A Bridge to Nowhere?

My long review of Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge is in the can at the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe now you so can get the whole thing the day it comes out). Perlstein’s latest massive book has been generating more buzz than a turbine with bad ball bearings, with even some conservatives who ought to know better praising this malignant hit piece.

Not much subtlety here.

Not much subtlety here.

I thought it likely that my forthcoming review would be the longest and most definitive—until I saw Geoffrey Kabaservice’s smackdown today in The National Interest. Kabaservice is, I’m pretty sure, a liberal, and he’s known for his book Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. Kabaservice is a good writer, but you can tell where this is going from the title alone. He prefers the good old days when Republicans rolled over for liberalism with only a few mild whimpers. These tea party people are icky! (Or, as Eugene McCarthy put it, the chief purpose of moderate Republicans is to shoot the wounded after the battle is over.) If you have some spare time, you can see me tangle with Kabaservice a couple years ago in this C-SPAN televised panel in Washington (it’s almost an hour and a half long, but there are some fun parts—mostly of my doing, I think).

Like Sam Tanenhaus, another smart liberal who doesn’t think much of Perlstein, Kabaservice doesn’t mince words:

Perlstein is a talented but erratic writer. . . all of this history is filtered through a New Journalism writing style that is more annoying than stimulating. . .

He continually inserts himself into the narrative with sarcastic asides that make reading the book akin to watching an episode of the cult television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, in which the movie onscreen is drowned out by its wisecracking spectators.

As a huge MST3K fan, I wish I’d thought of that line, as it fits perfectly. But Kabaservice is just getting started:

PERLSTEIN’S SPASTIC WRITING detracts from the historical material he presents . . . the narrative suffers from Perlstein’s desire to squeeze the era into a procrustean analytical framework. . .

The reader’s own suspicion grows that Perlstein’s motive is not so much to explore the 1970s in all their complexity as to expose the villains who forced America into its alleged contemporary cult of optimism and willful blindness to national faults—and, unsurprisingly, he finds nearly all these moustache-twirlers on the conservative side.

But even a casual viewer of Fox News will know that today’s conservatives are simultaneously critics and boosters of America, fearful of its big government and deeply suspicious of its politics and culture while in the same breath maintaining that it is still the envy of the world.

THIS IDEOLOGICAL agenda makes Perlstein an unreliable narrator—incapable, for example, of attempting any objective evaluation of a complicated historical figure like Richard Nixon. Perlstein is content to present Nixon, largely through the lens of Watergate, as a black-hearted conservative malefactor and two-dimensional doer of dastardly deeds. But this is a tired and indeed anachronistic interpretation that serious historians haven’t held for decades. . .

FOR A WRITER who insists that respect for complexity is a moral virtue, Perlstein proffers a surprisingly simplistic analysis. . .

But Perlstein ultimately is purveying a shallow and tendentious version of history that will only convince the already converted: those who believe in the innate baseness of conservatives. He is not writing what his publisher boasts “is becoming the classic series of books about the rise of modern conservatism in America” in order to investigate and understand but rather to mock and condemn. This is history that sets out to expose the limitations of conservatives but ends up exposing the limitations of the author. Anyone seeking a definitive history of the transition from Nixon to Reagan should look elsewhere.

So with that as a warm up, you’ll have to wait for my forthcoming review, which, as promised, is going to be epic.

P.S. Back when Perlstein’s previous book Nixonland came out, Michael Kazin (mentioned here yesterday) and the Tocqueville Center at Georgetown University hosted me and Perlstein for abpanel that was sharp though cordial. I asked Rick if he’d care to do it again. He declined.

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