The 1970s were a tumultuous time in the U.S, defined by such events as the Vietnam War; the Watergate scandal; the Arab oil boycott; serious economic problems; and shocking revelations about illegal activities by our intelligence agencies. At one point, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans believed the government lied to them. All of this happened as the nation, somewhat dispirited, celebrated its bicentennial. Drawing on a vast array of sources, Rick Perlstein captures all of this and more in his sweeping, insightful and richly rewarding The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. His riveting narrative continues the author’s efforts to chronicle the ascendancy of conservatism in American political life (following the acclaimed Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America).

At the heart of Perlstein’s book is the question of what kind of nation we want to be. The turbulence of the 1960s and ’70s had given Americans an opportunity to reflect on our power and what some considered our arrogance. Many reasoned we should become more humble, question authority and have a greater sense of limits. Politicians, labeled “Watergate babies,” were elected to Congress, pledged to reform the country’s broken institutions. But that approach did not prevail. Among major political figures, only Ronald Reagan took a different path. He rarely discussed Watergate and Vietnam and, when he did, he downplayed their place in history. He described Watergate as a “witch hunt” and “lynching” and said the conspirators were “no worse than double parkers.” On Vietnam, his view was that America had not expended enough force; “the greatest immorality is to ask young men to fight or die for my country if it’s not a cause we are willing to win.” Instead, Reagan and others continued to emphasize that the U.S. was “the greatest nation in the history of the world.” The Invisible Bridge examines how such rhetoric came into being and how such hubris has come to define us.

The most important political expression of this belief was Reagan’s announcement that he would challenge Gerald Ford, the sitting president of his own party, for the presidential nomination in 1976. Reagan and Ford believed many of the same things, but they had very different styles. Every major distinction between the two had to do with the kind of nation America was. Ford liked the idea of national modesty; Reagan felt that the world’s rules didn’t necessarily apply to America

At more than 800 pages, Perlstein’s book is a work of prodigious research. He appears to have read virtually all of the available contemporary accounts of political life in the ‘70s and watched many of the era’s television news programs. He is also keenly aware of social currents and popular culture in the decade as well. The Invisible Bridge delves into the lives of colorful personalities and discusses significant events that influenced the political landscape at the time but are almost forgotten today.  This is a fascinating, extremely readable account of an important decade in America’s political history.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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