A sweeping account of how the Reagan years began as the Nixon era

Cover00Christopher Caldwell at Bookforum:

“HE WORE A PURPLE PLAID SUIT his staff abhorred and a pinstripe shirt and polka-dot tie and a folded white silk puffing up extravagantly out of his pocket.” This was not some tea-sipping Edwardian dandy. It was Ronald Reagan announcing his presidential candidacy at the National Press Club in November 1975, as described by the historian Rick Perlstein. Back then, Reagan was, to most people, a novelty candidate, with a bit of the fop or eccentric about him. Political affinities and antipathies have since hardened into a useful but wholly unreliable historical “truth” about Reagan’s political career, one that casts him as either a hero or a villain. It requires an effort of the imagination to see him as the voters he addressed did.

Most historians of the late twentieth century wallow in their youthful prejudices. Not Perlstein. For two decades, he has been scraping away layers of self-justifying platitudes and unreliable recollections. A leftist (one assumes) with an empathy for insurgents and underdogs of all stripes, he has opted not to write the eleventy-zillionth recapitulation of this or that New Deal or civil-rights milestone. He has focused instead on the followers of various reviled and misunderstood conservatives, particularly Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, sometimes revealing in them an affinity for straightforward radicalism. He is a man of the archives—patient, punctilious, refreshingly disinclined to moralize.

Perlstein’s ambitious new chronicle, The Invisible Bridge, runs from Nixon’s reelection in 1972 to the 1976 Republican-primary campaign, when a staffer to Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, warned in a memo, “We are in real danger of being out-organized by a small number of highly motivated right-wing nuts.”

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