I must say to you that the state of our Union is not good — President Gerald Ford
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein is a political history of the United States from the late 1960s to the Republican Convention in 1976. Perlstein holds a BA in history for the University of Chicago and did graduate work at the University of Michigan in American Studies. His previous books include Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
This is a book that covered most of my childhood and brought back a flood of memories. It not only covered the politics but the culture too. Vietnam, Patty Hearst, POWs, Legionnaires disease, horse meat, Dirty tricks, Berkeley student protests, changing sexual ideas, ERA, bicentennial, The Exorcist, Henry Aaron, The Freedom Train, streaking, Evel Knievel, textbook wars, WIN, Born Again, Weather Underground, and Saturday Night Live are all included in this troubled period. From Nixon’s disgrace, to Ford’s healing America, to a Georgia peanut farmer all give rise to a man from California, Ronald Reagan. “People wanted to believe. Ronald Reagan was able to make them believe.” Perlstein captures not only the history but also the spirit of the times.
Perlstein gives detailed biographies of Reagan and Betty Ford. Betty Ford was quite progressive for her time and made quite a stir with her opinions. That was part of the history I did not remember. President Ford, I remembered mostly for his pardoning of Nixon and Chevy Chase’s impersonations on Saturday Night Live. Ford, not Carter, was the “nice guy” president. Ford wanted to heal the nation and return the nation to prosperity. His efforts at times almost seem comical, WIN -Whip Inflation Now was one of the better known programs. My take is, that more than anything, Ford was the bridge that allowed the healing.
In the background are the other players. Kissinger maintains a large role and smaller roles by still familiar names like Pat Buchanan, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson start the beginnings of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. With Jimmy Carter, Billy Carter is also brought forward and rival Scoop Jackson.
Another revelation for me just how contested the the Republican primary of 1976 turned out to be. Ford nearly became the first sitting president not to win his party’s nomination since Cester A. Arthur. The Republican party was deeply divided between Ford and Reagan. It took the floor vote to nominate Ford before the result was known for sure. Ford came very close to losing and may have loss if it wasn’t for Reagans choice of running mate — Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania.
What makes The Invisible Bridge a great book is the writing. I knew the history before reading the book. History records that it was Ford and Dole in 1976 and not Reagan and Schweiker, but reading the book creates a sense of suspense. There are several situations where history may have been very different, and I just never realized how close things came to being very different. Perlstein writes a history book that wants to be read and keeps the reader’s interest through to the end. An outstanding modern history.