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.

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Thirteen Days in September

by Lawrence Wright

 

My dad gave me this one for Christmas. When I finished it and tried to talk to him about it, he asked to borrow it. Funny how that happens right? But I’ve done the same thing, so I’m not really one to judge.

Thirteen Days in September chronicles the the efforts to forge a lasting peace between Israel and Egypt. The Jewish state had been at war with its Arab neighbors on and off since it first declared independence in 1948. While these wars generally went well for Israel, which was not destroyed and whose borders had been ever-expanding, the Arabs faced humiliation after humiliation. These defeats only strengthened Arab resolve, and the contest between Israel and the Arab nations, especially Egypt, grew into an never-ending cycle.

Meanwhile, the United States elected a southern entrepreneur and Navy veteran named Jimmy Carter as President in 1976. Carter, a devout, born-again Christian, wanted part of his legacy to be an end to the conflict in the Middle East. After Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visits Israel to express his desire for peace, Carter saw his opportunity and invited Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to hash out some sort of settlement.

Thirteen Days in SeptemberWright, the author of Going Clear (now a major motion picture!), focuses his book not only on the titular thirteen days of the conference, but on the histories of the men involved and even that of the Middle East itself. I was particularly impressed with the way that he wove these histories into his narrative, moving effortlessly from the conference, to historical anecdote, to the stories that he uses to illustrate who these men are. I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be to write a book like this; the research that Wright must’ve put in, and then to be able to tell an actual story while switching back and forth- it was pretty unbelievable.

I came away from this much more knowledgeable than I’d been going in. Perhaps that’s not super impressive, as I hadn’t really known much about Camp David beforehand, but it proved to be a very interesting topic. For one thing, Jimmy Carter is a very impressive man. I always get that impression from reading about him, and then immediately forget. It’s easy to lose sight of his accomplishments in the light of his public perception: the jokes and the constant refrain that he was a horrible president, which seems odd given that nobody seems to remember anything about those years. If you come in with an open mind, and no preconceived notion of Carter as a failure, you can’t look at Camp David and see anything but a significant accomplishment.

As fascinating a character as President Carter is, the leaders of Egypt and Israel are just as interesting. The reigning political class in each country had come of age during World War II and the years that followed, and both Sadat and Begin had cut their teeth fighting against British colonialism in their respective countries. Wright does not shy away from the historical fact that both men had engaged in terrorism as a response to the British occupation. It’s an incredibly inconvenient fact, especially for Israel, which often cloaks itself in anti-terrorist rhetoric, and yet might not exist today without the actions of groups like Irgun. As statesmen, however, Begin and Sadat have put those days behind them, making it merely a part of their shared history.

While there are similarities among the three men, the contradictions are often just as stark. Aside from the obvious difference in religion, nationality, and personal ideology, the traits that Wright identifies as most significant seem to tear the men apart and make the idea of lasting peace a near impossibility. While Israel and the United States are strongly allied, Jimmy Carter actually finds more common ground with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. For the two of them, peace is their mission; Sadat essentially staked his career on peace, even travelling to the Knesset in Israel to show his dedication to ending the conflict. Carter likewise views it as a part of his responsibility in office, his religion and his ideology even leading him to stake his presidency on the peace process.  Menachem Begin, meanwhile, thinks that the talks are a trap for Israel, and that a peace that doesn’t resolve the major issues between Israelis and Arabs would be hollow. He believes that Israel did not elect him to make peace with its neighbors, even as his advisers appear almost unanimous in their belief that that Camp David would be Israel’s best opportunity in the foreseeable future. Sadat’s advisers, on the other hand, don’t believe that peace can be achieved without  Egypt making unacceptable concessions. The whole situation proves to be a huge headache for Carter, who perhaps underestimated the stubbornness of the other leaders involved.

In the end, an agreement is signed, through sheer force of will. A negotiation that was supposed to take three days is extended, again and again, even while it seems that no actual progress is being made. When an agreement is finally reached after nearly two weeks, one gets the sense that it’s more out of the leaders’ desire to go home than anything else, and indeed many issues are kicked down the road. As impressive an achievement as Camp David was, it turned out not to be the peace that anyone wanted. Each of the leaders pays a price for his involvement, and I wonder if they ever managed to convince themselves that it was all worth it in the end.

Thirteen Days in September looks at a moment in history that seems forgotten by those who didn’t live through it. I, for one, learned a lot, and came away with a renewed respect for the hard work of peacemakers, even those who fall short.

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.

Boomerang

by Michael Lewis

 

In this semi-sequel to The Big Short, Michael Lewis travels across the globe to get a sense of how the real estate crash in the United States affected formerly solvent and prosperous nations. He calls it “financial disaster tourism,” and it’s a spot-on description. While the crisis began in the United States, it quickly spread across the world, eventually leading to a sovereign debt crisis in Europe. Lewis follows the money- or, more accurately, the debt- from country to country, meeting government officials and others to try to get a feel for what, exactly, just happened.

As Lewis explains in his introduction, he was tipped off by a man he was interviewing for The Big Short (who was subsequently dropped from the book) that the crisis wasn’t over just because governments bailed out the banks. The bailouts, in fact, only temporarily solved the problem; bank debt was merely converted into sovereign debt. While the United States is ostensibly much less likely to go bankrupt than a private company, bailouts provided only the illusion of solvency, in reality setting the world up for a bigger crash to come.

So Lewis travels to Europe, as the debt crisis unfolds in Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany. He seems to take pleasure in noting that while the whole world experienced the same boom and subsequent bust, each nation handled itself differently. Iceland, for example, which Lewis notes has around 300,000 people- half the size of Washington, DC- almost overnight moved from a fishing economy to a banking economy. BoomerangIcelanders started studying finance and investing their money all over the world. While this may have seemed like a good idea at the time, the bubble eventually burst, and Iceland was rudely awakened to the fact that maybe banking wasn’t the most solid of foundations on which to build their entire economy.

When he makes it to Greece, Lewis can’t believe the amount of shenanigans going on at all levels. The government pulls tax collectors off the streets during an election year, and taxes are generally seen an inconvenience to be avoided if at all possible. Even monks are tied up in a national scandal, related to shady real estate deals. Nobody trusts each other, lying and corruption are rampant, and the country can’t decide whether it wants to reform itself or not. The phrase “It’d be funny if it weren’t so tragic” kind of applies here. Possibly more accurate: “It’s pretty hilarious, though I’d imagine it’s not so funny if you happen to be Greek.”

And, indeed, I felt a little worse about laughing at the Greeks when Lewis finally made it to America. One of Lewis’ sources, an analyst named Meredith Whitney, believes that American government finances at all levels are in shambles, but that the federal and state governments will be able to push the hurt down to municipal governments. Many of these cities would likely go bankrupt keeping all of their promises- mostly pensions- and this in turn would alter the fabric of American society. When Lewis asks Whitney where the worst will hit, she directs him to California.

His trek through the Golden State is startling, to say the least. Lewis first spends a day interviewing former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, though it seems more like an excuse to go on bike ride around the beach while Ahnold talks about his life (which admittedly sounds awesome.) After his romp with the Governator, he travels to the cities of San Jose and Vallejo, California. San Jose appears to be in a bit of trouble, what with an overpaid public sector and falling tax revenues, but Vallejo is downright scary. When Lewis shows up, the only thing going on in the city seems to be a massive property auction. City hall seems closed, but Lewis eventually locates the city manager and his staff of one. Through Lewis’ talk with the Vallejo city manager, it’s hard to shake the feeling that if this is where America is headed, we might be in trouble.

Lewis writes books about either sports or finance, employing the same combination of careful research and fantastic storytelling for both. This makes it odd to read Moneyball, about a man who shook up Major League Baseball by coming up with a cheaper way to win, and then read books like The Big Short or Boomerang, which deal with the worst economic disaster in my lifetime. The latter, specifically, forecasts an even worse crash to come, and doesn’t provide much hope that we can avoid it. It’s just a bit jarring for me, as if Lewis is saying, “There’s no way that society’s going to survive the coming calamity. Don’t even try to avert it. Now, let’s talk about football.” He’s telling us that the sky is falling, but he doesn’t seem too concerned, which is itself somewhat unnerving.

Even at his most depressing, though, Lewis always entertains and informs me. Boomerang isn’t a work of optimism, that’s for damn sure, but it’s hard not to be amused by Lewis’ travels. It’s also hard not to be terrified.