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NONFICTION

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

By Rick Perlstein

Simon & Schuster

856 pages, $37.50

By Edward Cuddihy

News book reviewer

It is not unusual for a book – especially a large history book – to begin slowly, leaving the reader to wonder if picking up this title wasn’t a mistake.

Then gradually, the subject and the characters grow on the reader until she reaches what theater people like to call “that magic moment” when you leave the externals behind and become part of the experience. From there on, it is difficult to put the book down.

Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge,” the story of Richard Nixon’s fall from grace and the rise of Ronald Reagan, flips this conventional pattern on its ear.

It starts out like gangbusters, full of the explosive excitement and suspense of Watergate against the backdrop of U.S. failure in Vietnam. But after 200 pages, it begins to lose some of its sizzle. By page 400 the air is leaking out of Perlstein’s 800-page balloon. By 600, it’s becoming downright monotonous. And then there’s a surprise. (More about the surprise later.)

Perlstein’s opening treatment of the calamitous collapse of the Nixon White House under the weight of revelations of systemic corruption, reveal little that is new, yet it is noteworthy for its clarity in pulling together the richness of resources into a single electrifying narrative.

The curmudgeonly Sen. Sam Ervin behind the microphone in the packed hearing room (“Executive privilege? It’s executive poppycock!”); the young well-scrubbed John Dean, his striking wife just over his shoulder, linking the corruption right to the president, and the image of the old pol Attorney General John Mitchell with suitcases full of money ($200,000 in hundreds in one case), bring back a flood of memories.

Then there’s the understated bombshell in the packed hearing room delivered by White House underling Alexander Butterfield with the entire nation watching on TV. The whole thing was recorded on audio tape installed at the bequest of Nixon himself.

Oh, just another telling of Watergate, the reader might despair. No, this is the second cut of history, still too early for full objectivity, still too soon to peer clearly at the events through the haze of political ideologies, but an amalgam of the thousands of stories that seemed so jumbled and disjointed at the time.

Besides, half of today’s U.S. population was not yet born in 1973. For many of them, Watergate is just another case of political hanky-panky back in their parents’ era, not the most dangerous internal threat to U.S. constitutional law of the 20th century.

But even before the dramatic Nixon resignation, the initial excitement of this book begins to wane. Spiro Agnew resigns as vice president rather than go to jail and Gerald Ford is named vice president. We are told who was starring in the latest movies, what the late-night TV hosts were saying, what the Doonesbury comic strip thought of the whole mess.

There is a point in the book where “Saturday Night Live” takes over the narrative and Chevy Chase’s impersonations of Ford are given more weight than Gerald Ford’s own words. One can only hope this absurd contradiction doesn’t form the base for future historians.

Perlstein the social historian has taken over. His view from far left field becomes more and more evident. President Ford is a clumsy dullard from the Michigan backcountry, despite his degree from Yale and the respect of his congressional colleagues. Henry Kissinger could do nothing right. According to Perlstein, he should have been indicted, except that the Washington Post was tired of writing about indictments. Not likely.

An up and coming Ronald Reagan is characterized as a Midwestern huckster who found limited success in Hollywood despite being a little dense, a little lazy, but a charming storyteller whose stories bore little resemblance to reality. Perlstein comments: “Running against Ronald Reagan for anything must have been excruciating for those who wished to honor the truth.”

He does acknowledge Reagan was quick-witted with the mental capacity to memorize large tracts of dialogue, to pluck names, dates and facts out of the air, but he asserts Reagan never probed beyond the surface and imagined every event with a fairytale ending.

By the way, despite the dust jacket picture of Ronald Reagan on the campaign trail, Reagan doesn’t become a major player in this book until nearly halfway through, when Perlstein presents a hefty chapter on Reagan’s youthful radio career and his travails in Hollywood, including the gossip surrounding his marriages and divorce.

Then comes Jimmy Carter who Perlstein describes as a seemingly sincere man who had no business being in the White House. The peanut farmer, nuclear engineer who would become the nation’s 39th president, according to Perlstein, was truly neither a peanut farmer nor a nuclear engineer.

By this stage, the book is becoming history by newspaper headline and TV sound bite. The nation is crumbling. A Washington Post columnist is calling the ’70s “a period of collapse.” We are even treated to the cliché: “A woman in Peoria said …” It doesn’t matter much what she said. Perlstein’s Carter is sustained by “burbling Sunday School Bromides.”

It is as if the nation is craving a clear direction, a new voice. If that’s the case, it will need to await the next Perlstein book because this one ends with Reagan losing the ’76 nomination to President Ford, who would be defeated in the general election by Carter.

This is the third book in a series that begins with the rise of Barry Goldwater and the outbreak of the latest strain of national polarization.

It is only fair to point out that the New York Times has raised the specter of plagiarism in the form of noted conservative historian Craig Shirley’s claim that his research was used by Perlstein without attribution, a claim debunked by the publisher as “ludicrous.”

This critic is in no position to either verify or dispute the Shirley claim, but it is disturbing that Simon & Schuster has chosen not to include footnotes or endnotes in the print version of this book. The author claims complete annotation is available on his website. It is. But if this is to be considered legitimate history, the extensive endnotes must be included with the book.

What about that “surprise” promised above?

Well, with about 60 pages to go, as if a light switch were flipped in a dark room, the narrative returns to life with all the vibrancy of the opening chapters. The scene is the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City. Ronald Reagan is struggling to overcome the innate advantage of a sitting president. Gerald Ford is hanging on for dear life.

The quotes from TV sitcoms are gone. The lengthy descriptions of the latest popular films have vanished. Even the comic strip dialogue has disappeared.

Perlstein treats us to the antics of the smoke-filled back rooms, the meetings in the “hot asphalt parking lots” adjacent the hotels, the duel between Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan for national TV time, even Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, his shirt dripping from perspiration, wrestling a sign away from a southern Reagan supporter.

Now we’re back to the real stuff, the revealing antics of our peculiar democracy right from the memoirs of the people who were there.

Perhaps it is asking too much of an author to sustain this level of excitement over the length of a book, but while it lasts, it’s outstanding.

In the end, Reagan almost pulls off the upset. And in Perlstein’s words: “At 65 years of age, (Reagan is) too old to consider another run for the presidency.”

Undoubtedly, therein lies the seed of a next book.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.