't care. His critics shout at the top of his lungs that he's a phony and don't get any traction. And, you know, dot dot dot.
DAVIES: Off he goes. We're speaking with Rick Perlstein. His book is "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with historian Rick Perlstein. He has another in his series of volumes about the growth of American conservatism. This one is "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan."
You know, you - in your previous book, "Nixonland," you write about how Nixon was in some respects sort of the, kind of the father of the polarizing, kind of, divide that we have today. And as I read it, I mean, it's sort of like Nixon seized upon that as a way of kind of creating a permanent Republican majority in his second term so he could really get things done. Almost as a matter of political expediency, there were divides in the nations that could be exploited. How do you see Reagan's motivation?
PERLSTEIN: Right. I mean, what I'm doing kind of - so I have three books so far - it's a bit of a dialectic, I'm kind of layering the story about how the right came about. You know, the Goldwater story is mainly about how this political infrastructure was built, how this kind of grassroots army came together. You know, the Nixon story is kind of how the Republicans were able to kind of exploit this politics of resentment and backlash against liberalism. And when you layer Reagan into the story, you know, the resentment is still there - he certainly had it - but he kind of admixes this kind of ration of optimism. And made the conservative appeal into one that was much less dark, much more attractive, much more positive. I mean, later in the story, you know, he's able to adopt supply-side economics. And it's kind of a story of the loaves and fishes. It's like, we can have prosperity without sacrificing. We can have prosperity by lowering taxes. In fact, we can have more tax revenue if we lower people's taxes. Which, you know, it's almost like a fairytale, right?
And once you kind of have those three pieces in place, you have basically a political juggernaut and you have liberalism on the ropes.
DAVIES: And did Reagan believe what he was saying?
PERLSTEIN: Yes. Yes. He was not a cynical person. And he was also a brilliant person. You know, my liberal friends love to dismiss Reagan. You know, they'll say something like, oh didn't he like, only read one-page memos when he was in the White House?
Well, that's just good managerial practice. I mean, Franklin Roosevelt made people write one-page memos. Everyone on the left has a favorite story that allows them to kind of excuse Reagan, explain away Reagan, say he was dumb, but unless we reckon with that kind of emotional intelligence and his ability to kind of speak to the aspirations of the American people, the less liberals are going to be able to understand the soul of his appeal.
DAVIES: You and I spoke in 2008 when you published your last book, "Nixonland." And at the end of the interview - we'd been talking about some of the stuff that the Nixon White House had done, dirty tricks in the 1972 presidential campaign...
PERLSTEIN: Say it ain't so, Dave.
DAVIES: ...It's true. And at the end of the interview, I asked you if you thought the lessons of Nixon's career were particularly relevant today - then in May of 2008 - and you said, actually, increasingly less relevant. And you cited a special election in which an appeal to kind of bitter partisan resentments actually didn't work. And you thought, well, maybe things are - maybe the ground is shifting.
PERLSTEIN: That's funny. I became one of those pundits I love to (unintelligible).
>>DAVIES (Laughing) Yes.
PERLSTEIN: They're always declaring the end of conservative populism. There's this amazing column from Joseph Kraft, one of the mandarins (ph) of the day, who looks at the results from the 1974 Democratic election. It says Reaganism - the primary election - it says, Reaganism is dead in California. You know, conservative populism is on the run everywhere.
You know, you heard that in 2008; I guess I made the mistake of saying it. You heard it - then you had the tea party, right, in 2010. You heard it you know, just a couple months ago. People said, oh, well the conservative - the republican establishment - is taking over from the tea party. And then, kind of, Eric Cantor gets knocked down from his perch.
I guess you know, the moral of the story from my perspective is - these kind of conflicts between, kind of, the insurgent energies of people who find kind of cosmopolitan liberalism a threat to their sense of them self and the cosmopolitans who would like to kind of govern from the top down, is about as permanent a feature as we can have in America. You know, you could even say that the kind of red-blue divisions I'm talking about you know, date back to the Constitutional Convention where they were papered over by you know, giving the slave states two seats each in the Senate, even if they were smaller than the states in the North. I mean, certainly we fought a civil war over this.
DAVIES: This is a lengthy book, as was your last one. And I have to say, part of the fun of reading this is, this is an era that I lived through. And I'm constantly running across stuff that I didn't know or had forgotten; these amazing kind of facts that you find, not just about politics - movies, sports, you know, just - events. And I know that you've spent a lot of time doing research, looking at newspaper and media accounts of the day and find stuff that we didn't know or had forgotten. And I wonder, as you do this and as you come across these hundreds, thousands of facts, do they change your perception of the big picture? Of the overall trends that you're writing about?
PERLSTEIN: Sure. I mean, I didn't know going into this research that Ronald Reagan, every time Watergate was mentioned, would dismiss it and say it wasn't a problem, you know? I didn't know that he you know, called the Watergate burglars not criminals at heart and that it was a shame that they had to go to jail.
But you know, eventually it just kind of became part of my thesis that even when pundits were saying - in fact, there was an Evans and Novak column I quote - saying well, until Ronald Reagan breaks with Richard Nixon - and this is of the summer of 1974 -you can't possibly have a political future.
I realized, no, his ability to kind of - again - kind of preach this liturgy of absolution in the midst of moral chaos was not a bug to his political appeal, but was the soul of his political appeal.
DAVIES: You also write about cultural stuff. For example, I mean, as this movement towards kind of embracing an America that is pure and blameless gathers momentum. There's a big nostalgia trend in movies and popular culture.
PERLSTEIN: Yes, and it's easy to see in the case of a surprise hit from 1973, "American Graffiti," which is literally about 1962. It's kind of like the time before the '60s hit and the movie poster says, Where Were You In 1962? It kind invites viewers imaginatively to go back to this more innocent time. And in fact they - at the end they update the characters trajectory, and one kind of dies in Vietnam, right?
But even more so, in a movie that was just a colossal hit early in 1974 - "The Exorcist," right? Think of Patty Hearst, think of all these young girls who are almost kind of having their, kind of, souls kind of infiltrated by demonic forces.
DAVIES: And I think for younger listeners, we've got to explain who Patty Hearst was. This was another amazing thing from this period.
PERLSTEIN: This sweet, innocent heiress. The daughter of the publisher the San Francisco Examiner and the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, who was inspiration for "Citizen Kane." She is kind of innocently going about her business, going to college in Berkeley. And she's kidnapped by this - basically a gang of left-wing terrorists, whose kind of claim to fame was shooting the superintendent of the Oakland schools - a black superintendent - for daring to institute identity cards, voluntary identity cards for students, which they say is fascist.
They kidnap this heiress, which is shocking enough. They demand
Seventy-five dollars in free grocery for everyone on welfare, who's ever been on welfare in California, which is shocking enough. But yet more shocking, about a month later, you hear the voice of Patty Hearst on the radio announcing that she's joined the group and that she considers her parents, you know, fascist, imperialist and - so again, her consciousness has kind of been colonized by evil, by demonic forces. You know, kind of much like the young girl at the center of the "The Exorcist" is kind of infiltrated by literal demonic forces. And the plot of "The Exorcist" of course, turns on this very old fashion rite of exorcism, which the kind of skeptical priest, a member of the suspicious circles, who goes to, kind of, singles bars and is a psychologist, is skeptical about and questioning his faith. But the old priest is able to kind of drive out the demon. And the last scene of the movie is absolutely stunning. Because basically, the little girl and her mother are wearing clothes that kind of look like Jackie Kennedy in 1962. And you kind of realize that what he has exorcised is not only the devil, but kind of the '60s itself. And the '60s kind of inhabiting our daughters was what was really scary and what made this movie such a huge hit. And the idea that old-fashioned, traditional folkways and mores and rights could kind of drive the demons from our shores, was ultimately what that movie was about.
DAVIES: Rick Perlstein, thanks so much.
PERLSTEIN: Thank you, David. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Rick Perlstein spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies who is also senior reporter at WHYY.
Perlstein's new book is called "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new collection of recordings by L.C. Cooke produced by his older brother, Sam Cooke.
This is FRESH AIR.
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