Rick Perlstein, man of the Left and wannabe historian, has finally produced the third book in his trilogy about modern conservatism. It’s too bad he bothered.
The new volume, The Invisible Bridge, is ostensibly about Ronald Reagan’s rise to the pinnacle of American politics. But it’s not really about Reagan — more on that later — and it’s not really history, either. It’s what’s known in journalism as a “clip job,” and an astonishingly one-sided, idiosyncratic, and dishonest one at that.
Sam Tanenhaus, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, reviewing the trilogy in The Atlantic, dismissed Perlstein out of hand as simply a “Web aggregator.” Tanenhaus goes on to call Perlstein “intellectually lazy” and says his writing is now characterized by “an insistent vulgarity.” Perlstein, he adds, “now finds rumor more illuminating than fact.”
Nathan Heller of The New Yorker dismisses Perlstein’s work as “cheap, and obfuscatory, and heading toward intellectual dishonesty . . .”
Noted liberal essayist Steve Donoghue witheringly wrote that Perlstein’s book has a “stink of sloppiness and data-massaging.” Data-massaging is a polite way of saying “making it up.”
A reviewer for the Buffalo News, Edward Cuddihy, found it “disturbing that Simon & Schuster has chosen not to include footnotes or endnotes in the print version of this book. . . . If this is to be considered legitimate history . . . endnotes must be included.”
Meanwhile, Geoffrey Kabaservice in The National Interest called Perlstein “simplistic” and concluded that his book was “a bridge to nowhere.” He says of Perlstein, “He continually inserts himself into the narrative with sarcastic asides that make reading the book akin to watching an episode of the cult television show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which the movie onscreen is drowned out by its wisecracking spectators.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Perlstein, it goes downhill from there.
Another reviewer said the book was a disaster until the last 70 pages — which curiously is where Mr. Perlstein stashes the bulk of what he plagiarized from me. Quin Hillyer and Jeffrey Lord, respected and influential conservative writers, also dismissed Perlstein as nothing more than a prevaricator and a Reagan hater. So did Reagan speechwriter Peter Hannaford and conservative historian Lee Edwards.
Since it became clear in the summer of 2014 that Mr. Perlstein had heavily plagiarized from my account of the 1976 campaign, Reagan’s Revolution, I have been mostly silent, letting others speak out. And how they spoke out. Across the gamut, from liberal scholars to conservative historians, reviewers have trashed his book and questioned the way Simon and Schuster monitors its authors.
To remove all doubt about Mr. Perlstein’s plagiarism, I commissioned a respected, independent book reviewer and expert in plagiarism, Martin Wooster, to conduct his own study. The final page of Wooster’s report reads: “In conclusion, my review of Reagan’s Revolution and The Invisible Bridge revealed that Mr. Perlstein used Mr. Shirley’s words, phrases and original expression, as well as quotes and information developed in the course of Mr. Shirley’s original research, all without sufficient attribution or citation. Mr. Perlstein also appears to have been unusually reliant on Mr. Shirley’s analysis of newspaper and magazine articles, because out of very large stories, he repeatedly used in The Invisible Bridge the very same bits and pieces that Mr. Shirley used in Reagan’s Revolution. It is my opinion that these actions constitute plagiarism.”
It’s not that Mr. Perlstein is a poor historian; he is no historian at all. One cannot badly misreport or twist facts and still be called a historian. Perlstein’s garbling of events is akin to putting John Hancock at the head of the American Revolution rather than George Washington. His book has no endnotes, no footnotes, no superscript, and no subscript. Indeed, at the end his book self-servingly claims that such citations are worthless. Yes, if you are attempting to conceal your sources, then such effort is counterproductive. Perlstein uses other people’s research, other people’s interviews, and other people’s work, mostly without attribution or credit. If this book had been a college paper, he would not only have earned a failing grade but might well have been tossed out for academic violations.
An expert on the matter of citations, Ruth Harris, a professor at the University of Oxford, kicked away Perlstein and his style coldly, saying, “Detaching your scholarly apparatus from your empirical work feels uncomfortable.” Her book on French medicine and science in the 19th century contained over 100 pages of endnotes. She was horrified that anyone would suggest that her research citations be cut out of her book.
But Mr. Perlstein is not just careless and unscholarly; he also has a strong leftward bias. In fact, he has a long career in professional liberal politics, working for many years for the Campaign for America’s Future, a left-wing pressure and influence group. His job there was to attack American conservatism in a blog unimaginatively titled “The Big Con.” But it does prompt the question of who really was the bigger con man. After all, Perlstein raved several years ago about the book Tear Down This Myth, which was less a critique and more an utter and complete molestation of Reagan by another clichéd urban leftist, Will Bunch. Kabaservice says Perlstein’s knee-jerk leftism “makes [him] an unreliable narrator — incapable . . . of attempting any objective evaluation.”
Perlstein clearly loathes Reagan in every imaginable way. One reviewer said Perlstein had “withering hatred and contempt for Reagan.” Edward Cuddihy, whom I cited above, wrote, “An up and coming Ronald Reagan is characterized [by Perlstein] as a Midwestern huckster who found limited success in Hollywood despite being a little dense, a little lazy. . . . Reagan never probed beyond the surface and imagined every event with a fairytale ending.” No one has ever been so devastatingly wrong about Reagan.
It’s not just that he conducted no apparent original research (other than watching television at the Vanderbilt news archive); he interviewed no one associated with Reagan or Ford, no campaign staffer, no historian, no member of the national media; nor did he visit the Reagan Library or the Ford Library — it’s not the rampant plagiarism of my work, or Jules Witcover’s or Elizabeth Drew’s or Lee Edwards’s — it’s that Perlstein makes stuff up!
To name just four rewrites from my book, Reagan’s Revolution, he took a nice, innocent story from 1975 about a chance encounter between Reagan and a young female Californian and turned it into something dark, tawdry, and crude. In another, Perlstein deliberately misrepresents the story I wrote about the date of Reagan’s announcement in November of 1975, falsely claiming Reagan wanted to hold his press conference challenging Ford on the 22nd, the anniversary of the assassination of JFK. Perlstein also completely fabricates a story about the suit Reagan was wearing that day, turning my truthful telling about the “purple plaid suit” into yet another canard.
Finally, he deliberately prevaricates about the last night of the 1976 GOP convention in Kansas City, when Reagan made his impromptu remarks. Perlstein attempts to reinvent history, again shaping events to fit his liberal views and leftist intentions, saying that what happened that night was all planned, it was all a fraud foisted on the 17,000 people in Kemper Arena and the millions watching on TV. According to Perlstein’s sophistry, the media, Ford, Reagan, and the delegates were all in on the deception. Yes, and 13 years earlier, they were all in on the Grassy Knoll, too.
The esteemed William Kristol recently observed, “The corruptions of modern liberalism are deep,” and one need only recall Stephen Glass (also published by Simon and Schuster), Jonah Lehrer, Timothy Geithner, Jonathan Gruber, Fareed Zakaria, Jayson Blair, and other disreputable liberals, all of whom demonstrate Kristol’s point. Perlstein now says he is “studying” another book of mine, Rendezvous with Destiny. Hmmm . . .
To begin at the beginning, the one time I met Mr. Perlstein was at a Washington luncheon for the paperback release of his Goldwater book. There, someone asked him what his next book was going to be, and he said he was going to write about how Reagan brought the dark forces of the Christian Right into national politics. He went on at length, and I sat there, listening with amazement and amusement at his vivid liberal sophistry. At a pause, I patiently explained to Mr. Perlstein that it was not Ronald Reagan but Jimmy Carter who had brought the Christian Right into American politics; how Carter ran as a born-again Christian; how he often invoked God and Jesus; how, on the eve of the 1976 election, his campaign broadcast a national television special featuring the Reverend Pat Robertson; and how Carter received 60 percent of the Evangelical vote in 1976.
Mr. Perlstein was obviously embarrassed, especially when former congressman Bob Walker spoke up, seconding my survey of the 1976 campaign. Sulking, Mr. Perlstein did not offer a rebuttal, but simply skulked away. I was astonished, realizing then that he was no historian, just a liberal bent on rewriting conservative history, as we’ve recently seen with other liberals, dismayed at how venerated Reagan has become.
Mr. Perlstein later accused me of having mistakes in the 2,300 citations in Reagan’s Revolution. He said there were ten wrong citations involving the Washington Post and the now defunct Washington Star. I defended my researchers and fact checkers and my own work, but asked him to send me those ten anyway. I didn’t hear back from him.
A week passed and I called, asking where they were. Mr. Perlstein simply laughed, and said that he had been mistaken and I was right. He then went on to ask me to review his forthcoming book on Nixon and Reagan! I replied that I was busy but might be able to. His publisher sent me a copy, and after a few minutes of flipping pages, I was aghast at the absence of scholarship, the gratuitous trashing of Reagan, and the serial plagiarism. That his book has been plugged by the leftist book sections of some newspapers is of little consequence. It is a matter now of metaphysical certitude that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized extensively.
His few supporters have seemed more motivated by bias against conservatism and Reagan than by a genuine belief in him or his work, but bias is bias, and as the respected writer Amanda Bennett wrote recently, “Bias in support of a cause you love seems righteous. Bias in support of a cause you hate seems evil. Either way it is bias. And bias is so, so close to hatred.”
To paraphrase lifted quotations without proper identification or citation is prevarication. And as my literary agent wrote to Simon and Schuster, “Examples involve verbatim reuse or sophomoric edits, such as on page 539 where Mr. Perlstein seeks to obscure lifting several contiguous sentences from Mr. Shirley’s book simply by changing ‘embrace’ to ‘arms around’ — failing in the tweaking process, however, to correct the necessary shift in gender of the third person possessive pronoun from ‘his’ to ‘her.’”
My attorney later documented dozens of examples of plagiarism committed by Mr. Perlstein from my work. Passages about Reagan and aide Mike Deaver on an airplane in 1975 are nearly identical, as are stories about the Kansas City Convention. I wrote of Kansas City, “even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.” Perlstein wrote, “The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.” I wrote, “Reagan, watching on television, dissolved in laugher.” Perlstein wrote, “He [Reagan] watched it in his hotel suite, dissolving in laughter.”
All told, dozens of such “similarities” exist between my Reagan’s Revolution, published in 2005, and Perlstein’s book, published in 2014.
Though Samuel Johnson did not say it, a quote often attributed to him is apropos. “Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”
Professor Harris said simply, “You stand on the shoulders of all these people who have been burrowing away, and you cannot act as if all this information is yours.”
There are plenty of good Reagan historians from the Left and the Right. Rick Perlstein is just not one of them.
— Craig Shirley, the chairman of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, is the author of two best-selling books about Ronald Reagan, Rendezvous with Destiny and Reagan’s Revolution. He is also the author of the best-selling December 1941: 31 Days That Changed America and Saved the World. He is now writing several more books about Reagan, including Last Act. He has lectured at the Reagan Library, is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Reagan Ranch.