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Weekend Reader: ‘The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan’

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Weekend Reader: ‘The Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Nixon And The Rise Of Reagan’


Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by journalist and historian Rick Perlstein. Following up on his previous book, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Perlstein dives into the rise of GOP darling Ronald Reagan in the 1970s. The former actor and governor of California was an unlikely contender for the White House when he announced his candidacy against President Gerald Ford, but his political savvy eventually prevailed—Reagan’s patriotism enchanted Americans who were disheartened and battered by both Nixon’s Watergate scandal and a foundering economy. Perlstein’s historical analysis looks deeper than the 70s headlines and provides an essential and thorough understanding of Americans’ perception of politics, Ronald Reagan, and conservatism during a pivotal era.  

You can pre-order the book here.

Thus arrived an unlikely development: chasing spooks became a political opportunity. Frank Church, the liberal Democratic senator from Idaho, a longtime critic of the CIA (“I will do whatever I can, as one senator,” he had said years earlier, “to bring about a full-scale congressional investigation of the CIA”) and scourge of the Vietnam War (“a monstrous immorality”)—and a presidential hopeful—maneuvered himself into the chairmanship of the new Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. And for one of the members of the new Rockefeller commission, CBS reported, “the assignment could help keep presidential hopes alive.”

That would be Governor Ronald Reagan, a surprise pick that had Washington insiders wondering if President Ford—approval rating: 42 percent—was more worried about a nomination challenge than anyone had previously thought. The New York Times did not approve. Reagan, it reported in a February article that read like an editorial, had “missed three of the four weekly meetings of the Presidential commis­sion investigating the Central Intelligence Agency.” He “reportedly told President Ford when he was asked to join the panel that his speaking engagements might conflict with the meetings.” His secretary promised Reagan would “catch up by reading the transcripts of the missed ses­sions”—though, “according to the commission staff, Mr. Reagan has not yet visited the commission headquarters, where hundreds of pages of transcripts are kept in locked files.” Instead, “During January, he gave seven ‘major addresses’ to such groups as the International Safari Club, in Las Vegas.”

Who could take seriously a lightweight like that? Though CBS still spied a possible opening for a Reagan presidential bid: “If the economy overwhelms President Ford.” Portents hinted at just that. In fact, that news was getting downright apocalyptic.

In December economists announced that the nation was officially in a recession. By January the projected annual growth rate was negative 5 percent. A Harris poll found only 11 percent of the country thought Ford was “keeping the economy healthy.” Even the Godfather of Soul got into the act: “People! People! Got to get over, before we get under,” growled James Brown in a new hit that was number four on the R&B charts: “There ain’t no funky jobs to be found. Taxes going up . . . now I drink from a paper cup. Gettin’ bad!”

On the heels of a Pentagon move to eliminate 11,600 civilian jobs at military bases, the auto industry announced 40,000 layoffs. Ford Motors cut production schedules at eleven of its twenty North American assem­bly plants and most of its forty-five manufacturing plants. Chrysler laid off almost 11,000 white-collar workers. American Motors idled 7,000 workers in one plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, alone. In New Hampshire, a textile mill that had been in business since 1823 was scheduled to shut­ter. Maryland’s largest private employer, the four-mile-long Sparrows Point steel complex, began laying off thousands; 100,000 steel workers lost their jobs nationwide between the previous summer and the up­coming fall; in December 1974—Christmastime—185,000 blue-collar workers found themselves without work. Businesses and consumers preferred products made elsewhere: foreign car sales were up 20 per­cent, American cars down almost 13. The Economist said, “Capitalism is being tested everywhere. Many people believe it is dying.” It called the closing of 150 investment banks and securities dealers in the United States in recent weeks “some of the worst failures since the Great De­pression.” The National Association of Home Builders called the slump in its industry “far and away the worst since the Depression.”

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Since the Depression: a new household phrase.

It felt as if America did not even own itself. “Will Araby Bankrupt the World?” the January 25 Saturday Review cover asked. Rumor was that Saudis had bought up all the real estate in Beverly Hills. Arabs had bought us, yes, but they also hated us: in one page-turner selling out at airport book stores, Black Sunday, Palestinians had no trouble recruit­ing one of those sturdy patriotic heroes of 1973, a Vietnam prisoner of war, his brain too addled by torture to resist, to pilot an explosives-laden blimp into the Super Bowl; in another, The Gargoyle Conspir­acy, Arabs assassinate the secretary of state. (Time noted jocularly that the Arab-bashing thrillers might someday no longer be published, if the Arabs bought all the publishing companies.) Meanwhile, the real-life secretary of state, in a Christmastime interview in BusinessWeek, hinted that a military strike to seize Middle East oil fields outright might be im­minent. Then he left for a hat-in-hand tour of Arab capitals, as if making amends.

Gerald Ford, in his January 15 State of the Union address, was hardly more comforting: “I must say to you that the state of our Union is not good,” he said. No president had ever told the citizenry anything like that.

But Ronald Reagan as the answer? His preferred solution to the crisis—turning management of the economy even more over to private interests—didn’t sound right even to the conservative City of London gentlemen who edited the Economist. They opined that much of the blame for capitalism’s tests lay with “a concentration of money into the hands of a few big banks, even more than these giants know what to do with.”

In any event, with Ford tacking to the right, it was hard to see what room Reagan might have to maneuver. “Ford Lauded By Wall Street on Inflation,” read a headline about his speech to securities analysts who “generally applauded what they saw as President Ford’s renewed determination to tackle inflation, rather than recession, as the nation’s chief economic problem.” He gave speeches in which he said things like “We face a critical choice. . . . Shall we slide headlong into an economy whose vital decisions are made by politicians while the private sector dries up and shrivels away?” The major economic idea in his State of the Union message was a tax rebate of around one hundred dollars for the average American, which was just the sort of thing a President Reagan would be likely to propose.

“President Reagan”—that inconceivable phrase. Ronald Reagan, who was still defending Richard Nixon, and who said two weeks before Gerald Ford’s pardon that “the punishment of resignation is more than adequate for the crime.”

Ronald Reagan, who told CBS “I hope to devote my time to hitting the sawdust trail and preaching the gospel of free enterprise”—“the gos­pel,” like this was revealed truth or something.

This in a country where the most talked-about new bipartisan leg­islative proposal was soon to be Jacob Javits and Hubert Humphrey’s “Balanced Growth and Economic Planning Act,” which attempted to grow the country out of stagflation by setting up an Office of National Economic Planning to govern such heretofore unregulated parts of the economy as factory production, and which would submit six-year plans to Congress every twenty-four months. This might once have sounded like something out of the Soviet Union. But now—why not? One of Ford’s aides, who would go on to become vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, thought Ford should co-opt the idea as his own, as “a highly con­structive presidential initiative.” Intellectuals devoured the arguments of sociologist Daniel Bell, in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, “that, today, we in America are mov­ing away from a society based on a private-enterprise market system toward one in which the most important economic decisions will be made at the political level, in terms of consciously defined ‘goals’ and priorities.’ . . . A turn to non-capitalist modes of social thought . . . is the long-run historical tendency in Western society.”

If you enjoyed this excerpt, pre-order the full book here.

From Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein. Copyright © 2014 by Rick Perlstein. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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  1. Jamie Gump June 28, 2014

    You might also want to check out Perlstein’s other book, about Barry Goldwater: “Before The Storm.” Which, although the second sentence of this article does not say it, he wrote before “Nixonland”.

    1. nebulafox May 9, 2015

      Goldwater was a very different cup of tea, actually. Libertarian-he had more in common with the New Left than his GOP successors. He believed that the Great Society was removing human autonomy.

  2. charleo1 June 28, 2014

    In an overall sense, Reagan’s revived economy was largely due to his willingness to do those things the Conservative Right had been warning not be done for the previous 20 years. Those things the Carter Administration largely agreed with. That loosening the money supply, by lowering interest rates, and deficit spending by the Federal Gov. would devalue the currency, and set off yet another round of inflation. (“Sugar High.”) This economic malaise, so claimed the Right, with some credibility, being due to the duel economic hangovers of the high debt of the Vietnam War, (Guns.) And the expansion of the social safety net, (butter,) in Johnson’s, “Great Society’s”
    war on poverty. But, in reality, a lot of the problem was due directly to the wrongheaded responses of the Federal Reserve to curtail inflation by, raising interest rates, to reduce demand, and protect the value of the dollar. In other words, to take what was a tepid economy to begin with, and then, throw cold water on the whole thing. Then of course act baffled when the economy responded negatively.. What Reagan did then, was to set the Conservative standard, by espousing one set of economic principles, while enacting another diametrically opposed set. All the while protecting upper class wealth against the possibility of a devalued currency, with a string of wide ranging, aggressive, budget busting tax cuts. And basically, throwing labor, other stated concerns, like inflation, and debt, to the four winds. In other words, “Deficits don’t matter!” That’s if a Republican is finally back in office, following Nixon. And wishes to reestablish the Republican Party as one that can be seen as effectively dealing with the economy. And so the big scam, putting the, “con,” in conservatism begins with Reagan. Little wonder he’s their hero!

    1. nana4gj June 29, 2014

      The Reagan Presidency, the longest running movie ever. One big fantasy. People like me, a single mother of 3 teens, working 60 to 70 hours a week as an RN, just barely making it over the new Poverty line, and considering food stamps, which I would not have qualified for. I raised those teens during this movie, providing the bare necessities and nothing more, materially.

      I wasn’t impressed then, and I am not impressed now.

      1. toncuz June 29, 2014

        The myth of Reagan must end and progressives have to stop aiding conservative revisionists.


        1. nebulafox June 20, 2015

          It really was not a myth when it came to how loved he was with the people. He was no demigod in terms of popularity, but leaving office in 1988 he had a popularity rating of around 65 percent, better than most Presidents, even with Iran-Contra. And as history passes, the rating goes up. Ignoring this is pointless.

          And to be quite blunt, the legacy counts. Bush Senior probably would have won even without Lee Atwater (much is made about the 17 point gain. But his turnaround in the race-Bush Senior was far less able to make Iran Contra go away-came long before Atwater’s ads) and dirty campaigning in part because he was running off this legacy, uncomfortable as that might be for progressives. Bush Senior was never loved in the heartland like Reagan for the same reason that LBJ never got the same love as JFK, but momentum matters. Maybe not 41 states, but he would have decisively beaten Dukakis.

          Reagan was just a guy that the people loved. Plain and simple, the wisdom of his policies aside.

      2. charleo1 June 29, 2014

        Well first of thank you for becoming an RN. Not nearly enough of us are able to go to work, and every single day make a positive, sometimes life saving, difference in people’s lives. And I think you’re description of the Reagan years as one long running movie, is spot on. I also think there’s a lot of people today, that have yet to unburden themselves of the myth of Reagan. Even though if he were alive, and running for town dog catcher, many of those same folk would label him a raging RINO, and drum him out of the Party.

        1. nebulafox May 9, 2015

          No. I think Nixon or Bush Senior wouldn’t have made it, but that has more to do with personality and intellectual bent rather than ideology-not to say that doesn’t play a role.

          Reagan would have. You want to know why? Because he coopt the nuts and use the right rhetoric at the right time. The man was inordinately gifted at that.

      3. Ed Portela June 30, 2014

        nana: Are you Fern Woodford?

        1. nana4gj June 30, 2014

          No. I admit I do not know who she is. Looked her up, the poet? But, no, I am not.

    2. nebulafox May 9, 2015

      A lot of the economic recovery did have to do with Volcker’s reforms, which were pioneered under the Carter administration.

      The problem was, Carter just didn’t have a pair and wasn’t a good politician. And the people knew it.

      1. charleo1 May 9, 2015

        I’m not overly studied in the intricacies of the Carter economy. But I do know his experts, and Carter himself, was scared into inaction, over the prospect of reigniting inflation. So the stranglehold had interest rates on 30 year mortgages at 18-19%. Which is ridiculous, to expect anything but a stagnant economy with a money supply policy that austere. And Carter was also the unluckiest President. There was the Olympics he rightfully boycotted. That might have been a pleasant distraction from the gas lines. And then there were the hostages. All the news channels started every evening report with the ever increasing number of days,
        Americans were being held. Each one it seemed, reaffirming in the minds of many Americans what they had came to see as yet another day in the failed Carter Presidency. I remember thinking, Carter doesn’t seem to want to be President anymore. And who could blame him after the rescue attempt? I’ll stand by Carter as being a terrifically good man. A smart man, that in the end, was not what being the President of the U.S. at the time, required.

        1. nebulafox May 9, 2015

          Carter did take a bit of a hawkish turn around 1979. And as I said, in many respects, domestically, he was to the right of Nixon. (Not that this was bad-New Dealist policies were becoming outdated by the 70s, and Carter was doing some seriously smart things, like appointing Volcker). He had some pretty far sighted policies-though as a physicist, I strongly disagree with his backpedaling from nuclear power. The problem was, Carter’s image as the anti-Nixon, the “I’ll never lie to you”, that was so useful in 1976 for a US looking for change was poison in the US of 1980, looking for a return to strength and old values.

          As I said earlier, the problem with Carter was that he didn’t *lead* when he needed to. Sometimes a leader needs to do that. Carter got a crappy hand, but he just didn’t inspire the people or lead. The Soviets didn’t respect him, especially when he began tying human rights into policy. He attempted to withdraw from South Korea, which wasn’t good especially with Koreagate for that relationship, and for prospects of inter-Korean peace. He didn’t command respect abroad.

          And he pretty much handled Iran in the worst possible way-he at first urged the Shah to concede while cutting aid that could have been used for riot control, thus raising the expectations of many in Iran, than to do the opposite which alienated the protesters, which led to the situation deteriorating. He also just wasn’t a very good politician-he treated Congress and DC politics like it was immoral, and thus couldn’t get support for any domestic policy even with a Congress still largely dominated by his party. It is sometimes, but that’s the reality of it. You need to deal with them.

          Woe betide a President not feared or loved. Carter was neither. You crossed Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton before they became lame ducks at your peril, even if you hated them. Nobody got that sense with Carter. Obama has much of the same problem. And that’s just domestically.

  3. dtgraham June 28, 2014

    I still remember Jimmy Carter’s recollection of the briefing that he had to give to incoming President-elect Ronald Reagan. Carter recalled that Reagan seemed disinterested in the whole thing and wasn’t paying much attention at all. There were very few questions from Reagan and none of any depth. Reagan brought nothing to the briefing and at one point Carter asked him if he wanted notepaper and a pen. He declined. He also declined an offer of transcripts. Carter thought it seemed very odd and remarked that “it was revealing.” In his diaries later he wrote that “Reagan seemed to be governed by a few anecdotes and vignettes that he has memorized.” “He doesn’t seem to listen when anybody talks to him.”

    Compare that to Carter’s meticulous preparations (being a nuclear physics engineer) for his briefing from Ford, and the tremendous impression that Eisenhower said he got from JFK in their briefing.

    1. charleo1 June 28, 2014

      Reagan as you may know, had for years kept notes on 3×5 cards. He had a huge library of them, for every occasion, And when he heard a joke, or something he liked, he wrote it down on these index cards. He was for all intents and purposes, an actor hired to spew the corporate line at GE functions. And did this as an actor, finally turned ideologue. Who knew how to hit his mark, and say his lines. Many of them gleaned from his bank of various jingles, and clever sayings he collected, and would come to lead the Country by them. His most lasting, and ultimately most harmful legacy was the so called supply side economics. That decimated wages, and set the course for the tremendous wealth inequity, that’s hanging around the neck of this Country’s economy, like a ball, and chain.

      1. nana4gj June 29, 2014

        The actor with his cue cards because he didn’t have a clue in his head. After the first 4 years, I knew something was amiss in his head. Rove should be very careful whose “mental competence” he assesses, because, with “W”, he was one lobe of the brain and Cheney the rest, none of them being very smart, just very devious.

        Clearly, there “is something about Republicans”. The only Republican Presidents in my 70 year old history who were decent and harmless were Eisenhower and George H W Bush, and of course, the Caretaker, Ford, pulled in to clean up the mess of Agnew and then the mess of Nixon.

        1. charleo1 June 29, 2014

          Clearly in those times Reagan went off script, he got into trouble, and did things such as sending some 247 Marines to their death in Lebanon, and coming up with an illegal scheme to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. The press loved his, Oh shucks, Grandfatherly demeanor, and covered for the old Coot, as best they could. Probably correctly seeing where the policies he was advocating, and the laws being passed, were going to add to their bottom lines for decades to come. And, in my opinion the powers that be in this Country are continuing to coddle the rotten to the core, GOP. Where if the American public were fully informed, and they were ever held accountable for the results of their wrongheaded, down the rabbit hole, money grubbing policies, as a political organization they’d be dead. And the Country, and the vast majorities of
          everyone in it, would be better off.

          1. Ed Portela June 30, 2014

            charleo: Where were you?
            The press HATED Reagan’s guts in the very same way that they protect Obama and consider that he can’t do ANYTHING wrong.

          2. nebulafox May 9, 2015

            Not really. If an influential sector of people strongly hated Reagan, Iran-Contra would have blown like Watergate or Lewinsky. Where was Reagan’s Archibald Cox or Ken Starr, a man who wanted to get the SOB and didn’t care what he had to do to do it?

            The people who strongly hated Reagan weren’t powerful. Inside DC loved him, even the liberals. Look at Tip O’Neill.

      2. dtgraham June 29, 2014

        The headline was “the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan”. What if there had never been a Nixon? 1968 was an incredible crossroads year where there were two remarkably different future timelines. This is the timeline that was going to happen and should have happened:

        Bobby Kennedy was most likely going to win that Democratic party nomination that year. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr is one of many who still feel that way. Kennedy was gaining the edge over Senator McCarthy in the primaries and was emerging as a formidable challenger to Hubert Humphrey for securing the nomination. It’s reasonable to assume that Kennedy would have secured a number of delegate votes on name recognition alone. Then add in the martyr factor with his brother’s death less than 5 years earlier. RFK also had strong support from minorities, organized labour, and other key Democratic constituencies.

        In the general election of that year, Nixon only beat Humphrey by about 500,000 votes and did so by winning states like California, Oregon, New York, and other east coast states. I don’t believe for a moment that Robert Kennedy would have lost all of those states. Few do. He may not have lost half of them.

        Now imagine an RFK Presidency into the late seventies. Further, picture Martin Luther King continuing on with his great work on poverty, race relations, and social justice throughout the seventies; advising and encouraging a Kennedy in the Whitehouse who believed strongly in everything that King stood for. You can imagine how history would have changed. As I mentioned, that is the historical timeline that was about to happen and should have happened. It’s just a fluke of history that it didn’t.

        What did America get instead? Nixon, watergate, the southern strategy, Lee Atwater, voter suppression, the dismantling of the great society anti-poverty programs in the early seventies, the rise of Jerry Falwell and the Christian right, no progress at all on universal health care, continuation and escalation of Vietnam, and much much more. It’s enough to haunt your dreams.

        1. charleo1 June 29, 2014

          Fantastic post! It almost brought a tear to my eye!
          Seriously! The what if, the should have, and I agree,
          would have been. I’ll be 60 this year, so I was fairly
          young. But my memory is still vivid of Bobby talking
          to that group of shocked, and very angry people,
          following the assassination of Dr. King. He had no pre-perpared, or poll tested script. But was able to
          find the right words to say in that moment about the
          tragedy, that no one but him, could say. He was also most likely the only man that could have brought the Democratic Party back from the deep divisions caused by the Vietnam War. The scandal of The Pentagon Papers, revealing the intentional lies of the Johnson Administration’s efforts to mislead the
          Country about the sorry state of an open ended war that continued to take our young men in horrible numbers. Which Bobby opposed early, and at the real risk of alienating, and splitting the Party. And, as you point out, he was winning the debate, and re uniting the Party. I could not agree more with your comment. The great loss between what could have been, and what we got, is hard to sum up in a few words. But, I think you nailed it up very well. In fact, I wish more people would get over here and read it!

          1. Ann Watson June 29, 2014

            The Kennedy’s were naturally gifted communicators and were adept at uniting people.

          2. charleo1 July 1, 2014

            I think that’s true. It also seems each of the children were instilled with a strong belief that public service
            was an honorable endeavor. And also the sense that to whom much is given, much is also expected. Something the greedy, “I build this all by myself crowd,” seem to have forgotten.

          3. nebulafox May 9, 2015

            You are thinking of Jack. He was the extroverted unifier. Not Bobby. He was the bright cold introvert. Bobby was only good at that when the situation was desperate like in Indy ’68, in which he surpassed Jack.

          4. dtgraham June 30, 2014

            Thanks for the kind words charleo. It’s very nice of you to say that. We’re pretty much on exactly the same page politically and I always value your opinion. That post was born out of a really interesting question that Bill Maher put to Martin Short one night on Real Time. The question referenced historical developments of a social nature with emphasis on political policy, and sort of touched a little on this period by implication. Short gave kind of a tepid answer, but he could have said so much more. In the days to come I thought about all of the things that Martin Short might have said in response that night, and thus…my post.

            Have a good holiday on Friday my man. The national holiday in Canada is tomorrow. You get yours nicely coordinated with the weekend this year you lucky bums. Take care charleo.

          5. charleo1 July 1, 2014

            You’re very much welcome my friend. And you take
            care, and have a great holiday as well.

          6. nebulafox May 9, 2015

            Spoken like a true Baby Boomer.

            The Pentagon Papers also showed how Saint Kennedy and his brother lied to the nation about Vietnam. And probably just not that.

        2. nebulafox May 9, 2015

          No. He probably wouldn’t have even won the nomination. 1968 was a very different, much more culturally conservative America. The bosses controlled the convention, which was why there was violence-and they wouldn’t help RFK. LBJ also loathed RFK with all his heart and could have easily thrown Texas to Nixon, who won far more decisively over Humphrey in the electoral vote. HHH was actually probably the worst opponent for Richard Nixon because he could utilize LBJ’s massive New Deal voting blocks without being the unpopular and ailing Johnson himself.

          He would have been President in 1976 had he lived. Whether he would have beaten Reagan in 1980, I don’t know-that depends on how he handled those God-forsaken years. It should be remembered that Reagan smoked Bobby in their 1967 debate.

    2. nebulafox May 9, 2015

      Nixon thought that Reagan was “mentally limited”, you know.

  4. Ed Portela June 30, 2014

    Funny how Dems love to put Reagan in the same “sack” as Nixon, but will go to extremes to separate Obama (worst ever) from Carter (2nd worst).
    Obama makes Carter look as a fantastic president ….

  5. Eigen Vcctor July 1, 2014

    Since our intellect adapted upon a framework of customs, traditions, and morality, it is less important than the lattice upon which it grew.

  6. nebulafox May 9, 2015

    The country was headed right, none of the Democrats sans maybe Jimmy Carter picked up on it. The New Deal was dying. When Nixon was destroyed, Reagan was the logical person to take over the GOP-it was all that Ford could do to hold him off in 1976.


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