D. Dowd Muska


Dick Fell, Dutch Rose, and America Got Nutty

September 18, 2014

James Reston considered it “a troubled and maybe even a demented age.”

William V. Shannon, a colleague at The New York Times, likened it to “the Weimar republic of 1932-33,” and warned of “a new spirit of nihilism, a radical disbelief in any rational, objective basis for ethical norms or for orderly political change.”

Hunter S. Thomson grumbled that “on the 200th anniversary of what used to be called ‘The American Dream,’ we are going to have our noses rubbed, day after day -- on the tube and in the headlines -- in this mess we have made for ourselves.”

Hyperbole? If only.

Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (Simon & Shuster; 856 pages; $37.50) is four books in one -- a Watergate chronology, a cultural history of the mid-1970s, a partial biography of The Great Communicator, and a review of the slugfests over the 1976 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations.

Light reading, it is not.

But despite the grimness of the events it describes and the far-left bias of its author, The Invisible Bridge offers a valuable dredging-up of history that still shapes the nation today. Whatever your ideology, it’s worth the time.

The particulars won’t come as news to Silents and Boomers, but Generation Xers and Millennials will blanche at the sheer horribleness of it all. The vice president resigned in disgrace. The president, facing impeachment and certain removal from office, followed suit. (For three and a half years, the U.S. had an unelected chief executive. One of his earliest decisions was to pardon his predecessor.) The price of gasoline skyrocketed, and service stations ran low on supplies. Inflation exploded, and housewives revolted. Unemployment ballooned. Crime rates continued to soar. The truth about Washington’s “intelligence community” came to light -- spying and dissention-sowing at home, coups and assassination plots abroad. Terrorism was commonplace. (Twenty-four bombings in 1973, 45 in 1974, and 89 in 1975.) Two attempts were made on the president’s life. Killer bees threatened. “Geraldo” Rivera aired the Zapruder film. (“That’s heavy.”) Conspiracy theories proliferated. Resource-depletion myths spread. The scale of JFK’s drug-addled horndoggery began to be understood. Legionnaires’ disease and swine flu struck. New York City tottered on the brink of bankruptcy. And Vietnam, where over 58,000 Americans died and millions of civilians were butchered, was united under communist rule.

Nothing made sense anymore. A “blunt fact of the Bicentennial year,” Perlstein writes, was a “bottomless supply of Americans for whom the basic institutions of society had failed so badly that they longed to become different people entirely.” All kinds of “solutions” were sought, from self-help books to Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, est to “primal scream.”

In 1975, nearly seven in ten Americans believed that political leaders consistently lied. In response, two outside-the-Beltway, media-savvy pols rose to lead the Democrats and the GOP. A resolute Reagan-hater, whenever his narrative provides an opportunity to give the Gipper the benefit of the doubt, Perlstein passes. But the author does grasp how and why the former governor of California came within a few votes of stealing his party’s presidential nomination. Liberal Republicans were losing influence and numbers. Roe v. Wade, taxes, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), environmentalism, and détente drove the decline. The “rattletrap ‘New Right,’” which “knew no compromise,” shared Reagan’s faith that “Americans are hungry to feel once again a mission of greatness.” (He “lived to rescue.”) And the candidate was skilled at “adjusting himself to be seen as he wished others to see him.”

Reagan’s idolaters will read about as much as they can take before James Earl Carter appears. Surprisingly, Perlstein hammers away at the “farmer” and “nuclear physicist.” (He was neither.) Carter’s preening piousness, inveterate pandering, duplicity regarding George Wallace, and flip-flop on Vietnam are documented.

If The Invisible Bridge has a hero, it’s the GOPer whose name is not in the book’s subtitle. John Wayne called Gerald Ford “too f****** dumb to be president.” Posterity has shown that, while vulgar, The Duke’s assessment was probably accurate. But Perlstein favorably contrasts the moderate Michigander, charged with the duty to “govern,” with the ideologically kooky and irresponsibly simplistic Reagan. Betty Ford earns praise, too, for calling Roe a “great, great decision” and enthusiastically backing passage of the ERA. Whatever.

Still mired in the cataclysm wrought by countless Bush-Obama fiscal, economic, regulatory, and foreign-policy missteps, Americans can acquire some solace through reliving an epoch when things were worse. If the nation survived the ‘70s, can’t it survive anything?

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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