CRB: Bridge to nowhere

Our friends at the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here for $19.95 and get immediate online access thrown in for free) have given us a look at an advance copy of the Fall 2014 issue, scheduled for release later this week. I read my favorite magazines — National Review, the Weekly Standard, Commentary and the New Criterion — front to back, because (next to the books themselves) I most enjoy reading intelligent reviews of books on politics and history (including biography). The CRB is the magazine that is my favorite of favorites because the reviews are the heart of the superbly edited magazine. I read it from cover to cover, front to back, the old-fashioned way.

As we’ve come to expect, the new issue is full of thought-provoking essays and incisive reviews. In keeping with custom, over the next few days I will preview three or four of these pieces for Power Line readers. Please check them out. I promise you will be entertained and instructed at the same time by these pieces.

Leading off today, our prolific and learned colleague Steven F. Hayward—professor, historian, occasional radio talk-show host, and all-around good guy—returns to the pages of the CRB with a review of Rick Perlstein’s most recent addition to his ongoing history of the modern conservative movement, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.

Steve is a scholar who wears his learning lightly, but it is fully on display in the CRB review “Bridge to nowhere.” Steve grants that Perlstein is an “able narrative stylist.” Unfortunately, in Steve’s judgment, Perlstein’s superficial grasp of the political things, and his “startling lack of self-awareness,” leave him hopelessly out of his depth in assessing Reagan. The Invisible Bridge is a throwback to the left’s unreconciled hostility to Reagan: “Many liberals have made peace with conservatism, and with Ronald Reagan in particular, giving him a measure of serious respect. Perlstein wants to resume the war.”

Reagan, inveterate believer in heroic America, succeeded in relaying the wonders of this belief to ordinary Americans chastened and jaded by the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. Reagan resurrected for Americans a belief in the American mission, in American exceptionalism. Perlstein finds this unforgivable: “Reagan’s greatest offense, Perlstein thinks, was to make it unnecessary, and then impossible, for Americans to come to terms with the meaning of their country’s weakened, demoralized condition after Vietnam and Watergate.”

If only their discontent had been deepened, instead of deadened; the progressive uplands were achingly close. Faced with reality, Americans ran—straight into the arms of an “athlete of denial” (Perlstein’s term). Steve notes Perlstein’s contemptuous distrust of all the dupes who could be taken in by a man like Reagan, a distrust shared with many on the Left (I’m looking at you, Gruber): “The only exceptionalism that impresses Perlstein is Americans’ exceptional ignorance or weakness for the demagogic rage of the Right. Ultimately, The Invisible Bridge is an argument less against Ronald Reagan than against the American character that Reagan exemplified and fortified with his rhetoric and statecraft.”

Perlstein’s Reagan might be delusional, might believe in the simplest of fables, but he is, for all of that, no amiable dunce. He is both cunning and complex, a new Nixon more mendacious because more outwardly sunny. If not for Reagan we might have learned from our sins, our national malaise leading not to a return of the cowboy but a “new definition of patriotism,” creating “the kind of country Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn could finally be proud of.”

Such was not to be. In the waning hours of the rule of the lightworker, the progressive dreamer wakes to the worries of opportunities squandered, and trembles that the specter of Reagan might still haunt the land. Ultimately, what agitates Perlstein is the fear that Reagan might be repeatable: “If the Republican Party, or a future presidential standard-bearer, could figure out how to emulate the Reagan formula—rather than just invoke Reagan’s name—liberals would find themselves in deep trouble again.” Just picture the horror: under a second Reagan Americans might just be optimistic, confident, content, and—happy.

CORRECTION: Gently chided by Mr. Perlstein himself, I have corrected this post to refer to Reagan rather than “the Reagan presidency.” Mr. Perlstein notes that his book ends in 1976. I thank him for his correction and apologize for my error.