The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

Here are some highlights from this 2015 book by Rick Perlstein:

* THIS BOOK IS ALSO A sort of biography of Ronald Reagan—of Ronald Reagan, rescuer. He had been a sullen little kid from a chaotic, alcoholic home, whose mother’s passion for saving fallen souls could never save her own husband. It also seemed to have kept her out of the house almost constantly. But by the time of Ronald Reagan’s adolescence, the boy who told his friends to call him “Dutch” had cultivated an extraordinary gift in the act of rescuing himself: the ability to radiate blithe optimism in the face of what others called chaos—to reimagine the morass in front of him as a tableau of simple moral clarity. He did the same thing as a politician: skillfully reframing situations that those of a more critical temper saw as irresolvable muddles (like, say, the Vietnam War) as crystalline black-or-white melodramas. This was a key to what made others feel so good in his presence, what made them so eager and willing to follow him—what made him a leader.

* “WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES,” A wise woman named Joan Didion once said, “in order to live.” It is how we organize the chaos of experience into the order we require just to carry on. And in the life of the young Ronald Wilson Reagan, there was more than the usual ration of chaos to organize. One biographer recites the catalogue: “Between the ages of six and ten he attended a different school every year. . . . As a baby he lived in his first house for four months and his second for eight. He lived in five different places in Dixon, four different ones in Tampico, two in Galesburg—all rented. Sometimes they subleased to pay their own rent.” Another biographer reasonably points out, “At any given spot, he could have easily forgotten his address.”

* And then there is the face: It is alive. It is the face of Ronald Reagan. He would never appear lost, forlorn, or empty-eyed in a photograph again. Try to find one.

* Until the day Ronald Reagan died, in fact, he was almost never photographed wearing glasses. Here was a constant: if a camera was present, or an audience, he was aware of it—aware, always, of the gaze of others: reflecting on it, adjusting himself to it, inviting it. Modeling himself, in his mind’s eye, according to how he presented himself physically to others. Adjusting himself to be seen as he wished others to see him—until the figure he cut became unmistakable. So unmistakable that in a caricature he drew of himself in his high school yearbook, he presents himself in silhouette—and yet he is immediately recognizable to us, even now, as Ronald Reagan.

* Church offered another attraction: an opportunity to perform. His mother was a ham. A neighbor described her voice, when calling her boys in for dinner, as “theatrical.”

* IN RONALD REAGAN’S CHAOTIC CHILDHOOD the imagination was armor. There is nothing unusual about that; transcending the doubts, hesitations, and fears swirling around you by casting yourself internally as the hero of your own adventure story is a characteristic psychic defense mechanism of the Boy Who Disappears. He pushes doubt and confusion from the forefront of his consciousness with the furious energy of a boy who fears that if he does not do so he might somehow be consumed.

* Aristotle was the first writer to try to explain why it is pleasing to be horrified in a theater. A tragic story, he said, “has pain as its mother.” Displaying that pain, containing it—“arousing these emotions through the representation of them”—storytelling thereby reduces it; viewers, he wrote, “settle down as if they have attained healing.” The Greek word for this, catharsis, came from a medical term: “cleansing,” “purification,” or, more dramatically, purgation.

* The dean of the last-ditch supporters was a tiny retired Orthodox rabbi from Taunton, Massachusetts, named Baruch Korff. In the suspicious circles, he was fast becoming the tragedy’s comic relief, rumbling in his borscht belt–comic Ukrainian accent that a great man’s “blood has been sapped by vampires” and his body set upon by “vivisectionists . . . unworthy of polishing his shoes.” “This entire administration is being held captive by the Washington Post,” he said. “I feel like I am in Hanoi and not in Washington.” Full-page newspaper ads for his “National Citizens Committee for Fairness to the Presidency” denounced the “ASSASSINS” perpetrating this “RAPE OF AMERICA.” He made endless rounds of media interviews: “If Nixon’s guilty, then so were Johnson and Kennedy and Eisenhower and Truman. And, my God, could I tell you things about Roosevelt!” Fellow rabbis called him an embarrassment—“an apologist for rampant immorality,” said the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. So, according to Time magazine, did “some members of the President’s inner circle.” Not, though, the President of the United States. On May 13, he entertained Rabbi Korff in the Oval Office for a full ninety minutes.

* Racialized fears of crime were a contributing factor. The previous fall, a white twenty-four-year-old Roxbury woman ran out of gas near her apartment and was set upon by six black kids who dragged her into a vacant lot, doused her with the fuel in the can she was carrying, and left her to die from her burns. Two days later, a white sixty-five-year-old man, fishing behind a black housing project, was stabbed to death with his own knife.

And the panic, finally, was not unrelated to sex—never far from fears about race. Forced busing: the very words suggested rape. One policeman guarding Southie was taunted by an old man who shouted he hoped the cop would find his wife “in bed with a nigger” when he got home. A flier distributed by the white “South Boston Liberation Army” instructed, “We do not expect you to hate blacks. We do not ask you to fight blacks.” What was unacceptable, however, was dating blacks. “We seek revenge on anyone that violates this rule. Because of Forced Busing. Blacks are the enemy. . . . Don’t be a white nigger.”

* The school superintendent told her there was nothing he could do about it. So, she always said, she decided to run for school board—entirely spontaneously, and with no help from anyone at all. Regardless, Moore’s campaign for the school board reflected the influence of the John Birch Society’s anti–sex education front group the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE). It was also fueled by the first campaign billboards a county school board race had ever seen, featuring the strikingly compelling slogan “Put a mother on the school board.” Moore could soon claim her first political scalp: the superintendent who had offended her. This figure of the humble housewife, drafted against her will into public life by the awful, inexorable tides of liberal extremism, a reluctant lone prophet in the service of simple commonsense decency, would become a standard right-wing trope in the years to come in battles across the country.

Moore was already plugged into a national conservative network—the same network that began knitting itself together for the 1964 crusade to make Barry Goldwater president, which was supposed to have folded tent permanently after the electorate’s landslide embrace of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society proved America was a liberal nation once and for all. And when the textbook question came down the pike, Moore knew just whom to call: the “Mel Gablers,” as Norma Gabler insisted reporters refer to her and her husband, a conservative couple who ran a right-wing textbook evaluation shop out of their hometown—Hawkins, Texas, population 761—doing so, they always told reporters, from their modest kitchen table.

Her troops called themselves “Creekers”: rural folk, like the Reverend Avis Hill, who ran a combined church, school, and mission out of an abandoned rural store and service station—and who, like most fundamentalist preachers of the day, had only recently wanted nothing to do with worldly politics. That was Caesar’s realm, inherently fallen. Then, according to his conversion narrative, somewhere on the road to Damascus he connected the foul textbooks to the failing grade his daughter had recently received for writing about how the Lord had created the heaven and the earth in six days. “Then it dawned on me . . . packing Johnny’s lunch bucket, combing his hair, patting him on the head and saying, ‘Honey, you go to school now. You mind what your teacher says’ ”—that no longer was possible. Teachers teaching evolution were agents of perdition. It was time get out from behind the pulpit. It was time to go to political war.

* The hollers were now a mecca for reporters from as far away as London. Some handled the story with extraordinary sensitivity. Paul Cowan of the Village Voice became the protesters’ most empathetic liberal chronicler. He won the trust of thoughtful interlocutors like Emmett Thompson, a fifty-nine-year-old riverboat engineer from Nitro, West Virginia, who explained, “You are making an insidious attempt to replace our periods with your question marks.” Thompson, who sent his son to Lynchburg Bible College, a fundamentalist school founded and operated by the Virginia preacher and TV entrepreneur Jerry Fal-well, longed for what he called a “return to the spirit of the Boston Tea Party,” and explained to the Jewish, New Left veteran Cowan why he considered the books “moral genocide.” For his part, Cowan, who did not entirely disagree, flushed out a 1970 document from the office of West Virginia’s superintendent of schools promising to “induce changes . . . in the culturally lost of Appalachia. . . . The setting of the public school should be the testing ground, the diagnostic basis, the experimental center, and the core of this design.” He read the conflict as, in part, a class war, between educated professionals eager to get their kids into the Ivy League, and plain folk who saw a traditional basic education as a route to upward mobility.

* NATIONALLY, PROTESTERS WERE NOT OUTLIERS. Conservative-minded citizens everywhere felt ignored, patronized, dispossessed of the authority that was rightfully theirs. By the arrogant liberalism of unelected judges—like Arthur Garrity in Boston, or the judges in New York who unanimously raised the threshold for keeping juvenile delinquents in custody, after which a sixteen-year-old thereby released stabbed a kid to death on a Brooklyn subway platform.

* a Ford production worker outside Detroit named Dewey Burton told the New York Times much the same thing in October 1974. The Times had begun interviewing Burton for a regular series published just before every national election beginning in 1972—back when he identified himself as a committed Democrat. Now, he said sorrowfully, “More and more of us are sort of leaving all our hopes outside in the rain and coming into the house and just locking the door. . . . “You can’t blame it all on the politicians. But I wish just for once that one of them would say, ‘No folks, I swear to God, if you’ll elect me, I won’t do a damn thing.’ That’s the fellow I’d vote for. Somebody who’d just leave us alone.”

THAT WEARY, REACTIONARY DESPAIR: IT was aimed, in part, at those liberal media gatekeepers who had made ordinary longings for simple order, tradition, and decorum suddenly seem so embarrassingly unfashionable.

* Michael Dukakis, the suburban Democrat running for governor in Massachusetts against a much more liberal Republican incumbent, was said by the UPI to want to “run the state like a bank.” Jerry Brown would quote small-government nostrums he read in the magazines Commentary and Public Interest—house organs of the ascendant neoconservative movement. Though he came to the same conclusions quoting a bible of the environmental movement: E. F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as If People Mattered (or, as the cover actually read, small is beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered).

* “It is no longer expedient for Christians to be secluded from the mainstream of human events,” read an advertisement in the September 13, 1974, issue from the Christian Freedom Foundation, a Buena Park, California, organization underwritten by the fantastically wealthy, right-wing DeVos family of Michigan.

* “People will tire of me on television,” he said. “They won’t tire of me on the radio.” That Reagan constant: aware, always, of the gaze of others; reflecting on it, adjusting himself to it, inviting it; modeling himself, in his mind’s eye, according to how he presented himself to others; adjusting himself to be perceived as he wished others to perceive him. Radio it would be.

* Decades later, in a rare personal revelation, he recalled to a reporter during a stormy airplane flight (he was afraid of flying), “I tried to go to bed with every starlet in Hollywood and damn near succeeded.” One of those starlets later accused him of what would come to be called “date rape”; another, an eighteen-year-old virgin, said he told her she should see a doctor because she couldn’t have an orgasm. Sometimes he woke up in one of the bungalows at the legendary Garden of Allah hotel complex on the Sunset Strip not knowing the name of the woman beside him in bed.

* Spencer Tracy suggested Nancy as a date for his widowed friend Clark Gable when Gable traveled to New York. Gable ended up squiring Nancy around town for three straight days. “Nancy was one of those girls whose phone number got handed around a lot,” a contemporary recollected. She developed what used to be known as a “reputation.”

And there were those delicate stories that began to circulate around town, in which she left the offices of powerful men at odd hours . . . Then she met a man who lived to rescue, who treated her like a queen, swaddled her in innocence, and gazed upon her with nothing but reverence for the rest of their lives.

* They also soon had a new child, Patricia Reagan, born seven and a half months after their nuptials. At that potential scandal, another Hollywood contrivance was generously provided by Louella Parsons: “They were at the horse show Monday night when Nancy was taken directly to the hospital,” she columnized. “The baby wasn’t due until Christmas.” (Actually, Patricia had been conceived before they were married. “My parents have never gone for simple, state-of-the-art lies,” she wrote. “They weave bizarre, incredulous tales and stick by them with fierce determination.”)

* Spouting statistics, he might start in on an obsession: the nation’s misperception that movie actors “live in a state of legalized prostitution because of the numerous divorces.” That mind of his, always hoovering up statistics, throwing them back in a blizzard: some called it his “photographic memory.” Better to say it was a preternatural confidence: details hurled forth with sufficient confidence always sound true—but “facts,” in sufficient profusion, whatever their reliability, can serve as fables as well. He said the twenty-six thousand citizens of the movie colony, making up but 1 percent of Los Angeles’s population, made 12 percent of its charitable contributions; that 70 percent were married and 68 percent had children and that they led the nation in adoption of children, in church membership, in the absence of crime. And in the solidity of marriage: their divorce rate was 29.9 percent. “So we’re asking that you catch up with our high moral standards!”

* One way he found his way to this new set of identifications was psychological: the speaker pulled himself toward his audiences as much as the other way around. “An interesting thing happened,” he said of these conclaves of people he might once have judged to be off-putting Babbitts: “No matter where I was, I’d find people from the audience waiting to talk to me after a speech and they’d all say, ‘Hey, if you think things are bad in your business, let me tell you what is happening in my business. . . .’ I’d listen and they’d cite examples of government interference and snafus and complain how bureaucrats, through overregulation, were telling them how to run their businesses.” He adjusted course to better solicit their approbation. This was how he became a hero among the new company he kept.

* life: “I think it would have been better if Ronald Reagan had just talked, and Goldwater had just sat there and nodded,” one conservative said at the Republican convention that summer in San Francisco.

* When Reagan became governor in 1967, the shock for his skeptics was simply this: that the antigovernment supposed incompetent actually governed. “Amazingly enough,” Newsweek reported upon completion of his first hundred days, the “host of Death Valley Days has managed to close one of the widest credibility gaps any politician ever faced.” And after he left office in 1975, the postmortems from the guardians of elite discourse were much the same. Elizabeth Drew wrote in the New Yorker that “he was a reasonably competent governor of California and that his administration was more progressive than his political rhetoric suggested”; Richard Reeves observed that he had proved himself “passive, moderate, and moderately effective” at providing “big government as usual.”

* Governing is not a hero’s profession. It is a profession of compromises. Those pesky bureaucrats, always getting in the way with their infernal statistics; those issues whose incommensurate complexities don’t allow for Manichaean interpretation; the watchdogs of the press pointing out the contradictions.

* Reagan: “Is it a third party that we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which could make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all the issues troubling the people?”

Newsweek quoted a moderate Republican who saw him deliver those same lines on the mashed potato circuit in Illinois. It “went over like gangbusters with our crowd,” he said. “I don’t even like his philosophy, but I sure liked what he said about the party having one.”

* Later that April [1975], at the First Unitarian Church in Fort Worth, Texas, Pastor William Nichols invited parishioner Diana King to the pulpit. She announced, “I would like to do a sermon using exotic dance, and members of the congregation could join me if they like.” She stripped down to only a G-string. Pastor Nichols later told reporters, “I haven’t had one complaint. I feel like exotic dancing is a part of life. It fit very well into our service. We are inheritors of the Victorian ethic which I don’t accept. She was expressing herself and I think she got that over to the congregation.” He also said no one had been aroused—but if anyone had been, that would have been okay, too: “I don’t consider the erotic aspect of the dance wrong. After all, that’s the way we were conceived.” For Mrs. King’s part, asked by a reporter “if she thought her nude dance sparked any feelings other than spiritual,” she responded, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘spiritual.’ I don’t dance to frustrate people. I create a fantasy. I like to turn people on. I really felt good . . . it’s affirming nature and love . . . you can’t separate body from mind.”

It all became easy to mock. A cartoon in the February 28 issue of Christianity Today had Jesus rewriting “He that is without sin”: “To confront the moral challenge of the complexities and conflicts of our age will require that we resist the temptations of simple answers and resolve instead to be responsive to and responsible for a moral universe that is characterized by both continuity and open-endedness. . . .”

* It was like what Ronald Reagan had said on TV in 1964: “They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.” Those were the churches people were turning to now: the ones that didn’t doubt what was morally right. The Holy Roller Church of the Nazarene grew by 8 percent; the hard-core Seventh-Day Adventists grew by 36 percent; the Pentecostal Assemblies of God by 37 percent.

* One reason was a frantic right-wing movement that sprang nearly fully formed from the brow of a single, brilliant, indefatigable middle-aged woman from suburban Alton, Illinois. Phyllis Schlafly had been an accomplished conservative activist since not long after she received her master of business administration degree from Harvard University in 1945. In becoming so accomplished, she mastered a dubious mode of public presentation later adopted to great effect by leaders such as Louise Day Hicks in South Boston and Alice Moore in Kanawha County: just an innocent housewife, went her story, going about her business raising a family like any other, when her sudden shocked discovery of alien impositions on home and hearth by left-wing conspiracists forced her out of her kitchen and into the spotlight as a reluctant warrior for decency. Brochures for Schlafly’s 1952 congressional run, in fact, depicted her cooking breakfast in an apron—a housewife identity belied by the fact that she was running for Congress, and held a master’s degree from Harvard, but she never let the contradiction detain her. Instead she leveraged it to become perhaps the most effective organizer the right had ever known.

* The coalition behind Jackson-Vanik included some of the most liberal and most conservative members of Congress. That drove President Ford, who thought he’d acceded to the White House with a mandate to further advance what had once seemed to be Nixon’s most popular and uncontroversial achievement—détente—to baffled distraction. Now he wasn’t just negotiating with the Soviets. He was negotiating with Scoop Jackson—a puffed-up senator with presidential ambitions—on a piddling symbol. But not, apparently, to the House of Representatives, which late in 1974 passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment unanimously. The Gulag Archipelago had just wound up an eighteen-week run on the New York Times bestseller list. For conservatives, it served a powerfully emotional purpose: it let them believe that Brezhnev’s Kremlin, which merely consigned dissidents to mental hospitals, was still identical to Stalin’s, which sent them off to rot in sadistic frigid gulags while consigning millions of kulaks to die of starvation. It let them dismiss the nuances of diplomatic strategy as sheer moral abdication.

Ford bowed to political pressure and signed the the Soviets promptly canceled the entire new trade relationship so carefully negotiated by Nixon and Kissinger in 1972.

* Another outcome of the equal-time rule was that Barry Goldwater filled in for Reagan on his radio show. He said the same sorts of things Reagan did—ponderously, technically, and charmlessly.

On the campaign plane, Jules Witcover asked Reagan point-blank how he could possibly succeed when his positions on things like Social Security were the same ones that caused the 1964 nominee to be cut down at the knees. Reagan returned, “The funny thing is in the speech I made about him which was so well-received, I said some of the same things.” He then described, with a refreshingly rare frankness, how he accomplished this—how his rhetoric succeeded where Goldwater’s did not. “I’ve always believed that you say the qualifier first.”

* From the book The Final Days: His son-in-law Edward Cox said Nixon stalked the White House halls at night, “talking to pictures of former Presidents.” (Aykroyd to a painting of Kennedy: “Having sex with women within these very walls! That never happened when Dick Nixon was in the White House!” Another of the book’s revelations was that Pat and Dick hadn’t had sex in fourteen years.) Showing up at noon meetings so drunk that treasury secretary Simon thought he was acting like a “windup doll.” Pat spending all day in bed, drunk (he’d promised her in 1962, after all, that he’d never run for office again).

* [Carter] was quoted, deep within a New York Daily News story on April 2 concerning government policies to finance construction of low-income housing in middle-class neighborhoods, as saying: “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained. I would not force racial integration on a neighborhood by government action. But I would not permit discrimination against a family moving into the neighborhood.” A CBS reporter asked him, “What did you mean by ethnic purity?” He answered, “I have nothing against a community that’s made up of people who are Polish, Czechoslovakians, French-Canadians, or blacks who are trying to maintain the ethnic purity of their neighborhood. This is a natural inclination on the part of people. . . . I don’t think government ought to deliberately break down an ethnically oriented community deliberately by interjecting into it a member of another race. To me, this is contrary to the best interests of the community.” Asked to clarify by reporters in Indiana, which voted on May 4, Carter was convoluted: “I’m not trying to say I want to maintain with any kind of government interference the ethnic purity of neighborhoods. What I say is the government ought not to take as a major purpose the intrusion of alien groups into a neighborhood, simply to establish that intrusion.”

* the Reagan team spied in Henry Kissinger’s African peregrinations another opportunity for an offensive. “Rhodesia, primarily, and South Africa, secondarily,” UPI explained, “are favorite causes of right-wing Republicans and major U.S. industrial firms.” The generous interpretation of this was that conservatives pragmatically judged these maligned but pro-Western nations as important strategic bulwarks against the spread of Communism. (The world’s only other exporter of chromium happened to be the Soviet Union.) The ungenerous interpretation was that they thought black Africans lacked the capacity to govern themselves. Leave it to the silver-tongued Reagan to devise a rhetoric that made holding off on black rule sound humanitarian…

* Kissinger was livid. This was the real world he was dealing with: one of trade-offs, compromises, negotiation, intelligence assessments—such as the ones that, apparently, suggested the white government wasn’t long for this world, and that it was time to get on the side of the winners if America wanted to preserve a flow of cheap chrome for the future, and preserve stability in a newly vital strategic region. What the hell, Kissinger plainly thought, did Ronald Reagan know? (Or: what the hell did Kissinger’s old rival James Schlesinger, the right-wing former defense secretary now advising Reagan, know?) Ford gave Kissinger leave to vent spleen, on the record (previously, his attacks on Reagan had come through the media via an unnamed “senior American diplomat”). He did so on a plane to Monrovia, saying that Reagan’s warnings of a “massacre” were “totally irresponsible,” that “all states bordering Rhodesia have declared that the armed struggle has already started and as far as we can see, it has started. There is danger of outside intervention that would intensify it. I tried to develop a program that puts emphasis on negotiation and put a timetable on it as the only hope for avoiding massacre.”

* On [1976 California] election night Reagan’s adopted and biological children appeared onstage together for the first time, on a set made up to look like a train to the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. Wrote Michael Reagan in his memoir, “I was so proud to be on that stage with my father that I didn’t want the moment to end. If only some of the love those people had for Dad would somehow find its way to me, my problems would be solved. Please love me too, I thought.”

* America had not yet become Reagan’s America. Not yet. Reagan’s America would embrace an almost official cult of optimism—the belief that America could do no wrong.

* As for Goldwater, as he made his way to the podium, slowly, on crutches from a knee infection (he hadn’t even wanted to show up), the word “sellout!” rang out in the great hall. Afterward, in an interview, he sounded like Dr. Frankenstein surveying the work of his monster. His former supporters now working for Reagan, he said, were “some of the most vicious people I have ever known. If you waver an inch they call and write and say you’re a dirty s.o.b.” Extremism in defense of liberty: now a vice. Goldwater was gulping bourbon. He told his interviewer, “Reagan has become one of those people, the really ideological ones who won’t change.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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