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.

What It Takes

by Richard Ben Cramer

 

We know running for President isn’t easy. We know it’s not fun. The whole process is rough on the candidates, their family, and their staff. We have to assume, though, that it’s the best way- or at least, it’s the fairest way- to pick a President. But what does a two-year campaign for the White House really amount to? What does it accomplish? What do we learn about the candidates that’s actually relevant to the job?

What It Takes is Cramer’s way of trying to figure that out. The book follows six presidential hopefuls (Republicans George Bush and Bob Dole as well as Democrats Michael Dukakis, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, and Gary Hart) during the 1988 election, from before they’ve publicly announced their candidacies through the end of primary season. What It TakesWe also get a history of who these people are: where they come from, how they got into politics, and what makes them think they’re ready for the Big Job.

As a political junkie, I found it interesting just to learn about the candidates, all of whom I’d heard of but several of whom I’d known next to nothing about. Cramer jumps back and forth between the current campaign and the early lives of the candidates, connecting their personal qualities with their runs for President. Whether it’s Dole’s long and painful recover from injuries sustained in World War II, or Dukakis’ immigrant roots and lifelong struggle against corruption in Massachusetts, the candidates awed and fascinated me.

But while the book is ostensibly about the candidates and their campaigns, Cramer also focuses on the other half of the process- the media. And man, he does not like the media. In his view, each individual reporter is only out for himself, trying to become a respected journalist by ‘breaking’ a story that will change the race or even force one of the candidates out. When the media scents a ‘scandal,’ next to nothing will stop them from hounding the people involved, regardless of the harm they may cause to individuals and to our body politic itself.

Joe Biden’s campaign ran into trouble with the media when he alluded to speech by a contemporary British Labor politician. While Biden was running all over the country, using this borrowed section in his own stump speech, he forgot to attribute it at least once. When the video of this omission leaked, he had a plagiarism scandal on his hands, which led to a more thorough look into his past, which dug up an incident of improper citation at Syracuse Law, which eventually forced Biden from the race. You might think- Biden certainly thought- that a small mistake in law school and a one-time slip-up on the campaign trail shouldn’t disqualify a politician from being President, but in 1988, to Joe Biden, it did.

Biden was taken down by a group in the media that Cramer refers to as the ‘Karacter Kops.’ These journalists, and the interested public that they supposedly represent, look for any character flaw that they can find in a candidate that would disqualify him being President. Cramer views this as an unfair and dishonest practice, and openly disdains the Kops. He seems particularly sympathetic to Gary Hart, who had been the Democratic frontrunner until his own scandal blew up.

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: the picture that ended Hart's campaign

Gary Hart and Donna Rice: the picture that ended Hart’s campaign

The immediate cause of Hart’s problems was a photograph of him with a woman, on a boat. The woman wasn’t his wife. Hart, who thought that his ideas for the country should be all that mattered, who thought that his private life was not the public’s business, was forced out of the race. Of course, the media had preconceived notions of Gary Hart; he was a risk-taker, he was a womanizer. So when they finally had proof of both, they wrote their stories with glee. When he quit the race, they wore his exit as a badge of honor.

But Hart wasn’t the only candidate who was unable to break free from his own reputation. Throughout What It Takes, sinking campaigns do their best to show that they’re adapting, either superficially or substantively; in the end, only the media tells the story. (It’s sort of a tree falling in the forest situation; if the media doesn’t report on it, is it real?) Hart’s campaign couldn’t get anyone to see past his rumored character flaws, and his whole candidacy blew up with a single picture. Bob Dole, who’d worked harder than anyone to get where he was, had become a ‘hatchet man’ to the media, partially due to his time as Richard Nixon’s Republican Chairman and Gerald Ford’s running mate. Dole was presented as a spiteful, partisan hack, though he’d always tried to imbue all of his campaigns with a single attitude: Don’t be mean.

In running for President, the media attention makes the person almost inseparable from the politician. But every candidate has their own line that they refuse to cross. Having a limit, just one, makes it easier to cope. For Hart, the limit was way, way too far out there; he didn’t think anyone should know anything about his personal life. (Good luck with that one, bud.) Dukakis wanted to be able to campaign while still running the government of Massachusetts at least three days a week. Bush wanted to avoid sacrificing what he considered his greatest strength and asset- his friendships. When the Reagan Administration appeared to be on its last legs, Bush refused to put any distance between himself and the President, out of pure loyalty. All of the candidates wanted to hold on to something; Cramer argues that the process picks as a winner the candidate who finally accepts that he has to give up everything.

In a way, What It Takes serves as a defense of the candidates themselves against the unfairness of the process. While many people feel that everything wrong with our politics is reflected in our politicians, and vice versa, Cramer tries to separate the blatant cynicism of the electoral process from the genuinely good people who run for office. Each of the candidates in the book had a mix of ability and ambition that landed him in the national spotlight and propelled his run for President, though each would come up short at some point. (Dukakis lost to Bush in the general election; Bush lost to Bill Clinton four years later.) But the candidates’ ambition doesn’t mean they’re not human, or that they can handle the process any better than we can. One of the most emotional moments of the book came near the end, as primary season was winding down. Dick Gephardt, on the night of the Michigan primary, is waiting with his family and staff for the inevitable news that he’s just lost another one, when Jesse Jackson, another contender for the nomination, enters the room. They hug, and Gephardt cries on his rival’s shoulder. He’d found one of the few people in the world who understands what the process has done to him.

Gephardt loses the nomination. But just a few months later, he makes an important decision.

He’s going to run again.

What It Takes reads like an exceptionally long Rolling Stone article; it’s a detailed, entertaining, emotional saga. Cramer helps one identify with the hard-working and optimistic candidates, and then provides a visceral understanding of the process that will destroy almost all of them.

Drift

by Rachel Maddow

 

Drift details the slowly and steadily changing relationship between the American people and the wars we fight. Rachel Maddow describes how throughout most of our history the United States has had a small standing Army and has been reluctant to go to war. When we did go to war, the whole nation was involved, and the government was, for the most part, held accountable. Maddow insists that the way the military and the executive are currently structured, American society is almost completely insulated from the wars in which our government engages. DriftShe leads readers down the path from the Abrams Doctrine, in which the nation could not go to war without disrupting the lives of most Americans; through an era of ever-increasing deference to executive authority; to today, when the U.S. has more private contractors in war zones than military personnel, the president can authorize drone strikes with no oversight, and the military budget continues to balloon.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this topic- quite an important one, I’d say- requires a more extensive and scholarly approach than Maddow can offer. Well, that’s certainly fair, but I think that wouldn’t really be her style. If you’ve ever seen her show on MSNBC, you know she pays careful attention to balancing entertainment and information. Drift is something of an extension of that format, and it’s both smart and well-written. I think she’s certainly up to the challenge of a scholarly tome, but chose to write a book that’s accessible to a wider audience.

You might also be wondering whether Maddow is biased, and what that means for her audience. She certainly has a point of view, and most would call her a liberal, but that doesn’t mean shes not fair. In fact, while it’s easy to write her off as a partisan talking head, I find that she doesn’t jump to conclusions lightly, and she works hard to understand rather than demonize opponents.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. I started reading because I’m a fan of Maddow, and didn’t know what to expect beyond a broad-based criticism of our foreign policy. I found that it pretty quickly identified Ronald Reagan as one of the villains in the story of how we’re losing connection to our military. Sure, she basically kicks it all off with Lyndon Johnson, and criticizes all of our presidents up to and including Barack Obama, but you can tell that she’s got a special place in her heart for Reagan. She seems to think of him as an ambitious, shallow, dimwitted opportunist, and does not hold back in her criticism of his administration’s handling of Lebanon, Grenada, and especially the Iran-Contra affair. Ronald ReaganNow, I didn’t grow up during the Reagan era; the only Reagan related event that I can even remember is his death about a decade ago, so it’s difficult for me to judge the merits of his presidency. Maddow, on the other hand, doesn’t hold back.

However we got here, though, Drift makes a pretty compelling argument that the situation has become unacceptable. Maddow clearly cares deeply about our military, and seems personally affronted by the way that presidents have been using military power in our name. Actually, I really liked how personal these issues are to Maddow. She never forgets that we’re a democracy, and that to some extent we have collectively allowed this situation to develop. We elect both the president and the Congress, and should be holding our representatives to a higher standard. By reminding the audience that we are complicit in the ‘unmooring’ of our nation’s military, Maddow’s narrative may serve as a wake-up call that we need to take better care of our democracy. I personally doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon, but we shall see.

I’m also really glad that Maddow offers alternatives, instead of simply complaining. I’m so sick of reading foreign policy criticisms that don’t offer solutions, so much so that I read parts of Drift with trepidation: is she going to go beyond saying that Grenada was a clusterfuck? Where does she think our military should be involved, and who should make those decisions? Maddow isn’t afraid to take a stand on the issues, and to me that’s a breath of fresh air. In fact, Maddow addresses this foreign policy cowardice at points in Drift, noting that oftentimes the legislature is afraid to take a stand on the use of force until they’re sure we’ve been successful- or unsuccessful. This simply puts more authority in the hands of the president, making for a state of perpetual armed conflict. By taking a stand, Maddow signals that in a democracy, we have a duty to make our voices heard, especially where war is concerned.

Rachel Maddow effectively and accessibly makes the case that we’ve given too much war-making power to the executive, but that if we all take our responsibilities more seriously, we just might be able to reverse this trend.