I sat down a few weeks ago with Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm and Nixonland, to discuss his latest, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. The book, released Monday, has already received glowing reviews.
JSE: To start, you have written a lot on Goldwater, Nixon and now Ronald Reagan. What's your fascination with conservatives?
It started as a fascination with the 1960s. When I was a teenager in Milwaukee in the 1980s life was pretty boring and I found myself riveted by the shear melodrama of everyday life of the 1960s. I'd go to this crazy bookstore in Milwaukee called Renaissance Books. It was five stories tall, with books in the aisles. The basement was all piles and piles of magazines. They had crazy old books: ones with America spelled with three "K's," books on the John Birch Society. I ended up getting my own archive on the 1960s culture wars. That's where it started.
The genesis of this particular project - three books now and it is going to be four - came when I was an editor in New York. I was at a conference on the 1960s and noticed a real generation gap between scholars who lived in the 1960s - the first wave of 1960s scholarship - and those who were post-baby boomers who saw the decade in really different ways. One of those ways was seeing the 1960s as the rise of the right.
When I was in graduate school I also became fascinated with the different tribes in America. I was fascinated by the fact that there were just millions of Americans who saw the world in radically different ways than I did. So I began this exploration of the internal anthropology of America.
JSE: After three books now, have you found a common theme?
Yes: America's discomfort with conflict and its longing for consensus in a country in which the conflicts and fissures are baked into the cake. As in a marriage, when you deny conflict and don't work it through within a framework of trust, it comes out in distorted ways. I think a lot of what is most perverse about the American political environment has to do with our discomfort with how deep the disagreements are within the American political community.
JSE: Out of these three, Reagan, Goldwater, and Nixon, who would you have most liked to meet, and if you had had the chance to meet him, what would you have wanted to talk about?
Nixon. I feel like he was just such a strange and compelling character. He is so multi-dimensional. What I would ask him: Were you happy?
I think that all politicians who aspire to the presidency are a little nuts, but for different reasons. What kind of person aspires to be the most powerful person in the world? The answer is someone with an internal drive that is so dynamic and so determined. In the case of Nixon, one of the kinds of psychological dynamics that I trace in the book is that he literally would win his victories by kind of corralling people who felt shame in themselves and their place in the world, those who felt stepped on and put down by the people. He was kind of the king of the Orthogonians. So every time he won he just confirmed what a loser he was. The whole dynamic just spoke to the self-loathing that you see in him so frequently. So I wonder if he would have just been better off going to a mountaintop and sitting cross-legged. I think the quote goes: "For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul." It speaks to Nixon perfectly.
Of course, that is the nature of that particular neurosis. It is never enough. Once he is president and wins a landslide, it is still not enough. He has to so dominate and so master the world around him that there then comes this great tragedy - that thing that brings him to the top brings him down.
JSE: Do you see Nixon as a tragic figure?
Yes, yes. But ultimately, I am interested in these guys because I'm interested in why Americans as citizens of democracy chose him as their leader. So his tragedy is our tragedy.
JSE: What about Reagan or Goldwater? Anything you would want to ask them?
Goldwater is fun. He is kind of the sanest of all of them. I would certainly want to ask him how he understood the nature of duty when he ran for president and so obviously did not want to win. He felt this obligation from the people who supported him who were so driven.
Reagan was a hard guy to talk to. Nancy Reagan famously said that he didn't even fully let her inside. With Reagan I don't think I could get particularly deeper than others got. In the book, I tell a story about young reporters who went to interview Reagan for the first time. They would leave the interview thinking they got this marvelous profile but later discover Reagan had just told them the same thing he had been telling everyone else a thousand times before. He performed himself to the outside world. With Reagan I would just bask in the stories that he told, the same stories he told to everyone else.
JSE: The subtitle of your book is The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. Did Nixon have to fall for Reagan to rise?
Almost literally. Of course, if all had gone according to Nixon's plan he would have anointed his own successor. His whole idea was to build a new majority, his own political party to make his mark on history. He was going to tap his buddy, the former governor of Texas, John Connolly. If that had happened there would have been no window for someone like Reagan, who was born in 1911, to become president. One of the fascinating things is that Connolly is kind of a forgotten figure. He loomed so large at the time.
I'm not a big counterfactual fan, but the post-Watergate attitude that I demonstrate in the book - that we needed a transformer who transcended institutional connections of the past - which Reagan kind of ran under (he ran for the nomination in the 1976 election against the Washington buddy system), would have been denied him had Nixon not fallen.
The important thing to understand is that what happened did happen. If I make an original contribution it is this: that something very salutary was happening in the post-Watergate environment. Americans began to rethink the post World War II exceptionalism narrative, that the rules did not apply to us. Both in the case of the examination of America's hubristic quasi-imperial role that was embodied after World War II and stopped for a while with Vietnam. Watergate got us to think of leaders as mere mortals. America began to think of itself in a very different way - I would say a salutary way - and Reagan was most important in shifting the grand dynamic thrust of the American historical process by ending that. Reagan re-enshrined America as the "City on a Hill," which was actually quite ironic because Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan who gave the original "City on a Hill" speech, didn't mean that we are so great and so exceptional that if you question America's greatness you are committing a mortal sin. What he meant was that we should hold ourselves to a higher standard of self-scrutiny than any other country, which is quite the opposite of what Reagan meant.
JSE: Reagan, Nixon, Goldwater: Who deserves to be called "Mr. Conservative"?
I'm very influenced in my thinking by Corey Robin, who argues in The Reactionary Mind that conservatism is about the preservation of hierarchies and the arresting of the emancipatory revolutionary energies of the movement towards freedom as defined by the enlightenment. Each of them in their own way touched that.
Goldwater was the guy who was most unquestioning about the businessman's republic. Captains of industry acting in accordance with market principles were the true aristocrats of society.
Reagan was the guy who most profoundly and devotedly believed in a sort of natural order of society. Nixon was the guy who was had the most rage toward the emancipatory energy of the 1960s. Of course conservatives don't like to claim Nixon; he is not a suitable martyr. Although I quoted a conservative taste-maker named Stan Evans who told me he "didn't like Nixon until Watergate."
I am going to give them a tie but for very different reasons. Goldwater doesn't win outright because he had this libertarian-leftist component to his spirit. He hated to be dominated himself. A lot of it had to do with Arizona politics.
JSE: You spend a lot of time in your new book on Watergate. What, if anything, new did you add to the already extensive literature on the subject?
I think I have two big contributions. First, Ronald Reagan was a defender of Nixon until the end. In fact he was not even sure Nixon was guilty of anything. Second, Reagan, against the headwind of about everyone else in the political culture of the time, didn't think Watergate was a big deal.
I also don't think any historian before has captured the grassroots experience of what Watergate felt like for the citizens of this country as they watched it all unfold on their televisions, seeing the people they invested so much trust in revealing themselves revealed as nothing better than mafia dons. My obsession in crafting this book, both in the research and the writing, was to give the reader the sense of what it must have been like to watch America's sense of itself as a place of moral nobility flake-off day by day.
It is almost like the foundation that we are standing on coming out of World War II was being denied us. That was very profound.
JSE: I'd like to talk a little more about Reagan and his steadfast support for Nixon at a time when everyone else had abandoned him. How did Reagan get away with that?
I have a formulation that I repeat in the book. Reagan's blithe affect in the face of what others considered chaos was preternatural. It had to do with his utter lack of self-doubt that I root in his childhood when he taught himself how to become the hero of his own story. How did he get away with it? He never questioned himself and just kept doing it and doing it. It became his political niche. If you were someone who questioned why all these powerful people were dragging America down, Reagan was the only guy speaking to you. That was how he was able to develop such a strong following. One of the most important documents in the book is a 1974 Evans and Novak column in which they wrote that all of Reagan's advisors were trying to get him to denounce Nixon because they thought he needed to do so to be taken seriously. Reagan refused to do it. He understood a longing for innocence in the political electorate better than his advisers did.
JSE: I'd like to pick up on that theme of Reagan's political acumen. You bring out in both Nixonland and now also in The Invisible Bridge how the Nixon-Reagan relationship really changed over time. Nixon, like most everyone else, started off underestimating Reagan's political prowess but overtime starting to see him as an equal, if not the better of the two politicians. And that was by 1973, not 1976 or even 1980. You tell a great story, very relevant considering the events in the Middle East, about how Kissinger approached Reagan for advice in 1973 on how to appear neutral while still supporting Israel. I think the idea was to figure out how to replenish Israeli Defense Forces without further antagonizing the Arab nations. Reagan, without even hesitating, suggests that Nixon announce that the United States will replenish all the Israeli aircraft the Arab nations claim to have shot down. That was politically genius - everyone knew the Arabs were exaggerating the figures.
Reagan's emotional intelligence, his ability to suss out people's longings and to channel them for political purposes was better than just about any human being that ever lived. George W. Bush was the guy who said, "If I'm so stupid why am I the President of the United States." Nixon is the guy who ended up not being able to serve out his two terms while Reagan is the guy who put his stamp on history forever. I think attention must be paid. It behooves us to understand the nature of that achievement. Way too many liberals just kind of having their favorite one stupid thing Reagan did and they use that as an excuse not to think hard about his accomplishment. They might say Reagan only read one-page memos, fell asleep in cabinet meetings. Of course other presidents feel asleep, and FDR insisted on one-page memos. It was just good management. It is time to go back to the drawing board and think hard about what we mean when we talk about a president's intelligence. Reagan accomplished things that others couldn't. That is a certain type of intelligence.
JSE: You also write that Reagan believed that if America did it, it couldn't be wrong.
Yes, and that if something wrong was done in America, it wasn't done by America but by alien forces. That is why the communist infiltration was so important, the dupe. When two million people show up in central park in 1983, he somehow found a way to say that they were acting on behalf of Soviet agents.
JSE: Pat Buchanan recently said that Nixon was a near-great president. Was Reagan right then to stand behind him?
I think that is profoundly stupid. Nixon was willfully blind to the rising power of the petro-states in the Middle East, and the fact that in pursuit in what he called a "structure of peace" he was willing to actively assent to a genocide in Bangladesh. The Nixon doctrine of not intervening but giving weapons to other countries to do it on our behalf set the tone for the current stateless conflicts.
Ultimately his vision of politics as the pursuit of divisiveness, of which Buchanan was one of the architects, made politics a zero-sum game for the entire republican party. Obviously I disagree with Buchanan, but again this is the guy who gave Nixon the advice to destroy the White House tapes by burning them on the White House lawn.
JSE: Do you think Reagan's support for Nixon hurt his chances in 1976?
No, it helped him. It is not easy to put your finger on because no one was polling this type of thing, but the idea that Reagan was the guy who represented the people who thought America was as great as it ever was, was all about Watergate.
JSE: What's next for you?
RP: I have a contract for a next book to go through the 1980 campaign. After that I'm not sure. I've been working on this since 1997. Twenty years will probably be enough.