From the bestselling author of Nixonland: a dazzling portrait of America on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the tumultuous political and economic times of the 1970s. In January of 1973 Richard Nixon announced the end of the Vietnam War and prepared for a triumphant second term - until televised Watergate hearings revealed his White House as little better than a mafia den. The next president declared upon Nixon’s resignation “our long national nightmare is over” - but then congressional investigators exposed the CIA for assassinating foreign leaders. The collapse of the South Vietnamese government rendered moot the sacrifice of some 58,000 American lives. The economy was in tatters. And as Americans began thinking about their nation in a new way - as one more nation among nations, no more providential than any other - the pundits declared that from now on successful politicians would be the ones who honored this chastened new national mood. Ronald Reagan never got the message. Which was why, when he announced his intention to challenge President Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, those same pundits dismissed him - until, amazingly, it started to look like he might just win. He was inventing the new conservative political culture we know now, in which a vision of patriotism rooted in a sense of American limits was derailed in America’s Bicentennial year by the rise of the smiling politician from Hollywood. Against a backdrop of melodramas from the Arab oil embargo to Patty Hearst to the near-bankruptcy of America’s greatest city, The Invisible Bridge asks the question: what does it mean to believe in America? To wave a flag - or to reject the glibness of the flag wavers?
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Rick Perlstein is a brilliant writer and political analyst. His two previous books, one about the rise of Goldwater, the other about the rise of Nixon, were chock full of surprises: Perlstein is a master of the forgotten detail and the hidden pattern. In the third book, he presents the rise of Reagan against the backdrop of Nixon’s fall. Together the three books provide new insight into the growth of modern-day American conservatism.
One of the surprises in this book, for me, was Perlstein’s negative attitude toward Jimmy Carter. I have a higher opinion of Carter’s presidency than most people, and his actions after his presidency have only increased my opinion of him as a man. But in Perlstein’s view, virtually every action, every speech of Carter’s is tinged with hypocrisy and vindictiveness. It's a puzzling attitude on the part of an author with whom I seem to be in agreement on almost everything else.
The book ends with the 1976 Republican convention. And another surprise for me was how divided that convention was. Ford and Reagan arrived at the convention with neither having a clear majority of delegates. The horse-trading that gave the nomination to Ford also saddled him with the most conservative platform in American political history. This was the year the Republican Party and antiabortion activists became fellow travelers.
I lived through those times, and I've always thought of myself as a well-informed and moderately active political junkie. And yet I don't remember any of that. Perlstein turns it into a nail-biter.
David Devries is not nearly as good a reader as Perlstein is a writer. It took me a long time to get used to his pattern of pauses and emphases. I played a lot of the book at 1.25x and even 1.5x speeds (to tell the truth, I listen to most books at a minimum of 1.25x at this point); the faster speeds seemed to even out the rhythm of the narration. By the time I was about a fourth of the way through, I stopped noticing the narration and was able to immerse myself in the story. The one complaint I still had at the end of the book is a trivial one: Devries, like most audiobook narrators who tackle this period, repeatedly mispronounces Gordon Strachan's name. Maybe different branches of the family pronounce the name differently; but for this minor participant in the Watergate scandal, the last name rhymes with "brawn," not with "bacon."
Much of the book is given over to a biography of Ronald Reagan. I knew little about his past going in, and Perlstein’s account is by turns informative, caustic, and sympathetic. Reagan didn't have an easy time of it: he grew up in grinding poverty with an alcoholic father. He became a lifeguard; he went to a small Christian college; he acted in school plays. He became a sportscaster and later an actor in Hollywood. So far so good: the caustic part comes in when Perlstein notes the many contradictions and exaggerations in Reagan's account of his past. Many of Reagan’s stories about himself are not, Perlstein says, borne out by other accounts. Yet there was a sunniness about his disposition, a warmth of character, that left people wanting to believe everything he said.
If Nixon saw everything as a PR problem, Reagan saw everything as a fairy tale - and saw himself as the white knight riding to the rescue.
He turned his charm to political advantage, first in the actors' union, then in California politics. He became a staunch anti-communist early on, converted by a single meeting with FBI agents who gave him the "scoop" on his fellow union activists. (If that's all it took to convert him, he was probably more than halfway there already.)
Come 1976, many conservatives in the Republican Party were disenchanted with Ford’s (and Kissinger’s) realpolitik approach to foreign policy. They saw Reagan as Goldwater’s heir and pressured him to enter the race. When he did, all bets were suddenly off, and the convention in Detroit was one of the more rambunctious of modern times.
I've only scratched the surface of Perlstein’s comprehensive narrative. Among other things, he covers the Watergate hearings, the Nixon impeachment hearings, the sad tale of Patty Hearst, the return of Vietnam POWs, "peace with honor," the EPA, the Arab oil embargo, “Ford to NY: Drop Dead!”, and the race riots in South Boston. To read the book is to relive the period, with the benefit of a much greater historical context than was available at the time.
I hope he writes at least one more book on the topic. I would love to read his account of the Carter and Reagan presidencies.
I have a different take on this book than most of its readers because I'm of a later generation. Being born in 1976, I didn't live through any of these events. I grew up during the Reagan years, and have had to learn a little history to understand his appeal. While it's clear that Perlstein has a point of view, the narrative remains factual. In fact, as a relatively liberal reader, this book, as well as Nixonland, have done a great job of helping me understand the conservative concerns and motivations of the time. The portrayal of Reagan as "always aware of the gaze of others", as the eternal optimist, as a black and white thinker, and man who sees a "good vs evil" storyline in everything, does not come across to me as contemptuous. It actually does a lot to explain the appeal that he had at the time, and why he was such a polarizing figure. This book also helped me understand the decision by the Republican Party to abandon moderate positions that placate liberals and moderates, in favor of gaining the strong recognizable party identity that has served them fairly well ever since. Any book of this sort will have some bias in what information is included and excluded. The fact that Perlstein writes in a manner that makes his own point of view obvious makes his book honest and forthright, not biased or misleading. Perlstein doesn't shy away from including plenty of unflattering facts about the liberals of the time, either.
The narrator's voice is not my favorite, but I got used to it. He's clearly a trained professional, and he presented the material admirably.
The writing is engaging, and the details he chooses to include really paint a vivid picture that made me feel like I was living through the time period. This is probably the book's greatest strength. Still, I do agree with those who have said that the book is too long. While Nixonland was as gripping as a roller coaster ride from beginning to end, there are stretches where this book drags a bit. Perhaps the minute procedural details of the politics of the day are more interesting to those who lived through the time period than they were to me.
If I were to recommend one of Perlstein's books, it would certainly be Nixonland, but if you liked that one, The Invisible Bridge will be almost equally enjoyable.