A Liturgy of Absolution
By Emmett RensinAugust 5, 2014
The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein
What I'm trying to accomplish is to figure out why we, as a nation, moved away from this moment of self-reckoning that I identify with the end of the Vietnam War and Watergate and the Church Committee, and moved toward this kind of culture that I associate with Ronald Reagan’s kind of empty celebration. What does it say about us that this person who was embraced by the American populace was someone who placed — at the center of his self-definition, his personality, his character — this notion that complexity is something you can push away with a kind of blithe affect of self-confidence?
— Rick Perlstein, 2014
Why should we subsidize intellectual curiosity?
— Ronald Reagan, 1980
ON THE COVER of The Invisible Bridge is a picture of Ronald Reagan. That much shouldn’t be surprising: the 40th president is, at least superficially, the subject of historian Rick Perlstein’s third volume on the rise of the American Right. But the particular image is striking. First published as part of a Life Magazine retrospective for the Gipper’s 100th birthday, Reagan strikes an awkward pose in the photograph. Straddled, literally, across the bumpers of two parked cars, he stands with his arms stretched out at obtuse angles, palms open, eyes closed and grinning. A microphone hovers over his left shoulder; a spattering of journalists and three-piece-suited staff men stand on the sidewalk behind. We can’t see the crowd for which he’s peacocking, but Reagan, aw shucks, he just couldn’t be happier to see them.
He looks like an idiot.
A good-looking idiot, at least. Even in the bizarre pose, even amidst the chaos of the scene, Reagan seems ready for a screen test. His suit hangs on his body just right, unhindered by a bulging breast pocket or the strange placement of his limbs. His head tilts back by instinct to find the most flattering angle of the sun. His hair is perfect. It occurs to me that if he weren’t Ronald Reagan — that is, if he were somebody I admired or even liked — this would be the sort of picture I’d want to make a poster out of. It’s a snapshot of cool — a performer by instinct and acumen doing precisely what he was made for.
This, I realize, is what Reaganites must automatically take from this photograph. The suit, the hair, the pose: they see Mick Jagger, if Mick Jagger were the kind of person Reaganites were inclined to find cool. Of course in some sense all politicians, even all human beings, inspire divisions in their audience. But Ronald Reagan was a superlative case. He possessed a preternatural, seemingly involuntary capacity to polarize, one which manifested itself long before he entered public life.
An early chapter tells the story of an editorial cartoon in Reagan’s high school yearbook. A local lifeguard whose reputation for heroism had no greater hagiographer than himself, Reagan — then “Dutch” — is portrayed pulling a drowningman out of the water. “Don’t save me, I want to die,” the man says. “Well, you’ll have to postpone that,” cartoon Reagan replies, “I want a medal.”
“Even before he was out of high school,” Perlstein explained to me in an interview, “You can see this kind of division of interpretations about Ronald Reagan. Either he’s the kind of hero that you’d follow anywhere, or he’s this shallow, self-serving phony.”
The image, both literal and metaphorical, of Reagan as a Rorschach Test is at the heart of Invisible Bridge. It speaks of the protean nature of the subject, a challenge for any writer who wants to be, as Perlstein says, “part of the first generation of writers and historians who could transcend” the residual bias still permeating our discussions of that era. If Reagan had an unusual ability to divide his observers in life, he has retained that capacity in death as well. Johnson, Carter, even Richard Nixon may be reliably considered with objective disinterest these days: time moves even the most decisive men into the grey view of history. But Reagan remains a flashpoint. As Perlstein tells us in the preface, even his typically reliable friends and confidants were not immune. One whose insight he hoped would be helpful to an early manuscript of the book begged off, unable to offer an objective view. “I’d best not send it,” he relates her saying, because “she couldn’t think straight about Reagan for all her rage.”
If Perlstein, for his part, successfully resists the twin, reflexive gravities of Reagan, it was not by navigating timidly between them. Rather, his success lies in passing through them both.
The Invisible Bridge, in a sometimes focused, sometimes panoramic style familiar to readers of Perlstein’s earlier work, achieves one of the oldest aspiratory tropes of historical scholarship: find the small story, the sliver of time, which tells some larger tale about our nation. In this case, it is the period from 1972 to 1976 wherein America, on the verge of some great reckoning with itself, turned away and embraced a simple story of its own innocence: the Shining City on the Hill.
Taken with the prior titles in his series — Before The Storm (2001) and Nixonland (2008) — The Invisible Bridge explicates not only the contradictory pathologies that compel our visceral, competing views of Reagan, but the varied means of coping and denial which have sabotaged our every effort to resolve the traumas at the bottom of our national character.
In a 2012 essay for The Baffler, Perlstein summarized his intellectual ambitions like this:
I write long history books that are published with photos of presidents and presidential aspirants on the covers. The photos are to please the marketers: presidents sell. But my subject is not really powerful people; biography doesn’t much interest me. In my view, powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics. The leaders are easy to study; they stand still [...] Grasping the shape of a mass public, though, is a more fugitive process. Publics are amorphous, protean, fuzzy; they don’t leave behind neat documentary trails.
Thus the appeal of The Great Divider. If leaders are the means by which we map the pathologies of a people, a leader possessed with a special talent for sharpening those pathologies makes an especially good cipher. “I’m writing about us,” he told me, “I’m writing about the citizens of The United States and what it says about us that these people succeeded or failed as leaders. They’re the kind of whetstone on which we define our own identities.”
The practical consequence of this is that Perlstein must engage in exactly the kind of biographical writing he normally eschews in order to draw a portrait of this amorphous American “us.” His gambit for doing so is through Ronald Reagan the man, and so by extension, the America he represents. “You cannot do the kind of history I do without a deep understanding of the leader's biography,” Perlstein told me. But necessity does not immunize against comparison, and The Invisible Bridge is at its weakest in the sections devoted to exploring Reagan’s early life.
That isn’t to say they aren’t illuminating. Perlstein is a perfectly competent personal biographer. The sections of The Invisible Bridge tracing Ronald Reagan’s pre-political life — from his boyhood in Illinois through broadcasting, the Hollywood B-List, and a formative G.E. spokesmanship, to his ultimate debut as an outright political player — contain a satisfying degree of narrative detail and more than a few variously ironic anecdotes (an incident of Reagan bragging about his intra-marriage sexual adventures stands out). But more than any particular plot, the biographical portions give a sense of Reagan, and this, I suspect, is what Perlstein considers valuable. Stressed over and over are two essential points: first, that Ronald Reagan was an instinctively perceptive performer, one unusually able to discern an audience’s desired narrative, and play to it. Second: that this behavior was not fueled by malicious intent, at least not at first. Rather, it was the inevitable byproduct of Reagan’s childhood: the son of an itinerant drunk father and a ultra-zealous mother with a martyr complex.
As a result of this chaos and contradiction, Reagan became, according to Perlstein, what psychological literature refers to as “The Boy Who Disappears.” Often alone and likely scared, he was eventually seduced and redeemed by the common tropes of boyhood adventure stories, wherein a downtrodden, inauspicious protagonist guided by the hand of divine hand of providence proves himself a hero, and in the end, is an instrument of good versus evil. This idea, that all events must work together for the good eventually, became the guiding principle of Reagan’s life — a kind of coping mechanism for processing otherwise unbearable pain. As the book explains: “Ronald Reagan framed even the most traumatic events in his life — even his father’s funeral — as always working out gloriously in the end, evidence that the universe was just.”
But while The Invisible Bridge does a deft job of drawing out these essentialisms about Reagan, it is difficult not to occasionally feel bored by them. Somewhere after the fifth or sixth anecdote wherein Reagan “remembers” some event that never happened, or frames the world in maddeningly simple moral terms, one begins to wonder if he’s any less predictable than the protagonists of the Horatio Alger novels he so loved. Perhaps this is a failure of Perlstein’s writing, perhaps of Reagan’s character. Perhaps it is only a failure by comparison: as far as the wrinkles and tragedy of character go, what figure could ever serve as an adequate successor to the titular character of Perlstein’s Nixonland? (Perlstein, for his own part, concedes this final possibility: “Richard Nixon was probably the most fascinating human being ever to walk the earth. I say about him what Dr. Johnson said about London: if you’re tired of Richard Nixon, you’re tired of life. So yes, Reagan is not as interesting as Nixon. But no one is as interesting as Nixon.”). The biographical sections do, at least, serve their purpose. In Perlstein’s equation for discerning the collective unconscious, The Invisible Bridge’s account of Reagan’s life gives a clear impression of the man through whom we are meant to understand the era he defined.
But unsurprising to anyone familiar with Perlstein’s work, The Invisible Bridge is, for long stretches, about people and events outside the immediate sphere of the man on the cover. It focuses on the period from the apex of Watergate in 1972 to the final night of the 1976 Republican National Convention: the Watergate hearings, the Church Committee, the end of the Vietnam War and the return of its POWs, the presidency of Ford and the candidacies of Carter, Brown, Udall, Wallace, et. al. are conveyed through news clips and panoramic synthesis, drawing on everything from internal memos and Robert Novak columns, to the plots of the era’s most popular movies — a favorite vantage point of Perlstein’s (“If you see what politicians do as trying to kind of tap into kind of a deeper sense of what people are feeling but can't quite articulate, and turn them into ‘issues,’ you've got to look to things like movies and popular culture as another outlet of those deeper feelings. Otherwise it’s all just elections and polls,” he explains).
These sections are when The Invisible Bridge is at its strongest — thankfully, Perlstein’s interest in the public’s fungible psychology aligns well with his strengths as a storyteller. The action moves almost acrobatically between cultural events, allowing the reader to absorb the national mood of a given year or season. Taken in total, they testify mightily to Perlstein’s powers as a researcher — one gets the sense he may have read every Elizabeth Drew column ever published. More importantly, they reflect Perlstein’s capacity to synthesize history into a sort of somatic rush of understanding.
What emerges is the sense of an era unusually primed for reckoning. The United States, in Perlstein’s view, has at its core a litany of traumas — “uncomfortable truths,” he says, “revolving around America’s bloodlust, its racial calamity, its inability to make peace with the Earth.” Like all traumas, they are typically too awful to contemplate, and yet perversely are the root cause of the perpetual disruptions within the surface life that seeks to deny them. The perpetual upheaval of American Life: the failures of consensus, the chaos of the ‘60s, even the ascendant radicalism of the present day — all of this stems from divisions at the heart of our national character, as of yet unhealed.
Ordinarily, Americans are able to carry on despite all of this, sufficiently distracted or soothed into a broadly sustainable denial. But in the early 1970s, The Invisible Bridge argues, events conspired to throw our national dissonance into sharp relief. The Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the revelations of the Church Committee: it was simply too much to ignore anymore, and for the first time in generations, Americans began to seriously contemplate its own failings. “There’s something Freudian in the idea of revisiting our trauma, the idea of re-experiencing it in order to redeem it,” Perlstein told me. Perhaps the ‘70s would finally prove the intervention that we needed: the moment America could finally face its conflict and transcend it.
But then, Ronald Reagan appeared. The Boy Who Disappeared, the boy whose whole life was a coping mechanism to guard against the painful possibility of confronting wounds too deep. Perlstein is fond of a Harold Lasswell quote: “A successful aspirant to leadership is one who private motives are displaced onto public objects and rationalized in terms of public interest.” The final third of The Invisible Bridge dovetails the story of the man and the era and attempts to make sense of his improbable rise, how the aging, airheaded former governor came, by 1976, within a parliamentary maneuver or two of wresting the Republican nomination from an incumbent President; how four years later he would be elected in his own right, lending his name to a political revolution. In the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, the United States was on the verge of a painful reckoning with itself. It was a reckoning a long time coming, and yet its necessity, even its (apparent) inevitability did not lessen the attendant dread brought with it. But then Ronald Reagan came, and he offered us an easy way out.
He wasn’t the only one selling redemption, of course. By Perlstein’s theory, any successful politician of the post-Watergate era would speak to America’s uncomfortable awareness of its own failings, and somehow offer us a path toward redemption. The Invisible Bridge devotes a significant portion of its second half to following Jimmy Carter’s road to the presidency, and the most striking sense one gets from the story is that — despite our present historical common sense — Carter was, in some ways, as capable as Reagan at speaking to the country’s desire for newborn innocence.
Yet Carter ultimately failed. Reagan succeeded: even to his detractors he is a world-historical figure, apparently important in a way Carter cannot be even to his greatest admirers. Part of that, Perlstein claims, is the luck of history: Carter came first and inherited an economy Richard Nixon ruined while Reagan benefited from the recovery that followed. But the better part of their difference was in how they displaced and rationalized their personal objectives in terms of public interest.
“Where Reagan and Carter converge,” Perlstein explains, “They’re telling a story about American innocence. But where they diverge is that Carter believed that in order to achieve that innocence, we had to acknowledge all of the damage that was going on.” In other words, we needed the painful reckoning. “Whereas Reagan’s intuition was the confidence with which he never even acknowledged those problems existed.”
Reagan offered the easy way out: the story of America that had never lost its innocence, where all the apparent upheavals of our trauma were not rooted in our national character, but in forces outside of it. “Carter's appeal at the time was that he spoke to this mood in the dominant political culture that something was deeply wrong,” Perlstein told me, “but for Reagan, the idea was that the things that were wrong were foreign forces, things that weren’t really America at all. All our troubles with race, with violence, with corruption: they had somehow invaded America like a bacillus.”
“What Reagan was saying was that there is nothing in Watergate, for example, that's essential to the American character. That it can be wished away because America is fundamentally decent and good. He just kept on saying it. And the fact that he said with such confidence gave people a kind of psychological permission to believe the same thing.”
This is what Perlstein calls the “liturgy of absolution”: Ronald Reagan’s capacity to cleanse America of its transgressions without the pain of self-reflection. For those who saw the heroic hometown lifeguard, this liturgy was the salve that put their troubled minds at ease. But for those who saw the man in search of a medal, it was the essence of Reagan’s sin, the moment we surrendered our last, best chance to heal ourselves. The fairy tale was more appealing. The division of a people, laid bare by their reaction to a leader: in exposing this, at least, The Invisible Bridge achieves Perlstein’s stated goal.
“The liturgy is seductive,” Perlstein told me. Consider his radio broadcast during the final fall of Saigon: “Reagan is on the radio, talking about the USS Midway rescuing widows and orphans on the high seas in Vietnam. And you can almost hear it and you can almost hear yourself say, ‘Oh. That’s what the USS Midway was doing in Southeast Asia in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was rescuing widows and orphans.”
Everything works out gloriously in the end. It did for Reagan’s liturgy, at least. On the back cover of The Invisible Bridge, there’s a quote above the plot synopsis: “We keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that providence is with us and that we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth.” It’s from a campaign speech by President Obama, and it’s sure not the story of America that Jimmy Carter would have told.
The Invisible Bridge is the story of how a certain sort of conservative pathology became ascendant in American political life. But if that pathology — that America is decent and good, that the devil, both without and within, is always lurking at the gates, that our innocence has never been lost, but must always be defended against the creeping influence of otherness — is responsible for averting a critical referendum on our national character in the late 1970s and 80s, a rather obvious question remains: Why did the opportunity, stolen or not, emerge only after 200 years of history?
The answer, of course, is that it didn’t. In the first chapter of The Invisible Bridge, Perlstein introduces a phrase taken from a New York Times editorial published in the wake of the Civil War: “small and suspicious circles.” In its original coinage, it dismissively referred to those — like abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison — who were apt to point out that despite the show of national redemption made after the end of the war, “the new system of agricultural labor taking root in the South and enforced by Ku Klux Klan terror hardly differed from slavery”: in other words, that we had not yet entirely redeemed ourselves. Perlstein returns to this phrase throughout the book. The “small and suspicious circles” are those who, at any time in our history, become acutely aware of our unresolved national traumas. At times, these circles are truly small. At others, they are growing. Their ebb and flow is a recurring phenomenon of our national life, whereby we lurch from time to time toward the sort of reckoning that Reagan purportedly averted. “America the Innocent,” Perlstein describes it, “always searching for totems of unity it can never quite achieve — even, or especially, when its crises of disunity are more pressing: it is one of the structuring stories of our nation.”
“The ‘return to normalcy’ enjoined by Silent Cal after the Great War; the cult of suburban home and hearth after World War II; the union of hearts declaimed by Adams on Boston’s Bunker Hill parade ground after the War Between the States. And in 1973, after ten or so years of war in Vietnam, America tried to do it again.”
Taking only the story in The Invisible Bridge as a guide, one might be inclined to imagine all our failures of redemption have occurred in the same way: the American Left, expanding the suspicious circles to a point of genuine influence, are dashed when a figure like Reagan emerges to offer an easier tale of its own innocence. But the history of our collective coping mechanisms is not so simple. If there exists a conservative pathology characterized by a desire to reject the very existence of our trauma, there exists a complimentary liberal faith, which holds this trauma is too easily overcome.
Consider the case of the Civil War. While the compromises that preceded the conflict might be taken as aversions, it is difficult to argue that no moment of reckoning ever came. The most profound of our transgressions — chattel slavery — was confronted; through the shedding of blood, it was redeemed. The sin of men like Garrison, in the view of the then-Times, wasn't believing in the existence of a problem which did not exist. Rather, it was insisting on the persistence of one the new consensus saw as solved.
We place our faith in a peace won cheaply; we do so, even though this dream, in its own insidious denial, leaves us especially vulnerable each time we wake up again. The temporary comfort is easier than the reckoning, even for the suspicious circles. So we choose the myth we can control: just beyond the next election, some consensus will emerge. Some new order will sweep away these problems, and we’ll have sanity again, guilt-free. That’s the innocence for which the Left keeps striving.
“Unless liberals tell stories about the possibility of transcending these fundamental characteristics of America, I don’t know how we would get up in the morning,” Perlstein says. The trouble is that we tell the story too readily.
One only needs to consider the prior titles in this series to see it: in Before the Storm and Nixonland, it is not a Reagan who steals our chance to save ourselves, but over-eager liberals — Eisenhower, Johnson — too eager to declare us saved, and destroyed when that saving fell apart. It continues through the present day: “Remember 2008, when Barack Obama was elected and the world was saved and there was a new electorate?” Perlstein asks me, “It happened again in 2012. But then just this year, we watch Eric Cantor lose his primary to some crazy Ayn Randian economics professor, and suddenly in turns out the pundits who are always telling the same story, that sanity is about to be restored, are laid low once again.”
The desire to avoid pain, to seek out any distraction from the work true redemption would entail, is a bipartisan inclination. Perhaps the liberal version is more nuanced than the rightwing kind: the left does, at least, admit that we have a problem. Yet our response is in some sense more dangerous: time and again, we engage in tokenism, acknowledging and combating some section of our trauma while leaving the larger part untouched. It never works, of course: so long as the traumas persist, they will disrupt false consensus as readily as they will Reaganesque denial.
“America is always losing its innocence,” Perlstein tells me, caught between the men who say we never lost it, and those who counterfeit its coming back again.
Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa City.
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