Rick Perlstein: "Ronald Reagan absolved America almost in a priestly role not to have to contend with sin. The consequences are all around us today"

From climate change to foreign affairs, Reagan pushed America toward easy lies, just as reckoning seemed possible

Published July 30, 2014 5:45PM (EDT)

Rick Perlstein is one of America’s greatest chroniclers of the origins of the modern American right wing. In "Before the Storm," about the rise of Barry Goldwater, and "Nixonland," about the backlash politics that drove Nixon into the White House, Perlstein has captured, in big set pieces and small details, the forces that came together to move the nation’s ideological center of gravity. Now, with "The Invisible Bridge," Perlstein tells the story of another important figure in that shift – Ronald Reagan.

The title refers to a statement from Nikita Khrushchev to Richard Nixon: “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.” Nobody internalized this advice more than Reagan, who ignored American shortcomings like Vietnam or Watergate in favor of tightly wrapped fables, mesmerizing his audience with tales about a simpler time where America can never fail. It turned out, despite the enormous complications of the political moment, such stories were just what a large segment of the public wanted to hear. Reagan bridged the gulf between America’s perceptions and its reality, and transformed the terrain upon which we battle politically.

In an interview with Salon on the eve of the book’s release, Perlstein talks about the main themes of the book, how liberals underestimated Reagan, the similarities between reactions to Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, and the echoes of the impulse toward American exceptionalism in our present-day politics.

So this is a book about America's loss of innocence and, simultaneously, America’s striving for a return to innocence. How do you reconcile that?

Well, that's the narrative of the book, I would say. The story I'm telling is unfolding along that loss of innocence. But the baseline is this moment in 1973 when the Vietnam War ends, and that spring, Watergate breaks wide open, after basically disappearing from the political scene for a while. You have this remarkable thing, where Sam Ervin puts these hearings on television. And day after day the public hears White House officials sounding like Mafia figures. That same spring, you get the energy crisis, and you hear officials say that we're running out of energy when heretofore, nobody knew you could run out. That's a blindsiding blow to the American psyche. And then there's the oil embargo, suddenly a bunch of Arab oil sheiks decide to hold America hostage, and succeed. So the way I characterize that is that we had this idea of America as existing outside of the rules of history, as a country that can't do any wrong. Suddenly we begin to think of ourselves as just another country, not God's chosen nation. I have a quote in the preface to the book by Immanuel Kant, who defined the Enlightenment as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” basically the process of leaving childhood and becoming a grown-up. And that’s what we’re seeing in America in the 1970s.

This is a remarkable juncture, and you could see it in popular culture. Like "M*A*S*H," and how it takes on militarism. People were insistently following the Watergate hearings, which were enormously complex. And America is really beginning to take on big problems, thinking about what it would mean to conserve energy, to create energy independence. Then everything takes a turn, Reagan is introduced, and he says don't worry about this stuff. America is that shining city on a hill. A quote which he mischaracterized, by the way. But people wanted to believe him.

Why do you think that is? How did Reagan overcome the dominant culture of the time? Was it just easier for America to stop thinking about all the bad things that were happening?

Well, first it's Reagan. The issue of Reagan's intelligence is a controversial thing. Liberal friends love to dismiss him as dumb. Everyone has a Reagan story that allows us to dismiss him and his appeal. For example, people would make fun of the fact that while in office he would only read one-page memos. Well, so did FDR, because it's a good management technique. But whatever you think about his intelligence, what's unquestionable is that Reagan had extraordinary emotional intelligence. He could sense the temperature of a room, and tell them a story and make them feel good. And that's more fun, right? It's more fun to feel good than feel bad. That’s part of our human state. And also that's what leaders are for. Leaders are for calling people to their better angels, for helping guide them to a kind of sterner, more mature sense of what we need to do. To me, Reagan's brand of leadership was what I call "a liturgy of absolution." He absolved Americans almost in a priestly role to contend with sin. Who wouldn't want that? But the consequences of that absolution are all around us today. The inability to contend with climate change. The inability to call elites to account who wrecked the economy in 2008. The inability to reckon with the times when we fall short.

Right, on the back jacket of the copy I read, you have that quote from Barack Obama about America being the greatest country on Earth. It’s a straitjacket for national politicians who can no longer question America at some level.

My favorite discovery in this regard was when Samantha Power is chosen to be ambassador to the U.N.; she'd written a magazine article in 2003 in which she wrote American foreign policy needed a "historical reckoning" for crimes "committed or sponsored." That's the kind of reckoning we were having in the 1970s, with the Church committee. Marco Rubio brought this up in her confirmation hearing and asked her for examples of the crimes, and the response was that America is the greatest country in the world and has nothing to apologize for. So that’s where we’re at today.

One thing that struck me, you talk about Reagan envisioning himself as this hero figure, and I almost saw it that he entered politics to become the hero he never could become in Hollywood.

Yes, I have a 50-page chapter about Reagan in Hollywood; that’s an important part of the story. He came to Hollywood and was immediately embraced as a future star. At the time it was generally a slow process from bit parts to lead actor, but Reagan was a lead in his first movie. Then things almost immediately went south. He didn't fight overseas, so he wasn't able to become a hero there. He was the third highest-grossing actor in 1940, then he goes to making World War II training films. So after the war ends, he begins dabbling in politics, which was always a passion of his. And he saw success there that he wasn't seeing in his Hollywood career, through becoming a popular speaker at liberal events, the president of the Screen Actors Guild, and then becoming the hero of his own story in this enormous Hollywood strike for technical workers. In what was a complicated story involving two separate unions – the Conference of Studio Unions and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – Reagan decides the Conference of Studio Unions is the cat's paw of the Communists. So now he's starring in his own adventure movie, fighting the international Communist conspiracy in Hollywood. Which includes the FBI, guns, good guys and bad guys. And this becomes the touchstone of his political career, the same way that Nixon would always refer back to the Alger Hiss case. Reagan got the idea that the Communists would use Hollywood to indoctrinate the public into their form of governance, and that he could save the country from such an outcome.

And ultimately, Reagan sees his 1976 run for president as an attempt to save the Republican Party itself, no?

He believed strongly that moderates had no place in the Republican Party. He gave a deliriously received speech at the second annual CPAC, a conference that still goes on today. And there he said that the Republican Party had to be a party of "no pale pastels," which, certainly looking back, has some [offensive gender] sensibilities attached to it.

Pundits then and now believed the problem for Republicans was an inability to broaden their base. Reagan always insisted on the opposite. This is a time, in the wake of Watergate, when an internal poll showed only 18 percent of the public defined themselves as Republicans. They ran this disastrous TV special trying to change their image called "Republicans Are People Too." At this time a cadre led by William Rusher of the National Review talked about forming a third party. And Reagan goes to CPAC and he says no. Here’s the quote, he says, "Is it a third party that we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels but bold colors which could make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all issues troubling the people?"

And the pundits didn't get it, they were like, what? But conservatives rallied to it. At that point in time, conservatives were starting to regain their organizational push after the Nixon years. And they threw Reagan in the forefront of a nomination fight against an incumbent president, an astonishing thing. And he comes just inches away from pulling it off. There's a moment when he's foundering, just about to lose, colleagues are calling on him to drop out, and he created an issue out of thin air that revived his fortunes, this idea that by renegotiating the Panama Canal treaty, that America was giving away the canal. This spoke to a sense of wounded national pride, particularly since Vietnam. Reagan was really, through this Panama Canal debate, cutting off the reckoning with the wrong turn America had taken in Vietnam. By 1980, when he speaks before the VFW convention during his presidential campaign, he says Vietnam was a noble cause. That was considered in the press a gaffe. What they didn't understand was that he was touching something deep and powerful, this longing for innocence.

And that was true on both sides of the political aisle, right? You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone's beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.

Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see? Yes, how about Barack Obama? It's very similar. Of course, there's this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. But I hope people see the parallel between liberals' love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day. Remember in late 2006, Ken Silverstein wrote this article in Harper’s, talking about how Obama was in bed with agribusiness, in bed with local energy interests in Illinois, and not to be trusted? Well, in this time I’m writing about, also in Harper's, there was an article by Steven Brill called "The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter," pointing out all of his flaws and misstatements, and it went nowhere. Because they yearned to believe. That's something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe. And it's a powerful force.

There are a lot of echoes to today in the book: this situation with Carter, the issue of government revelations of mass surveillance of Americans, even a little bit, where Young Americans for Freedom, a right-wing group, started stapling tea bags to tax returns in 1974.

Right, and that was after a tax cut bill.

Yeah, a tax cut that they didn't think was big enough. So, with all these historical echoes, does this mean we just don't remind ourselves enough of history and thus repeat it, or is it inevitable?

A good friend of mine, the historian Harvey Kaye, signs his books "Read history, make history." No, I don't think this is inevitable, it's why I'm writing the book, so we're not doomed to repeat it. Some of these traits go deeply into the American character, but not always. Look at the tremendous sacrifices made to defeat Hitler during World War II; those were not childish acts. And those sacrifices were enthusiastically embraced by the public. We're not doomed to an eternal cycle of childlike innocence. We're capable of better. That's why I write, and I think why you write.

What fascinated you most about this period that you didn't know going in?

How deeply in the pop culture people were willing to question American power and beliefs. How everyday political culture had almost become radical for this brief moment. You see it in letters to Time magazine, people talking about bomber pilots committing war crimes. You would expect maybe Noam Chomsky to say that, but that was present not just in letters but inside Time itself.

The beginning of book focuses on the release of POWs from Vietnam, this upwell of patriotism that was actually a staged spectacle courtesy of the Pentagon and the White House. Critical voices pointed out that we had 600 POWs, but our allies in South Vietnam were holding 10,000 prisoners in abject conditions, often for the crime of advocating for peace. A Time correspondent described prisoners released from camp as "grotesque sculptures of scarred flesh and gnarled limbs." That's the kind of thing that we flinch from in the media now. We flinch from looking clearly at what life is like in, say, Gaza under Israeli attack.

To use a recent example, a CNN reporter was taken off the beat for daring to say that the Israelis cheering on the bombing of Gaza were scum. You saw this in the wings of the period I'm writing about. "The Dick Cavett Show" had on Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and some other radicals, and that show was censored. In that time we see this push-me/pull-me process of America struggling with the idea that it can begin to reckon critically with the present and past. Sadly, I feel that we lost the struggle at that time, and I think the biggest reason is Ronald Reagan.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Books Politics Richard Nixon Rick Perlstein Ronald Reagan The Invisible Bridge