'Invisible Bridge' an exhaustive ï¿½ and exhausting ï¿½ chronicle of 1970s
09/05/2014 3:05 AM
09/05/2014 3:05 AM
"The Invisible Bridge" by Rick Perlstein; Simon & Schuster (860 pages, $37.50)
It's a cliche. The college professor asks for a show of hands. How many of you know about the Vietnam War? Nobody. Watergate? A sprinkling. (Maybe they saw the movie with Robert Redford on Netflix.) The kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst and that whole business with the Symbionese Liberation Army. Huh?
So for those who didn't live through the '70s, or have forgotten most of what they did live through, Rick Perlstein's "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan" is where to go to catch up.
In this brick of a book, Chicagoan Perlstein has done a jampacked job of chronicling a riveting, portentous period of American history that in many ways taught us lessons we still haven't learned: Engaging in a futile war. White House cover-ups (President Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman"). CIA spying on everyday Americans. A yearning for a brighter, better future after what's come before (President Barack Obama's hope and change).
Perlstein's exhaustive retelling of this period's history is also exhausting. I kept thinking he could have told the story more effectively in half the space. In short, you have to really, really want to know about Watergate and the 1976 presidential race to cross the finish line at page 804. His last chapter is titled "The End?" In my head, I changed that "?" to a "!" If the book had been a marathon, I might have made it only to mile marker 9 or 10.
The conceit of Perlstein's book is that the misery and national despair of the Vietnam War, the Watergate burglary that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the worst peacetime recession the country had ever known, skyrocketing grocery prices and gasoline lines - all that is what led to the ascent of the "genial ostrich" Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was an athlete of the imagination, a master at turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-hearted certainty. Transforming his life, first in his own and then in others' eyes, into a model of frictionless ease - and fashioning the world outside him into a stage on which to display it - was how he managed to fly.
Perlstein's point is that the shattering Nixon revelations and resignation begat the ascendancy of Reagan, whose second-rate acting career might well have ended with his hard-line governorship of California. But capitalizing on events, and to everyone's surprise but his own (and that of his adoring wife, Nancy), he won the presidency. Twice. It turns out Americans were looking for a leader who acted as if everything was just swell.
Some of the most fascinating passages come early in the book when Perlstein puts young "Dutch" Reagan on the couch and analyzes how, through an act of will, he convinced himself that his unsettled childhood was wonderful. From the age of 11 or so onward, all his stories had happy endings.
Perlstein contends that politician Reagan came along when the nation yearned for a hero, a sunny figure who sat high in the saddle and made us feel good about ourselves again. It was a role he had been preparing for most of his life. He was the cleansing breath a rattled nation needed to emerge from the chaos of Nixon, the bumbling of Gerald Ford and the ineffectuality of Jimmy Carter.
It's an intriguing argument, and Perlstein makes it credibly. But that story line seems almost an excuse for the recap of the tumultuous decade that consumes most of the book.
Much of the historical review relies on accounts from newspapers and periodicals from the era. The continuing references to what the Washington Post was saying, what the Chicago Tribune wrote, what was on the cover of Time, what "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau observed, and the seemingly endless return to the '70s chronicles of New Yorker magazine's Elizabeth Drew get old, tiresome and predictable.
Chicago columnist Mike Royko pops up - cited as the voice of Everyman - when, for instance, he writes from the 1976 Democratic convention: "We don't need any more highly skilled liars. We've already been pushed to the brink of a national nervous breakdown by that. We deserve a break."
We could have used a little more Royko and a lot fewer excruciating details about state-by-state primaries and ponderous delegate tallies as Ford and Reagan fought for the 1976 GOP presidential nomination. Similarly, the Watergate retelling didn't need to take us through every twist and turn and witness to Nixon's perfidy. We get it.
That's not to say a reprise of this period isn't a worthwhile endeavor. After all, almost 60 percent of Americans weren't alive in 1970 and could use a primer on what they missed. And those of us who were around could use a little history refresher course, too. I know I did, and I'd been more involved than most. As a young reporter for the Chicago Daily News, I took dictation from the Washington correspondents reporting on the aftermath of the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters at the D.C. Watergate complex.
Yet I welcomed the reminders of the many jaw-dropping details of the lies Nixon told as he tried to squirm away ("the modified hang-out" strategy) as well as the bribes and dirty tricks engineered from the Oval Office. Then came those Senate hearings chaired by then-little-known, folksy U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin (D-N.C.) with "bushy eyebrows as tangled as a line of Arabic script."
And good grief, what a day that was when White House nobody Alexander Butterfield revealed at the televised hearings that in 1971 Nixon had a recording system installed to preserve for history his every word uttered in the Oval Office and in his executive hidey-hole. All the stuff he claimed he didn't know and didn't do? Well, gotcha!
Throughout it all, I'd forgotten until I read the book, Reagan was a deluded, stalwart Nixon defender. Nothing could shake his view that Washington still was that "shining city on a hill" and the events of Watergate were - huh? - "not criminal, just illegal." Cue the Marine band and "The Star-Spangled Banner."
In this long slog through the '70s, there are enlivening tidbits we might have missed at the time that made for good reading. Reagan's first wife, Jane Wyman, complained that he'd never shut up, and called him "diarrhea mouth." A book sitting on the desk in Reagan's Los Angeles office offers a telling peek at his uncomplicated take on the American spirit: Lawrence Welk's autobiography.
Major 1976 presidential candidates' medical records revealed that U.S. Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) had only one testicle and U.S. Rep. Mo Udall (D-Ariz.) had a glass eye. Perlstein adds that "a Washington joke suggested a Church/Udall ticket with the slogan 'Keep your eye on the ball.'" One of the revelations of the book "The Final Days" was that Nixon and wife Pat hadn't had sex for 14 years. And President Gerald Ford (the guy who pardoned Nixon) had hemorrhoid surgery. (So did President Jimmy Carter, although that's not in the book.)
Also, Carter's 8-year-old daughter, Amy, had a cat named Misty Malarky Ying Yang. The nation's Bicentennial celebration in '76, with its cheesy merchandise and corporate sponsorships, had "all the class of a holiday mattress sale." In the '70s "America went orgasm crazy" - an upshot of the publication of Masters and Johnson's "Human Sexual Response" and Dr. David Reuben's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask.)."
And one more thing we learn about the '70s: The f-word finally made the Oxford English Dictionary. From the scores of "expletive deleted" notations in the Watergate tape transcripts, it became clear that the f-word was a Nixon go-to. And once again Reagan rode to the rescue, telling reporters that in politics he, too, had resorted to language "I would not have wanted my mother to hear."
Tribune Senior Correspondent Ellen Warren is a former White House correspondent. She has written about Watergate, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and much of what transpired in the 1970s - and afterward.
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