The Invisible Bridge

by Rick Perlstein

 

This chapter in Rick Perlstein’s chronicle of the modern conservative movement picks up where Nixonland left off, after the infamous Watergate break-in but before the Nixon administration’s crimes were revealed publicly. While Perlstein continues that story, through Congressional investigation and Nixon’s eventual resignation, The Invisible Bridge isn’t really about Nixon. Rather, it’s about the transition in conservative leadership from Nixon to future President Ronald Reagan.

When I read Nixonland a few years ago, I thought it was probably one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’d ever read. Perlstein’s narrative tells the parallel stories of Nixon’s rise to power and the nation’s ever-growing cultural divide in a way that makes his point clear: these two stories are one story. Nixon was adept at using social change for his own purposes, and he contributed in large part to our perception of the 1960’s to this day. (This, pretty much.) Reading Nixonland as a young gun who never lived through that decade, I figure it’s the closest I can get to understanding the feel of the era without having been there. Perlstein’s writing has this visceral quality that can take you back in time without making it seem like you’re travelling to a completely foreign land. His Nixon-era America is striking and familiar at the same time.

Perlstein paints an amazing portrait of Nixon, as well. Even through all the sliminess, Nixon comes across as a great intellect and a strong-willed leader. While he might not exactly be persevering- more than once, he quits politics after losing an election- he’s a man of energy and passion. These attractive qualities helped him to inspire the kind of loyalty that led his underlings to carry out undemocratic and criminal acts, and to subsequently go to jail for them. We tend to remember the Richard Nixon who looked sweaty and unshaven on TV, who seemed out of touch with his era, and who seemed to disdain American democracy, but Perlstein makes Nixon into a very impressive figure.

This leads me to the first difference I noticed between Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge: Perlstein’s utter contempt for Ronald Reagan. Reading Nixonland, you can tell that he has a grudging sort of respect for Richard Nixon, both as a man and as a leader. He respects Reagan as neither. The Invisible BridgeAs a Democrat myself, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Reagan was not the superhero that he’s made out to be in the media, and that his brand of conservatism has darker foundations than we typically like to think about, but even I found myself wondering whether he’s being given a fair shake in this book. Perlstein’s Reagan is a born charlatan, lying to himself and to others because a better story was always more true than the facts could ever be.

I do think that character matters in politics, but it doesn’t seem accurate to try to paint a picture of Reagan, or anyone for that matter, using cherry-picked examples from every stage of his life. I don’t mean to imply that Perlstein uses anything out of context, since he’s generally very careful to provide as much context as possible, but I think he might be conveniently leaving a few things out. For example, I think it’s highly suspect that Perlstein’s Reagan never acts altruistically. Are we expected to believe that  Reagan’s never done anything with pure motives? Do anecdotes from his youth really reveal anything about his character? Does tweaking a story for different audiences make him a pathological liar? According to Perlstein, yes, yes, and yes.

Another thing that bothered me this time around was Perlstein’s use of real events as snapshots or microcosms of the contemporary national mood. Reading Invisible Bridge earlier this summer, I couldn’t help but do try to do this myself, and it turned out something like this:

“Meanwhile, America was tearing itself up over identity issues. A simmering activist movement known as Black Lives Matter, formed to protest violence and police brutality in minority communities, was courting controversy and causing white people to wonder whether their lives were valued in America anymore. A woman named Rachel Dolezal, a Spokane-based leader of the NAACP, was revealed to be a white woman passing as black. Sexuality and gender, too, all of a sudden seemed fluid. Bruce Jenner, celebrated Olympian, reality TV star, head of the infamous Kardashian clan, came out as a woman named Caitlin. And on June 26, the Supreme Court of the United States legalized same-sex marriage across the land. Whether you were looking at the New York Times or the New York Post, all you could see was a society that was becoming less recognizable by the day. You were afraid that you might wake up tomorrow and not recognize yourself in the mirror.”

See what I mean? It’s easy to start with some facts, mix in some commentary, and produce an anecdote presenting opinion as absolute truth. Were those things going on this past summer? Well, yea. Are the issues related? Some of them, sure. Does it really represent our time period? Maybe, maybe not. If you’re reading a passage like that fifty years from now, who are you to say? Nothing in that passage is inaccurate.

This writing style a bit sketchy to begin with, but Perlstein goes back to this particular well constantly. And maybe it’s because I wasn’t on board from the start, but these passages just got more and more tedious. Hell, one of his sky-is-falling incidents had to do with bees in a baseball dugout. Another related to Doc Ellis getting ejected from a game after trying to bean every batter he faced. I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t use the MLB as a marker for American political culture. Perlstein’s repeated use of this style seems intended to mask the absence of a real immersive experience.

As a follow-up to Nixonland, I was personally disappointed with The Invisible Bridge. Nixonland portrayed a perfect alignment between a man and his time period, as well as between the author and his subject matter. Not only does Perlstein know his stuff, but his portrayal of America in the 50’s and 60’s feels effortless. Everything seemed so real and tangible, almost as if I was actually watching a documentary, or even living the experience. The Invisible Bridge shattered that illusion for me. Instead of easily immersing readers in the subject matter, Perlstein felt like a museum tour guide who really wanted to convince me that his perspective on the exhibit was all-important. So sure, he knows what he’s talking about, and he’s probably right, but it really detracts from the experience a bit.

Compared with Nixonland, The Invisible Bridge feels like a step backward for Perlstein. The split focus on his two major subjects- Nixon and Reagan- doesn’t help, nor does Perlstein’s obvious contempt for the latter. The half of the book concerned with Reagan seemed like a chore compared to everything that came before it, which was generally fantastic.

American Nations

by Colin Woodard

 

We Americans carry a bunch of different identities: ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, race, political affiliation, and so on. Depending on your values, some of these identities may be important to you, or not at all. Colin Woodard argues, however, that there is another identity that is both impossible to ignore and virtually unknown: that of our respective “nations.”

These unseen nations strongly influence our values and help to sort our other identities. American Nations MapSome nations are individualistic, others communitarian; some diverse, others intolerant; some authoritarian, others egalitarian. The values of each nation derive from those of the original European settlers of the territory, as indicated in the names of New France, New Netherland, and El Norte. Other nations are founded by religious minorities, Caribbean slavers, or Scots-Irish immigrants, and others derive their values from settlement patterns in the western half of the continent.

This paradigm seems refreshing to me. I know the concept of regional differences isn’t new, but Woodard backs up most of his claims with historical evidence, and he explains historical events in ways that seem to fit his interpretation. For example, his account of the Civil War demonstrates how the so-called “border states” came into being, and why “conservative” Appalachian areas such as western Virginia and eastern Tennessee largely opposed the breakup of the Union. Going further back, Woodard views the Revolutionary War not as a unified continental effort, but more akin to a series of “national” wars of liberation. Instead of, “The war in the north meets the war in the south at the decisive Battle of Yorktown,” Woodard describes each nation’s reaction to the war, and puts regional opinions and activities into greater context to explain why the war happened the way it did.

An obvious criticism of this model struck me pretty early on. How can the most important identity in American culture be something that 99% of people have never heard of? We know about regional differences, but Woodard defines these differences in very specific, distinct ways. Would most Americans understand how a Bostonian was different from a New Yorker or a Philadelphian? Do eastern Marylanders understand themselves to be part of a culture that’s centered in Virginia? Do Montanans align with Georgians politically because they consider themselves to have the same values, or is it a looser, “lesser of two evils” coalition? Woodard has well-defined nations, and I think that’s a plus, but culture isn’t always clearcut. Every state and locality in America has a slightly different feel, which makes me wonder when it’s appropriate to identify one nation, and not another.

There are other questions I have as well. Woodard calls southern elites “slave-lords,” and that works for most of his historical account; I’ll forgive him the use of that term for the hundred years after the Civil War, for even though slavery had been defeated, southern blacks were not full citizens in any sense. After the civil rights era, though, I question Woodard’s assessment of Deep Southern culture. For one thing, it seems like he excludes black Americans from his monolithic “Deep South.” They’re an identifiable ethnic minority with a different set of values, so I question why this never becomes one of Woodard’s nations.

Secondly, Woodard seems to believe that while southern culture has changed with the times, it’s still a culture based on traditional values including racial inequality, just as it was at the time of the Civil War. Is he really trying to say that the federal government hasn’t, at the very least, dragged the Deep South, kicking and screaming, into a modern, tolerant America? The Deep South described in American Nations would abhor, even in 2015, a nation that allows minorities of all types the same political rights as anyone else. American NationsThe lack of an ideological alignment between Woodard’s Deep South and modern American society and politics, and the lack of a real neo-secessionist moviement, present a problem to Woodard’s thesis. Perhaps Americans are loyal to the idea of the United States, or they’re just afraid of the federal government; whichever it is, Woodard doesn’t address this dilemma.

If I can get in one more challenge to American Nations, it’s to Woodard’s prognostications about our future. Throughout our history, Woodard says, we’ve held our federation together, sometimes by a bare thread, often through sheer luck. The inference that one might draw from this is obvious: the United States of America is an unstable coalition that will fall way easier than we’d like to think. He reminds us that only a couple of decades before the fall of the USSR, a prediction of that collapse would seem equally outlandish. In comparing the longevity of the US to that of the USSR, Woodard’s implying that we might only have decades left as a single country before we splinter. While he doesn’t actually predict a timeframe for this dissolution, he quotes academics who believe that El Norte (stretches of the southwest that had been colonized by Spain) will cease to be part of the US within a hundred years.

Obviously, I don’t believe that. I think there’s more to being an American than living in a region with a defined cultural history. Americans clearly have different values in different places, values that often conflict with one another. We fight for our values tooth and nail. But values can change. Woodard’s assessment of Yankeedom (New England and large swaths of the midwest) changes over time, from intolerant utopianism to a more inclusive communitarianism. Woodard traces these cultural changes among the nations, and then bafflingly concludes that our nations are perpetually incapable of finding common cultural ground; in his view, we’re just a collection of nations with diametrically opposed views, similar to Huntingon’s Clash of Civilizations, but on a smaller scale. I disagree with this assessment; I think there’s more that brings us together than pulls us apart. But only time will tell who’s right.

Anyways, I thought American Nations was really great. Woodard assembles our shared cultural history into a completely new model, and backs it up with solid evidence. I didn’t always agree with his conclusions, but  Woodard’s created a fascinating account and a concise, readable narrative. I’d recommend this book to any student of American history.

A More Perfect Constitution

by Larry J. Sabato

 

I picked up A More Perfect Constitution at the campus book store when I was taking a summer class at community college. The book wasn’t on the curriculum for whatever class I was enrolled in, but I thought it looked interesting, so I went for it anyway. I know, it’s weird to buy a book for a class you’re not taking. But that’s how it went down, and here we are.

Sabato, a political science professor at UVA, argues that we need a Constitutional Convention to address several major problems with American democracy. While we could amend the Constitution the traditional way- with two thirds majorities in the House and Senate, followed by three quarters of state legislatures- Sabato believes the Convention would be an easier way to effect the major changes we need, and would foster a renewed interest in our democracy. I’m a bit skeptical; I think Sabato downplays the hurdles that would need to be overcome in order to even get to the Convention. Then again, he’s on TV regularly and I’m not; judge our opinions accordingly.

As to what Sabato actually wants to change, it’s kind of a lot. He puts forth proposals to reform all three branches of the federal government, along with many aspects of our social and political life. These ideas, as Sabato himself is eager to point out, are not exclusively ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in ideology, and most simply aren’t part of our political debate at all. A More Perfect ConstitutionFor example, one proposal would enshrine in our Constitution the duty of every American to perform some amount of service, whether military or civilian, public sector or private. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad idea, but it’s pretty far out there in terms of policy that’s on the table right now. Likewise, Sabato would like to tinker with term lengths for the President and members of Congress, an idea that doesn’t exactly have a grassroots movement behind it.

On the liberal side, Sabato wants two things: to get the money out of politics, and to make voting easier, with a national voter database. Both of these concepts, you may be aware, have only gotten more attention (and become more controversial) since A More Perfect Constitution was published in 2007. On the conservative side, Sabato proposes enacting term limits and requiring that the federal government balance its budget, an especially strange inclusion given that the majority of that section of his book seems to argue against the balanced budget amendment. I’m taking a wild guess- not casting aspersions- that Sabato feels the need to include ideas from opposing ideologies to bolster his own nonpartisan image. (Again, the view from fucking nowhere.) It’s a shame, because all of his other ideas seem earnest and well-conceived, the intricacies of when Presidential and Congressional elections happen being a good example. But, God forbid anyone would dare compare him to a Democrat, so we end up with a wishy-washy endorsement of a couple mediocre ideas.

Sabato didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his book, but I, for one, enjoyed reading about his proposals. His views on the shortcomings of the Constitution are meant to stir his audience’s mindgrapes and get us thinking about how we view the Constitution: what still works, what should be tweaked, and what long-overdue changes we need to make. Disagreeing with Sabato’s ideas is just step one towards coming up with your own solutions. As a patriotic American and a political junkie, I love this stuff.

I understand that not everyone feels that way, but I still think it’s important for all of us to think critically about our Constitution. As unlikely as it seems that one of these amendments (or any, for that matter) will gain momentum anytime soon, it never hurts to try to learn more about the way our government works. Why do Congress and the President always bicker over who has the authority to conduct war? How come the Supreme Court seems to make so many important decisions? And, most importantly, why does our government generally suck? You can’t answer these questions without understanding the Constitution, its origins, and its limitations.

The Constitution is not just a symbol, like our flag or our anthem; it is the foundation of our government and our way of life. Everyone in this country should have some basic understanding of what that means, and Sabato’s book is as good a place to start as any.

The Ascent of Money

by Niall Ferguson

 

My attempt to grapple with economics and finance is a recurring theme of this blog (alongside my love/hate relationship with fantasy). This post falls right into that category.

Ferguson’s main argument with The Ascent of Money is that financial innovation leads to an increase in economic activity and, in the long run, individual prosperity, even if there are some bumps along the road. That this argument seems a bit defensive, in the wake of the recent market crash, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong. Ferguson writes as if he knows he’s fighting an uphill battle: convincing us, the unwashed masses, that banks and hedge funds aren’t responsible for our current predicament. In my opinion, he partially responds to this by dumbing down his explanations, presenting simplified histories, and essentially ignoring examples that don’t fit in neatly with his argument.

For me, this isn’t a problem most of the time. Ferguson’s histories of everything from credit to insurance are enlightening to a layman such as myself. I do have a problem, however, when I finally feel comfortable enough to have questions of my own, questions that Ferguson doesn’t really want to answer. The Ascent of MoneyOf course, it’s a book; perhaps it’s unreasonable of me to expect that the author is only presenting information exactly on the level of my understanding. That book would be impractical, and it probably wouldn’t sell a lot of copies. On the other hand, unanswered questions feed into this feeling I get, the feeling that when it comes down to it, financial experts don’t really want us to understand how the system operates. It might make us question the status quo.

But let’s turn from cynicism back to the book itself. I do feel like Ascent helps put into context the new financial techniques that are partially responsible for the most recent financial crisis. To hear Ferguson tell it, finance has always been an arms race between, on the one hand, whatever geniuses have the newest ideas on how to make money, and, on the other, industry regulators. From the invention of bonds to the first stock market to the derivatives of the last couple decades, people who handle money for a living are always looking for new ways to take the money they have and use it to create more money. Whether because these new schemes are initially too complicated to effectively oversee, or because those meant to oversee the schemes have a stake in seeing them succeed, or perhaps because there’s no regulation at all, the latest financial ideas often succeed wildly in the short term, only to do lasting damage to existing markets in the long term.

I’m guessing that’s not the message that Ferguson wants us to get from his book. As I said before, his thesis is that financial institutions, while often willing to use other people’s money for what turn out to be risky endeavors, actually help people by providing financial stability. For example, though the first insurance companies definitely made money, they also provided a needed safety net for widows; a service that the government couldn’t really provide. On this broad point, I agree: developments in the field of finance have generally made people better-off. But the connections between credit, debt, and wealth creation can’t be ignored. Even when the system is at its most efficient, there will be winners and losers, and when the system becomes unbalanced, there may all of a sudden be many, many more losers.

Again, I’m grateful that Ferguson acknowledges this truth; it makes his argument for the necessity of financial institutions that much stronger. Michael Lewis, in Boomerang, muses that people are justifiably angry about the way their financial futures were disappeared in the Great Recession, despite the lack of a natural vent for that anger. Ferguson, while willing to accept that people aren’t really sold on the glorious benefits of finance right now, essentially wrote Ascent to argue the opposite case. Rather than bemoaning a lack of easy targets for our ire, he readily identifies the responsible parties, and then proceeds to make a solid case in their defense.

As much as I complained about it, I didn’t actually hate The Ascent of Money. Ferguson clearly sees his role as defending the financial world from the wrath of the hoi polloi- but that’s fine, because he’s even-handed, and he never implies that finance has the ability to create a perfect world. Ascent can be pretty dry, but if you’re interested in the subject matter, go for it.

Johnny Cash: The Life

by Robert Hilburn

 

Johnny Cash died September 12, 2003, at the age of 71. My memories of this event are pretty vague. I had just been in a major bike accident, spent a week in the hospital, and was on the verge of starting my first year of high school- two weeks late. I also wasn’t a huge Cash fan at the time, but it was all over the news, and Time magazine memorialized him on the cover. For a while after, if you’d asked me what I knew about Johnny Cash, my reply would’ve been that he died while I was hurt. That’s it. The Cash biopic came out a few years later, but when I saw it I pretty much agreed with Jon Stewart: “Ray with white people.”

Cash didn’t make an impact on me until my 20th birthday, when my dad gave me a guitar. I don’t lay claim to any musical ability, but for a while the guitar was a fun pastime for me (I really need to get back into it), and one of the first songs I learned was Cash’s “I Walk the Line.” I don’t remember why; maybe because it’s distinctive enough that even if I fucked it up, people would still recognize it? I dunno. The point is, though I knew nothing about Cash when he died a decade ago, I have been converted. I’m a fan.

Hilburn’s Johnny Cash tells the man’s story, from his childhood in Arkansas through the end of his life. He covers Cash’s stint in the Air Force, rise to stardom in the 50’s, troubled relationship with June Carter, problems with drugs for most of his life, struggle for relevance, and declining health in later years. Johnny CashWhile Hilburn’s writing should be enough to keep you interested, I found that much of my enjoyment came from being a fan of Cash’s music. Seeing the origins of “Folsom Prison Blues,” and then watching it climb the charts, just wouldn’t work as well for me if I wasn’t listening to the song on repeat in my head- and then comparing Hilburn’s story to the end product. As a fan, this is great, and it keeps a pretty hefty autobiography fresh and enjoyable, but it makes me wonder whether a non-fan would be able to get through the book.

Whether you’re a fan or not, though, I’m guessing that there might be a few things that will grab you like they did me. Cash’s drug abuse, for one. It’s scary, at times, to trace his transformation from a road musician, who turns to pills to help keep him up for concerts, into a self-destructive addict who can barely take care of himself, let alone his family. The cycle of addiction, with alternating periods of rehab and relapse, took its toll on me; I found myself rooting for him to succeed, and disillusioned when he would inevitably fail.

This pattern was reflected in other aspects of Cash’s life as well. It probably won’t surprise you that his drug addiction took its toll on the music. His career, starting off so well in the 50’s, would get out of hand pretty often- he could almost instantly go from genius to hack in the public’s mind. Sometimes going years without inspiration, Cash nevertheless felt compelled to keep putting out record after record that wouldn’t make a dent in the charts, often borrowing the styles of contemporary musicians or using a formula that had worked for him in the past, such as the horns that made “Ring of Fire” stand out.

All of this takes place in the context of Cash’s steady progression into old age, probably accelerated by his on-and-off drug addiction. It’s tough to watch the guy who had been a young gun in country music turn irrelevant over the course of a few decades (and just a few hundred pages), his attempts to revive his career looking more and more desperate. And I, for one, didn’t realize how sick he actually was for the last decade of his life, barely able to make music and completely unable to tour.

Cash’s story would simply be one of fading glory were it not for his reinvention in the 90’s, courtesy of hip hop producer Rick Rubin. Cash and Rubin worked on several albums together, and what must’ve struck many as yet another gimmicky ploy turned out to be the perfect pairing. Often drawing inspiration from contemporary artists, these records are simultaneously vintage and modern Cash, and the product is all the more impressive considering his fragile health. His cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and the accompanying video are a haunting account of his final years, underlined by the images of Johnny and June just months before their deaths.

I definitely know more about Cash than I did before. Is all of this new information necessary? No, probably not. I didn’t really need to know  his first wife’s name, or what years he was stationed in Germany, or exactly how many cycles of relapse and recovery he went through. On the other hand, this stuff provides context for Cash’s music, so as a fan I absolutely appreciate it. Hilburn is thorough, but he doesn’t get caught up on irrelevant factoids; he makes sure that if he’s dropping some information, it’s relevant to the larger story of Cash’s life, which is powerful enough to stand on its own.

Johnny Cash was a fascinating man and Johnny Cash is a fascinating book, so I’d recommend it to anybody interested in Cash or his music.