Innocents and Skeptics

by Reihan Salam

Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge, a sweeping account of the American political scene from Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection to the presidential campaign of 1976, when Ronald Reagan emerged as the Republican heir apparent, has occasioned two excellent reviews.

The first, by Geoffrey Kabaservice in The National Interest, author of Rule and Ruin, an account of the transformation of the GOP from an ideologically diverse to an ideologically unified party, surprised me. Having scathingly criticized the conservative movement that came to dominate the Republican Party, I had expected Kabaservice to sympathize with Perlstein’s jaundiced take on charlatanism of the modern Republican right. Instead, Kabaservice teases apart what he sees as Perlstein’s too-neat division of American society into those who had grown suspicious of patriotic shibboleths in the wake of Watergate, with whom the author very clearly identifies, and the innocents who clung bitterly to the idea of America as “God’s chosen nation,” and who came to resent liberal critics of mainstream American mores. This neat framework overlooks the “complicated and somewhat contradictory views” held by conservatives and liberals alike, almost all of whom are “both innocents and skeptics in various measures.” According to Kabaservice, “today’s conservatives are simultaneously critics and boosters of America, fearful of its big government and deeply suspicious of its politics and culture while in the same breath maintaining that it is still the envy of the world.” To single them out as uniquely ingenuous is to fail to do them justice, and to give their political rivals more credit than they deserve.

And having closely studied Ronald Reagan’s rise for Rule and Ruin, Kabaservice offers a more complicated portrait of a pragmatic politician who emerged as an unlikely conservative folk hero:

Perlstein fails to grapple with what made Reagan a successful conservative politician in a liberal state, who would use his broad appeal first to come close to toppling Ford in 1976 and then to win the presidency outright in 1980. Perlstein equates Reagan’s early 1960s conservatism with the paranoia of the John Birch Society, but makes little effort to figure out why Reagan was able to campaign as a big-tent Republican or govern as a pragmatist. Perlstein claims that Reagan’s goal was to purify the GOP by kicking out all who did not subscribe to rigid conservative principles, when in fact Reagan opposed this sort of ideological cleansing. Reagan told California’s conservative activists in 1967 that they had an obligation “not to further divide but to lead the way to unity. It is not your duty, responsibility or privilege to tear down or attempt to destroy others in the tent.” He warned that “a narrow sectarian party” would soon disappear “in a blaze of glorious defeat.” The conservatives would have booed anyone else off the stage for offering this diagnosis, but they obeyed Reagan.

It’s still a mystery why a governor who passed the largest tax increase in his state’s history, signed the nation’s most liberal abortion bill and no-fault divorce law, and supported gun control and pioneering environmental legislation could have remained a hero to the conservative movement. It would never happen nowadays, but Reagan somehow threaded the needle. It’s not enough to say, as Perlstein does, that Reagan was merely opportunistic or sought to blame his actions on the liberals in the California legislature, who were “furtive and diabolical in ways unsullied innocents could not comprehend.”

Indeed, Kabaservice reminds his readers that many conservatives only backed Reagan out of a sense of resignation, as their hearts belonged to harder-edged conservatives who, unlike Reagan, were more unyielding in their convictions. Kabaservice also reminds us that whether or not you embrace his critique of the conservative movement, he understands it deeply. 

The second review, by Christopher Caldwell in Bookforum, is interesting throughout, and far more sympathetic to Perlstein than Kabaservice, particularly in its admiring conclusion. Caldwell’s discussion of Reagan as “a protean personality” is as intelligent as you’d expect. Yet I was particularly intrigued by Caldwell’s provocative, and convincing, counterinterpretation of the Watergate scandal. Caldwell argues that while Perlstein believes Nixon to have been both dangerous and ruthless, Perlstein’s narrative offers evidence for another interpretation entirely: “Nixon lost his job because people feared him less than they did his adversaries.” Nixon’s various abuses of power were if anything far surpassed by those of his Democratic predecessors, from whom Nixon and his allies learned a great deal. ”If impeachment was warranted because Nixon was corrupt,” Caldwell writes, ”it was actually carried out because he was weak and trusting and his party upstanding,” as various Republicans refused to close ranks behind him. And so Caldwell suggests that Watergate is perhaps best seen “as a kind of conspiracy or coup.” One hopes that Caldwell will at some point revisit this idea at greater length.