The Invisible Bridge is an apt title for the latest installment of Rick Perlstein’s historical series on the rise of modern conservatism in American politics. After the scandal of Watergate, the Establishment of the Republican Party was desperate to repudiate its former head and his politics while the right wing looked to give American “a choice, not an echo”. The showdown between President Gerald Ford and Governor Ronald Reagan was thought a cakewalk by the political and media establishment who had not learned the lessons from 1964 and beyond.
Like the previous two book in the series, Perlstein shows that politics and history do not occur in a vacuum as cultural, entertainment, and societal issues during the middle part of the 1970s are covered and how they related to political scene of the time as well. In the wake of Watergate and the resignation of Nixon, the Democratic Party was so certain of victory in 1976 that numerous candidates entered to win the nomination and a sure term as President, only for a complete unknown to the Establishment—Jimmy Carter—to come out with the nomination. Yet the main thrust of the entire book is the 1976 nomination fight between Ford and Reagan; how it came about, how it was contested, and how it ended at the Kansas City convention.
Although history and politics are central to this book, Perlstein doesn’t shy away from giving biographies of the three important individuals of the period: Carter, Ford, and Reagan. The portraits those biographies provide are for the most part not very pretty, especially for those who idolize Ronald Reagan as Perlstein doesn’t pull any punches about his life. But for those who think Perlstein out to get Reagan, the image Perlstein shows of Carter is anything but rosy or positive and gives a hint about how he’ll portray the 39th President in his next book which will not make Carter fans very happy as well. Of the three major figures in this book, Gerald Ford comes out the best though in a way Perlstein gives the impression that Ford was more an individual desirous of pity than praise.
I began this review by saying that The Invisible Bridge was an apt title for this book and the reason was that not until looking back from the perspective of 1980 and beyond did anyone see that in 1976 when Ford won the Republican nomination that it was pyrrhic victory by a moderate conservative of a party increasingly controlled by the far right conservatives. Only in hindsight could the pundits and historians see the once hidden bridge of how the crushed right wing of 1964 had taken over by 1976, that bridge was one man who it turned out won by losing.