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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  • Emily Corwith

    Fascinating conversation as always … amazed that someone born in 1969 could be so conversant with this era that he could be of my generation … the generation of Vietnam and Watergate …

  • plaintext

    I just can’t get my head around the Ronald “Gipper” Reagan pipe dream. This is the same guy that gave us the MX Missile, Star Wars (post-anti-ballistic-anti-ballistic-missiles) and Welfare Queens (not to mention the UCB beat-downs of then Governor Reagan.) Reagan’s term might be called the “Gorbachev Presidency” or maybe the “Leprechaun Presidency” – everywhere he stepped, “’twas a pot o’ gold don’t ye know.” Hell, even Al Haig thought the guy was a
    done deal – a fantasy wishing itself real.

  • “….longing for innocence, hooked on fantasy and
    exceptionalism….”

    Aren’t those coming from Transcendentalism?

    longing for innocence: inherent goodness
    hooked on fantasy: “metaphor-run” lapsing into “mysticism for mysticism’s sake” (Poe)
    exceptionalism: self-reliance and independence; an optimism about the future

  • Potter

    You almost made me forget my own feelings about Reagan. But yes (aha!) it was his emotional intelligence that made him so well loved. And yet I don’t think Republicans who invoke his name every election, it seems, ( and for crass reasons) really know or understand any more than that it was (anyway at least for me) almost a surface quality, a performance, when it comes to the difficulties of running an administration. Reagan seemed out of it, hands off, backed off, letting things run themselves, skimming, and then stepping in when the timing was right with the right line. “Mr. Gorbachov…..tear down that wall”, when it was already happening.

    I wondered how we survived Nixon only to wonder how we would survive Reagan. And then the Bush’s especially GW made them look good. Rick Perlstein says it all at the end. This was such an interesting conversation, especially since I had absolutely no admiration for Reagan, nor was I willing to give him any credit at all.

    Thank you.

  • Pete Crangle

    Interesting discussion. I seem to have an endless fascination for Chris’ adulation of President Reagan. Chris, you are clearly a much more fair-minded, reasonable, and reasoned being than myself. I cannot but fail to observe your generosity of thought and turn of spirit that no human being is the sum of their faults or virtues. That said, I’ll add the following bitter pill:

    Given the events that have been unfolding across the country, most notably in Ferguson, MO, we should remind ourselves of the brutal murder of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner by a gang of Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County Mississippi in 1964. They were honored this week by President Obama with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We should also remind ourselves of Candidate Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair “states’ rights” speech in August of 1980. Here’s some thoughts from Bob Herbert in 2007 Righting Reagan’s Wrongs? by Bob Herbert

    “Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

    Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

    That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

    Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.

    He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about “states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.

    […]

    To see Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in its proper context, it has to be placed between the murders of the civil rights workers that preceded it and the acknowledgment by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater that the use of code words like “states’ rights” in place of blatantly bigoted rhetoric was crucial to the success of the G.O.P.’s Southern strategy. That acknowledgment came in the very first year of the Reagan presidency.”

    Reagan didn’t need to act out publicly in the manner of Bull Connor or the Klan. Instead, he commandeered this voting block. An obvious problem for President Carter. In regards to foreign and domestic policy, I would credit President Reagan as a master of the Deus ex machina policy formulation. Fantasy is its main crutch. The fantasy that history is within the purview of a small cadre of connected, primarily Caucasian, insiders to manage.

    Lastly: “The first precept of Ronald Reagan: be as shallow as spit on a rock and you will prevail.” — Norman Mailer.

    Happy Thanksgiving Chris & Team ROS.

  • Potter

    Reagan brought us “Reaganomics” (“trickle-down” “voodoo”). I remember him saying “”It’s your money. You earned it, you should keep it” Simple. Makes sense. And so the argument started,

    Reagan: “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Tax cuts went to the rich. We started “starving the beast” as Paul Krugman put it.

    So if we complain about our crumbling infrastructure today, about inequality, isn’t it fair to look at Reagan’s legacy including all the candidates that echoed what he said since? Simple language yes.