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Watergate’s most lasting sin: Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and the pardon that made us all cynics

Rick Perlstein

Salon.com   September 8, 2014

Ronald Reagan, left, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, far right, pose with George Bush in the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in 1990. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma) (Credit: Associated Press)

Ronald Reagan, left, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, far right, pose with George Bush in the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in 1990. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma) (Credit: Associated Press)

When you’ve published a book about Watergate, your phone rings off the hook in the days leading up to Aug. 9, 2014, the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation. But my phone’s been quiet this week — even though the event that took place almost exactly one month later, on Sept. 8, 1974, is the one that really changed the world. It’s still changing the world 40 years later.

Gerald Ford had announced upon acceding to the highest office in the land, “Our Constitution works; our great republic is a government of laws and not men. Here the people rule.” For the sentiment, he reaped a harvest of gratitude. The very existence of this new presidency, everyone said, proved that “the system worked.”

Then, four Sundays later, 11:05 a.m., when many Americans would have, like Ford, just returned from church — in the mood, he hoped, for mercy — Ford proceeded to read, then sign, a proclamation announcing that pursuant to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, he was granting “a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, committed or may have committed or taken part in during the period from January 20 through August 9, 1974.”

It was an enormously unpopular act. Ford’s approval rating declined from 71 to 49 percent, the most precipitous in history. This pardon was proof, the people said, that the system didn’t work — America was still crooked. Suspicions were widespread that it was the fruit of a dirty deal between Nixon and Ford: the presidency in exchange for the pardon. “The son of a bitch pardoned the son of a bitch,” was how Carl Bernstein broke the news Bob Woodward on the phone.

Since then, judgment on the pardon has reversed 180 degrees. First Woodward, then Bernstein, came to conclude there had been no deal, and that this was instead an extraordinarily noble act: Ford “realized intuitively that the country had to get beyond Nixon.” After Ford died in 2006, Peggy Noonan went even further. She said Ford “threw himself on a grenade to protect the country from shame.”

They’re wrong. For political elites took away a dangerous lesson from the Ford pardon — our true shame: All it takes is the incantation of magic words like “stability” and “confidence” and “consensus” in order to inure yourself from accountability for just about any malfeasance

In 1975 the Senate and House empaneled committees to investigate the CIA, FBI and, later, the NSA after it was discovered these agencies had operated unethically and illegally. The House committee, under Rep. Otis Pike, who died last year in obscurity, discovered not merely that the CIA was out of control, but that it was incompetent — for instance, predicting Mideast peace the week before the Yom Kippur War broke out. Frank Church’s Senate committee, meanwhile, proved the NSA was illegally gathering the telegraph traffic of American citizens, without even top executives of the telegraph companies being aware of it.

But, in the spirit of the Nixon pardon, the idea of holding elite institutions to reckoning had fallen out of favor. At the height of the intelligence investigations Washington Post’s publisher Katharine Graham complained of the media’s tendency to “see a conspiracy and cover-up in everything.” Sen. J. William Fulbright said “these are not the kind of truths we need most right now,” that the nation demanded “restored stability and confidence” instead. The CIA had no trouble promptly drumming up a disingenuous propaganda campaign that all but neutered reform. And, 39 years later, these institutions are still largely broken, and still almost entirely unaccountable.

Follow the thread a little more than a decade later. Ronald Reagan’s administration contravened law and its own solemn pledges by selling hundreds of thousands of missiles to Iran in an attempt to free hostages held in Lebanon. The president’s own diaries revealed that he approved the action; he lied about that in a press conference. The deal didn’t even work; Hezbollah just took more hostages. Then profits were diverted to the Nicaraguan Contras in direct violation of congressional statute. But instead of a Watergate-style Senate investigation (the one in 1973 heard witnesses live on TV for over five months and produced 26 volumes of reports), Iran-Contra was investigated by a panel convened by Reagan himself and led by a political ally, Sen. John Tower; at subsequent congressional hearings, deliberately limited in scope, the star witness, Oliver North, testifying under immunity, bragged of destroying thousands of pages of evidence.

Six administration officials, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, were indicted by a special prosecutor. But one month before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush — who did not testify in congressional hearings about his own involvement in the affair as vice president, because the Democratic chairman, Sen. Daniel Inouye, wished to spare him embarrassment — pardoned them all.

Just like 40 years ago today, a longing for consensus over messy conflict, for elite comity instead of accountability, “stability and confidence” instead of justice, trumped all.

Meanwhile, the congressional minority report on Iran-Contra, drafted by then-Rep. Richard Cheney, all but rejected the very notion of congressional oversight over the executive branch — and Cheney, as George W. Bush’s vice president, literally took Iran-Contra as the subject for a “lessons learned” workshop on how to put such a foreign policy into practice.

Note, of course, that Cheney had once been top deputy in Gerald Ford’s White House. The Nixon pardon had to have been a lesson learned for him, too — future administrations would let the Bush administration get away with things like illegally spying on Americans, and starting a war on false pretenses, scot-free. And he was right: Following his 2008 election, President Obama announced “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”

Comity over accountability. Denialism instead of risking national “shame.” In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library awarded Ford its Profile in Courage award for the pardon decision. But the idea that “too big to fail” institutions are too fragile to handle honest reckoning with the truth is not courage. It is civic cowardice. Better, much better, that we keep the faith: that our Constitution can work, that our great republic is a government of laws and not men, and that here, the people rule.

Rick Perlstein is the author of “The Invisible Bridge,” “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America” and “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”

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Credit Photograph by David Hume Kennerly/White House via AP

Credit Photograph by David Hume Kennerly/White House via AP

 

Obama and the Fall of Saigon

By

The New Yorker    September 10, 2014

Almost forty years ago, in April of 1975, as the North Vietnamese Army was sweeping through South Vietnam toward Saigon, President Gerald Ford addressed a joint session of Congress. He asked for seven hundred and twenty-two million dollars in emergency military assistance for the government of South Vietnam. He invoked the dire risk faced by tens of thousands of South Vietnamese, including those affiliated with the United States. In “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s gripping new documentary about the fall of South Vietnam and the chaotic U.S. evacuation, Henry Kissinger, who was the Secretary of State, says of Ford, “He had two major concerns. The first was to save as many people as we could. He cared for the human beings involved—that they were not just pawns and, once they had lost their military power, they were abandoned. The second was the honor of America—that we would not be seen at the final agony of South Vietnam as having stabbed it in the back.”

It’s a little jarring to hear Kissinger distance himself on moral grounds from using human beings as pawns. His and Richard Nixon’s policy in Southeast Asia amounted to little more than that: sacrificing untold hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians, as well as thousands of American troops, to bloodless terms like “credibility,” “strategic realignment,” and “peace with honor.” But Kissinger’s account of American efforts during the fall of South Vietnam is accurate: in Washington and in Saigon, officials went to great, though tragically belated, lengths to rescue those Vietnamese associated with the governments of South Vietnam and the United States. “Last Days in Vietnam” will unsettle many of your fixed ideas about the end of the war. (For example, the film raises the possibility that, had Nixon not resigned over Watergate, nine months before the fall of Saigon, the North Vietnamese wouldn’t have invaded the South so readily, because they regarded Nixon as a madman capable of anything.)

In the long view of history, the war was unwinnable. As Neil Sheehan’s masterpiece “A Bright Shining Lie” shows, it was a war of Vietnamese nationalism, and the French and American interventions were seen by most Vietnamese as last stands of colonialism rather than as Cold War imperatives. By that April, two years after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords and the withdrawal of the last American combat forces, most people back home didn’t want to hear the name of the country where, in twelve years, almost sixty thousand U.S. troops had died. Congress, reflecting that exhaustion, voted down Ford’s emergency request (which would only have postponed defeat). Hearing the news, the mild-mannered President cursed, “The sons of bitches!” The fall of Saigon was just days away.

“Last Days in Vietnam” is full of dramatic tales illustrated by vivid archival footage. With no space for a landing, a South Vietnamese pilot drops his family out of his transport helicopter, onto the deck of an offshore American Navy vessel, then dives into the South China Sea and saves himself as the chopper crashes into the waves. A Vietnamese student named Binh Po buys and talks his way onto the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, joining ten thousand other desperate people, only to wind up among the four hundred and twenty left behind when an order from President Ford ends the evacuation prematurely and the last Marine chopper takes off. (Binh Po spent a year in a Communist reëducation camp before escaping from Vietnam by boat, in 1979.) Marine Sergeant Mike Sullivan and other Embassy guards, without orders, take it upon themselves to make sure that the Vietnamese they know personally—tailors, cooks, dishwashers, and their families—make it out on the Chinooks. As North Vietnamese tank divisions roll toward Saigon, individual Americans break official rules and risk their lives to get as many of the Vietnamese who worked with Americans as they can to safety, along with their families—an inspiring example of moral heroism in the final days of a war best known for its mistakes, crimes, and sheer waste.

At the same time, the evacuation was a disaster. Ambassador Graham Martin, a rigid Cold Warrior out of “The Quiet American,” refused to believe that Saigon was about to fall, and wouldn’t allow fixed-wing air evacuations from the Tan Son Nhut airbase while it remained out of North Vietnamese hands. The result of Martin’s delusion was the frantic helo lifts from the Embassy grounds, the last and worst option, too little and too late, which left tens of thousands of our Vietnamese allies behind to suffer the brutality of the North. Yet even Martin, who lost his only son in the war, emerges, more ambiguously, as a conscientious diplomat at the last hour, postponing his own evacuation long enough to get thousands of Vietnamese out.

Army Captain Stuart Herrington, one of the heroes of the evacuation, had to lie to the Vietnamese left behind at the Embassy, telling them that a big chopper was on the way, then sneak away to board the last flight off the roof. Still haunted, he speaks for the film: “The end of April of 1975 was the whole Vietnamese involvement in a microcosm. Promises made in good faith, promises broken, people being hurt because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnamese war is a story that kind of sounds like that. But, on the other hand, sometimes there are moments when good people have to rise to the occasion and do the things that need to be done, and in Saigon there was no shortage of people like that.”

Back in 2007, when I started writing about the betrayal of Iraqis associated with America in Iraq, I spoke with two of the men featured in “Last Days in Vietnam”: Frank Snepp, the chief C.I.A. analyst in Saigon and the author of “Decent Interval,” an account of that period; and Richard Armitage, a naval officer, who returned to Vietnam as a civilian defense official and ended up bringing twenty thousand Vietnamese out on boats. Hearing their stories, I thought that the analogies with Iraq were obvious—willful blindness at the highest levels, no plan for rescuing Iraqis—but the differences were even sharper. The Vietnam-era Americans came off much better. With a few exceptions, it was hardly possible to imagine Embassy officials or troops in Baghdad taking great risks to get their Iraqi contacts out before we left. Relationships with Iraqis were much more distant, and Americans much more isolated, owing to security restrictions and other factors. Above all, in Baghdad there was a pervasive air of deskbound caution, buck-passing, and ass-covering, in contrast with the Wild West atmosphere that broke out, for better and for worse, in Saigon in April of 1975. It was all too easy for Americans in Iraq not to know what they didn’t want to know.

On Wednesday night, President Obama will speak to the country about his strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. I wonder if he’ll have a chance to see “Last Days in Vietnam,” which opened on Friday. He would probably be struck by the historical irony that, like Ford, he must try to explain to Congress and a weary, sour public why the U.S. should get involved again in a far-off, supposedly concluded war that most Americans now view as a waste.

This is a speech that Obama, even more than Ford, never wanted to give. He ran for reëlection, in part, on having fulfilled a promise to end the war in Iraq—always the previous Administration’s war. His eagerness to be rid of the albatross of Iraq played no small part in clearing the way for ISIS to take a third of the country, including Mosul, and to threaten Baghdad and Erbil.

All the more reason to give the President credit (though his political enemies never will) for his willingness, however reluctant, to turn around and face the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq and Syria. Wednesday’s speech will no doubt nod toward staying out (no boots on the ground, no new “American war”), even as it makes the case for going back in (air strikes, international coalitions, the moral and strategic imperative to defeat ISIS). This is the sort of balancing act that Obama speeches specialize in. But he also needs to tell the country bluntly that there will almost certainly be more American casualties, and that the struggle against ISIS—against radical Islam generally, but especially in this case—will be difficult, with no quick military solution and no end in sight. Otherwise, he’ll have brought the public and Congress on board without levelling with them, a pattern set in Vietnam and repeated in Iraq, with unhappy consequences.

By the time Ford gave his speech, that war was lost, and seven hundred and twenty-two million dollars couldn’t have done what billions of dollars and half a million American troops hadn’t—though the end game, as Kennedy’s film compellingly shows, was a last unnecessary fiasco. But the Iraq War never ended, except in the minds of most Americans. Unlike Vietnam, ISIS is an irreconcilable enemy and a metastasizing threat. We Americans want to wake up as fast as possible from our historical nightmares, whatever the cost to other people. It’s human nature. Unfortunately, this one still requires our attention.

George Packer became a staff writer in 2003. For the magazine, he has covered the Iraq War, and has also written about the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, the megacity of Lagos, and the global counterinsurgency. In 2003, two of his New Yorker articles won Overseas Press Club awards—one for his examination of the difficulties faced during the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and one for his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone. His book “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by the New York Times and won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award and an Overseas Press Club book award. He is also the author of “The Village of Waiting,” about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and “Blood of the Liberals,” a three-generational nonfiction history of his family and American liberalism in the twentieth century, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; in addition, he has written two novels, “The Half Man” and “Central Square.” He has contributed numerous articles, essays, and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harpers, and other publications. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001-02, and has taught writing at Harvard, Bennington, and Columbia. His most recent book is “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

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Why Pardoning Nixon Wasn’t Good for America

HNN  August 8, 2014

This excerpt was adapted from the foreword to Smoking Gun, The Nation on Watergate, 1952 – 2010 (eBookNation, August 4, 2014), written by former US Representative Elizabeth Holtzman. The former Congresswoman served on the House Judiciary Committee and voted to impeach Nixon; you can download the new e-book, a unique real-time history from the pages of The Nation magazine on the rise and fall of Richard Nixon — and the consequences for American democracy — to read instantly on your tablet, e-reader, smartphone or computer. It is also available as a paperback (coming October 2014).

 

If Watergate is a story of accountability, President Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon is a story of presidential immunity. Here The Nation was especially spot-on, comprehending the sinister significance of the pardon right from the start.

Issued before any prosecution of Nixon had commenced, and without any acknowledgment of guilt on Nixon’s part, Ford’s pardon created a dual system of justice—one for ordinary Americans and another for the President. (Ford’s excuse that Nixon had “suffered enough” could have been applied, of course, to any person whose criminal activities had been exposed.) Unlike its persistence in tackling Watergate, Congress backed away from any serious investigation of the pardon. We will thus probably never know whether Nixon and his lieutenant Ford made a secret deal over the pardon—-in which Nixon would resign promptly and Ford would pardon him, not only shielding the President from prosecution, but limiting the Republican Party’s electoral losses at the polls in November.

Sadly, Watergate did not deter other Presidents from abusing their power. From Ronald Reagan and the Iran/Contra scandal to the present, Presidents have used the mantra of national security to ignore the Constitution. Worse, Ford’s pardon has grown into a principle of impunity for Presidents. It is not simply that Presidents are now viewed as safe from prosecution; they cannot even be investigated. No investigation has examined the presidential deceptions that drove us into the Iraq War, or the presidential authorizations of warrantless wiretapping in violation of law, or the possible criminal liability of former President George W. Bush and other top administration officials for violating laws on torture. Neither Congress nor the courts have taken the Watergate example to heart and stood firmly against presidential crimes or serious misconduct. Instead of remembering that Nixon cynically invoked “national security” to conceal ordinary crimes having nothing to do with the country’s welfare, they cower at the term, allowing Presidents to broaden their powers enormously.

Lack of government accountability runs directly contrary to the Constitution. The framers understood the threat that a strong executive would pose to our democracy; they knew because they had themselves overthrown a king and were careful students of history. To preserve our democracy, we need to rediscover the meaning of presidential accountability. One good way to start is to understand what went right—and wrong—in Watergate. For that effort, this volume of The Nation’s coverage of the subject is a useful resource.

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Our political era, as most of us understand it, starts in 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan is the opening shot, the first of the three massive conservative backlashes (1994 and 2010 are the others) that have irretrievably shaped our sense of political possibility.

That is not how we see our economic history, though: there it is the middle years of the 1970s that mark the turning point when median wages stopped their steady postwar rise, Keynesian solutions failed, productivity stalled, and the gains of the wealthy began to take off. Culturally, too, an hour listening to any classic rock radio station or watching a cable rerun network is a reminder that the mid-’70s are very much part of our own world.

The “invisible bridge” in the title of Rick Perlstein’s new book reconnects the politics of the early and mid 1970s to the Reagan era, and thereby to the present. The tawdry end of Richard Nixon and the emergence of Reagan on the national stage only seem like wholly different phenomena—because Nixon was hardly a movement conservative, except when that pose was useful to him; because Reagan challenged Nixon’s successor and pardoner; and because their personalities seemed so wildly at variance, with one deeply engaged in dark conspiracies, the other nodding affably.

But Perlstein, among other achievements, draws a straight line from the “Final Days” to morning in America, demonstrating that Reagan was as unflinching a defender of Nixon as was an oddball like Rabbi Baruch Korff. The manipulation of patriotic imagery and cultural division that we associate with Reagan (placing “heroes” in the audience at the State of the Union address, for example) was merely an evolution on a political theme developed by Nixon and extended by Ford. For instance, Perlstein’s brilliant opening chapter reveals in deep detail the fabrication underlying the dramatic return of American prisoners of war from Vietnam and the creation of the category of the “Missing in Action,” even though there was no evidence that American soldiers were still alive in Vietnam after the end of the war. Both the POW return and the MIA fiction were contrived mostly as a distraction from the far more shocking conditions in South Vietnamese prison camps, a delusion that remained prevalent until a commission led by Senators John McCain and John Kerry finally brought it to an end in 1993. The election of 1980 was a restoration, not a revolution.

Although each of his three books is structured around an individual politician, Perlstein’s subject is always political movements and political culture. “Biography doesn’t much interest me,” Perlstein wrote in The Baffler in 2012. “Powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.” His first book, Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, became an important point of reference for liberals when it appeared in 2001, and it remains so. In those uncertain moments after the end of the chaotic, timid Clinton administration, and as the tragedy of the Bush years was coming into sight, Before the Storm taught us that winning elections is not always the main goal and that a campaign that ends in a historic loss, but builds the foundations of a coherent and passionate ideological movement, can achieve lasting change, visible only years later. The “fighting Dem” bloggers of the Bush years read Storm as a call to action, but it was also a brilliant, tight history of the early figures in the conservative movement and the Republican establishment’s clumsy struggle to hold them at bay.

Where Goldwater hung in the background of Storm, Perlstein put his protagonist at the center of Nixonland (2008), casting American politics during the upheavals of the late 1960s through the lens of Nixon’s own psychological torments, rooted in his collegiate resentment of the “Franklins”—the smug, elite student society at Whittier College—and his own club, the square and aspiring “Orthogonians.” It is not so much that Nixon imposed his view of the world on the nation; rather, he provided an explanation that connected perfectly to the breakdown of the late 1960s, and resonated particularly with a resentful white working class.

The Invisible Bridge is a more complex book than either of its predecessors. Perlstein describes it as an account of the events that led to Reagan coming within a hair’s breadth of toppling Ford at the Republican convention in 1976, a victory-in-defeat that is surely as consequential to the modern conservative ascendancy as Goldwater’s campaign. But the first glimmers of a draft-Reagan campaign don’t appear until almost the 500th page of this 800-page book.

Along the way to the showdown in Kansas City—the last nominating convention, of either major party, whose result was not certain on the first day—is a political history of the middle years of the 1970s, focusing on the Watergate investigations, the subsequent exposés of the CIA, and the many other collapses of trust that opened the door to outsiders such as Jimmy Carter and Reagan. Perlstein provides a rough and cluttered cultural history of the period, featuring phenomena such as Wacky Packages (trading cards and stickers with punning names of consumer products) that will make older Gen X-ers want to rummage through the boxes in their parents’ attics.

Woven through an otherwise chronological narrative of 1973–1976 is a serviceable but unnecessary biography of Reagan, surely the least interesting of the last thirteen men elected to the presidency. Perlstein draws out less well-known aspects of Reagan’s background, particularly the role of Lemuel Boulware, who as General Electric’s vice president of labor and community relations enlisted Reagan to make speeches for the company espousing the particular brand of free-market and anti-labor ideology, with a thin patina of social conservatism, that is still the dominant strain in official conservatism. Reagan’s flip, in his mid-forties, from modest anti-Communist liberalism to the far right was made possible by Boulwarism, Perlstein says, “a right-wing politics that imagined no necessity for class conflict at all” because business would take care of workers’ needs. That matched Reagan’s sense of himself—a man at once above conflict and gleefully sowing it.

Following the model he employed in Nixonland, Perlstein half-heartedly uses a fragment of the Reagan biography as the interpretive lens for the entire half-decade: when he was a high school lifeguard, Reagan apparently overstated his life-saving feats, and as an adult, Perlstein says, he adopted the posture of the “rescuer” in the face of Watergate, the CIA revelations, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and all the other confusion, chaos, and distrust.

Eh, maybe. Not only is this a banal interpretation of both the era and of Reagan, but it also rests too much agency in Reagan, the individual, when the whole point of the Perlstein project is to trace the lines of the conservative counterrevolution, undistracted by the charms and psychodrama of its front men.

The book works best when it does exactly that, just as the 1976 Reagan campaign took off when it, too, stopped focusing on the man at the top of the ticket. Reagan had been losing in the early primaries, during which the wily but not-quite-conservative campaign manager John Sears had been trying to sell him as an experienced governor and non-scary potential president. Heading into the North Carolina primary, Senator Jesse Helms and his lieutenant Tom Ellis, using the army of direct-mail donors and activists assembled by Helms’s National Congressional Club, picked up the campaign and encouraged Reagan to talk solely about hot-button conservative issues of the moment, such as the threat of détente with the Soviet Union and the proposed Panama Canal treaties. Victory in North Carolina re-launched the conservative ascendancy. In a sense the movement—in the form of its issues and its direct-mail operations—was more successful than the man.

• • •

A more interesting interpretation of the mid-’70s and their relevance emerges from the less Reagan-centric narrative, from the “demand side” of politics, and from the torrent of anecdotes, quotes, movie summaries, and clips that make up the bulk of the book. But this interpretation is never stated as explicitly as the Reagan-as-rescuer trope. It goes something like this: a large segment of the white population of the United States, something like Nixon’s “silent majority,” was deeply unsettled by the social and political changes of the late 1960s and ’70s, and “felt ignored, patronized . . . by arrogant liberalism,” as Perlstein puts it. He is largely respectful toward these people, who include the first wave of school textbook activists—led by a Texas couple who asked reporters to call them only by the husband’s name, “the Mel Gablers”—bussing foes in Boston, and grassroots opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Panama Canal treaties. That respect does not extend to Reagan or to elite conservative activists, particularly figures who occupy both the Nixon and Reagan machines, such as Pat Buchanan, who rather than creating a politics that could hear and address those anxieties, exploited them and deepened the divide—for power and often just for money.

Almost complicit in the rise of the right—and this is where Perlstein’s grand theory of politics gets interesting—are Democrats and liberals, particularly the reformist generation of the “Class of ’74” congressional Democrats and the 1976 Democratic presidential candidates, who get a surprising amount of attention in a book ostensibly about the Republican contest. Perlstein twice quotes Gary Hart, elected to the Senate in 1974, declaring, “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” But Humphrey himself, the former vice president then back in the Senate and leading the push for a full-employment act, appears only fleetingly, as an undeclared 1976 candidate. Most of the other 1976 contenders—particularly the duplicitous Jimmy Carter; sanctimonious, shallow Frank Church; and quasi-conservative bullshit artist Jerry Brown—are regarded much as Perlstein sees Barack Obama: too naïve about the right, uninterested in economic justice, too eager to compromise and to distance themselves from the historical legacy of FDR-LBJ-Humphrey liberalism. As Perlstein sees it, the angry white working class is as poorly served by posers and spinners such as Hart as by the professional dividers on the right.

This is a cold dismissal of a moment that is as central to the history of liberalism as of conservatism. Perlstein regards the Class of ’74 Democrats as merely arrogant, high-minded reformers who kicked out old populists such as House Banking Committee chairman Wright Patman. No doubt ’70s reformist liberalism—a tradition that can be traced forward to the Obama administration—had profound blind spots, particularly to the role of political machines in building support and community for working-class families. But its effort to open up Congress had a deep history, going back to the 1950s. Immovable committee chairs such as Patman (though he was far from the worst) were progressive on a few dimensions, but on others—especially civil rights, the only issue that mattered—had posed barriers for decades. Opening up Congress ultimately led to a period of legislative entrepreneurship that included many of the foundations of modern government: environmental and workplace safety regulations, huge expansion of health coverage culminating in the Affordable Care Act, even passage of Humphrey’s Full Employment Act, none of which would have been possible had the old Southern lions remained on their thrones.

Perlstein skips over this context, in this and other instances, simply because, with the exceptions of the Reagan biography and the opening set piece on the POW-MIA scam, his tale relies entirely on the immediacy of the press. If there were a soundtrack to this book, it would be the spins and clicks of an old microfilm machine, zipping, slowing, and pausing through archives of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentineland other mid-sized newspapers, picking up quotes, images, long-forgotten anecdotes, ads for wig shops or “golden age” pornographic movies.

Indeed, you come away from the book feeling the way you would after a long afternoon in the library reading those microfilms—you might find what you were looking for, but much more as well, and you’ll get a little fuzzy-headed in the process. None of Perlstein’s material is uninteresting; there is just too much of it. There is a great book within The Invisible Bridge, but it would be about 500 pages long, the length of Before the Storm. It is about the structure and strength of the conservative movement, the continuities between Nixon’s politics and Reagan’s, the failure of liberals and Democrats (and organized labor, whose disintegration during the decade goes mostly unmentioned) to speak to the economic and cultural panic of the decade. The Invisible Bridge is too difficult to get through, making it unlikely to achieve the audience or influence of its predecessor.

It is Perlstein’s misfortune that he doesn’t appear to have had the kind of editor who could not only cut the scrapbook clutter, but also keep the story governed by Perlstein’s own maxim: “Biography doesn’t much interest me.” The “demand-side” of politics is the story here, and it is up to the patient reader to find it.

Mark Schmitt is Director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation and former executive editor of The American Prospect.

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