Rick Perlstein’s Second Draft of History

Ronald Reagan Attends Republican National Convention

Ronald Reagan at the GOP convention he didn’t win and the Rockefeller-Ford-Dole team that beat him in 1976.

Rick Perlstein is the hyperkinetic close reader of politics just yesterday. The Invisible Bridge is his third big brick of a book — an 800-page magnifying glass on just three abysmal years between Richard Nixon’s second inauguration in 1973, his Watergate downfall in 1974, Ronald Reagan’s near-miss revolt against Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter’s rise to the White House, all in that grumpy bicentennial year, 1976.

Funny thing: these were the years when (a) I covered national politics for the New York Times and (b) we know in retrospect that something else was going sour in American life – the fall-off in middle-class incomes; the final retreat from Vietnam without a course of lessons learned; the forking (now 40-year) trend to inequality.

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I’m engaged here with Rick Perlstein before a summer Sunday crowd at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, and we’re still trying to get our heads around the big players in the ’70s story, especially Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan who would shoot it all out in 1980. I’d been one of those reporters writing what we fancied was the first draft of history. Rick Perlstein is revising the picture in the middle distance. We agree that orthodox reporting never gets the joke — as when the Times dismissed Ronald Reagan after 1976 as “too old” to consider running again.

My own view then and moreso now is that we underestimated the secret peacenik in Ronald Reagan, the man who’d always been scared stiff of nuclear weapons and managed as president to end the long MAD standoff with Russia. “In real life,” I’ve noted elsewhere, “we got to know Ronald Reagan as rather a gentle and available Main St. cowboy, a populist for the well-to-do, a phlegmatic character with quasi-isolationist ‘fortress America’ instincts. He was open and clear about his anti-Communist foreign policy. Yes, he was a sneaky bully in Central America, but he was extremely cautious in action otherwise.” Further, I thought the Times and others covered up Jimmy Carter’s odd ideas and sponsorship — coming from right-to-work Georgia and then the Trilateral Commmission, a stranger to the Democratic tribulations over civil rights and Vietnam. In an Atlantic Monthly cover piece after Carter got to the White House, I argued, “He’s a Rockefeller Republican.” (July 1977, a collector’s item.)

But it’s Rick Perlstein’s second draft we’re talking about, and his view that Reagan, starting in that thwarted 1976 campaign, fathered the era we’re still living in — longing for innocence, hooked on fantasy and exceptionalism, in a traumatized, divided country and a skeptical world.

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