The Meaning of Ronald Reagan

The lawsuit against Rick Perlstein is a distraction from a much-needed debate over Reagan’s rise.

White House Photo Office / Wikimedia Commons

New Orleans’s “red-light district” was “festooned with red, white, and blue bunting” during the 1976 Republican National Convention, the “smut peddlers” placing “elephants” in their store windows.

Those twelve quoted words are the only real overlap between the 804 pages of Rick Perlstein’s newly-released The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan and a prior Reagan biography by right-wing publicist Craig Shirley. But Shirley’s attorneys are demanding $25 million in damages from Simon and Schuster and a pulping of all copies of Perlstein’s book.

The Times’s public editor has offered a kind of apology for giving the claims any daylight. And with “spurious” as their word of choice, liberals have rushed to call this a smear job. They certainly occupy the high ground, for every other claim of plagiarism is either dubious or patently absurd; one of the passages identified by Shirley is just a quotation, duly cited, of Shirley. Perlstein’s endnotes — posted online, not in the book, in a regrettable economizing move — cite Shirley no fewer than 125 times. In his acknowledgments he states, “Craig Shirley’s book on Reagan’s 1976 campaign saved me 3.76 months.”

The red-light district sentence, however, has no specific endnote — despite its festooning. This failure to attribute was surely unintentional, since Perlstein acknowledges Shirley everywhere else. Perhaps we need some new term for this sort of triviality to avoid the moralism innate to “plagiarism” — something like “derivative,” the consequences for which are akin to a foul ball: You don’t lose the inning for popping one, not even your turn at bat, let alone the game. It’s a mistake, not a crime.

Such minor transpositions are inconsequential, which is why many university plagiarism policies erect a bar of fifty consecutive words in order not to waste everyone’s time and destroy students’ futures in hearings over them. It is doubtful that any judge will see fit to allow this mess of pottage to go to trial; if it does, the jury might do well to study the verdict handed down in Ward Churchill’s suit against the University of Colorado and award for the plaintiff in the amount of one dollar.

When a Reagan biographer who has been a publicist for Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza threatens such a frivolous lawsuit, chances are it is actually a pretext to set the Great Right-Wing Resentment Machine to clanking on Fox, Limbaugh, Breitbart, and all their imitators. The American Spectator dubs Perlstein “the new Doris Kearns Goodwin.” National Review, no longer burdened by William F. Buckley’s serpentine pedantry, simply calls him “a jerk.”

Hence the legal noise serves multiple functions. It warns conservative readers away from this particular book on Reagan, supplies a new pellet of fuel for the eternal flame of grievance against liberal elites, allows a right-wing author to make fresh talk-show rounds, and offers a potential ticket in the vast lottery of American tort law. (Hey, you never know.)

The problem is that this is the sort of thing that makes us stupid.

We badly need serious analyses of how it is that Ronald Reagan came to power; how ideas once seen as preposterous, such as gutting marginal tax rates for the wealthiest, became policy; why the Democrats met the challenge of the Right by drifting right, particularly on matters of political economy; and how the Vietnam disaster — where revelations of pervasive wrongdoing caused such deep soul-searching that many Americans were led to reconsider empire — could have been followed so soon after by the largest peacetime military buildup in American history. We need a discussion of why the radicalism of the Sixties, essential to the black freedom movement, deflated so rapidly, leaving almost no system-challenging left-wing presences in American life.

These are the kinds of issues a book like The Invisible Bridge, with its focus on the conjuncture of the 1970s, ought to invite us to discuss. But right-wing gotcha history and bullying by lawsuit dumbs down our understanding by forcing us all into a stance of solidarity with the victim.

The Right’s ability to insulate a whole social system under the guise of populism is in part a function of its ability to induce by polarization the feeling that there are only two political choices, “two tribes” as Perlstein calls them, thereby short-circuiting the possibility of full, frank, creative conversations in which we might feel free to splay out across many different points of vantage and insight without worrying about whether “our” team will survive the latest spurious onslaught of “theirs.”

So festoon that.


I don’t propose to review The Invisible Bridge here. Others are doing that very well. I myself had a go in the Financial Times, where I praised Perlstein’s many writerly gifts while faulting the thinness of his analysis. That was mirrored — showing it a perception independent of politics — by Michael Kimmage for the New Republic and, more disdainfully, Sam Tanenhaus in the Atlantic.

The point, rather, is to lay out some areas we need better explored — not just by Rick Perlstein, but by us all — about how the American Right’s fortunes shifted in the 1970s.

First, psychology. In Perlstein’s first book, Before the Storm, he criticized liberal consensus historians such as Richard Hofstadter for seeing the Right as paranoid and driven by status anxiety, instead arguing for taking Barry Goldwater seriously. Yet Perlstein himself falls back on psychological categories in this new book, seeing Reagan as a King of Denial, a blithe optimist in America despite the defeat and cultural chaos of the 1970s.

As the approval-seeking child of an alcoholic father, Reagan loved to place himself in the role of rescuer, enabling him to lead a traumatized country in a wish-fulfilment exercise that turned Americans away from the hard truths of Vietnam and Watergate, argues Perlstein. Is this psycho-cultural approach but a new interpolation of Hofstadter’s?

Then there is the issue of race. The Invisible Bridge mentions the Boston busing conflict, Reagan’s antagonism toward civil rights law, and the GOP’s white Southern strategy first practiced under Richard Nixon, but never spells out their meaning. Was race fundamental to the Right’s rise? If so, how precisely?

White opinion since the 1960s has been highly complex, with open white supremacy no longer respectable, making impossible a total reversion to Jim Crow, the most fundamental gain wrought by the Left in the twentieth century. The Tea Party is overwhelmingly white even as modern-day conservatism espouses a “color-blind” ideology attractive to such proponents as Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly. How precisely should we understand race and the Right?

Third, capital and class. Shouldn’t we be seeking new revelations about how corporate America got politicized in the 1970s, countering its falling rate of profit by driving down wages, cutting taxes, and removing regulations? Drawing on Kimberly Phillips-Fein, Perlstein is excellent on Reagan’s service to General Electric and its labor relations under Lemuel Boulware in the 1950s, but he is far less probing when it comes to the 1970s, only briefly reciting a by-now familiar litany of corporate funding of think-tank institutes.

Who were Reagan’s most ardent financial backers? What economic sectors were overrepresented among them? What role did money play in reorienting the Republican Party?

Then there is the issue of liberalism and its response to these developments. Was the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan — and with him a free-market absolutism previously considered a joke — inevitable, or could a fighting liberalism have prevented it? What if the crisis of Keynesianism under stagflation had prompted a left turn, away from technocratic management of the economy toward incursions on corporate power and privilege?

Had liberalism recast itself in an economic populist vein, rather than moving right under Carter, would that have staved off Reagan? Or is that impossible to imagine given such contingencies as Chappaquiddick, which put Teddy Kennedy out of contention, and the influence of corporate money in Democratic politics?

And what about American radicalism and social movements from below? In Perlstein’s books on the 1960s and 1970s, radicalism on the Left is largely limited to its most irrational manifestations, such as the Symbionese Liberation Army. Is radicalism, by implication, to blame for the rise of the Right? Or was the weakening of radicalism by a combination of repression and prominent ultra-left errors what made the Right’s rise possible? Why did the popular radical idealisms of the 1960s dissolve so readily into a general American cynicism?

Finally, the world. If the 1970s are a watershed era, surely the decade can no longer be understood in American terms alone. Not only did Margaret Thatcher’s victory in Britain precede Reagan’s, but so did Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and its genocidal mania, China’s shift towards the market, and the Iranian Revolution’s transformation into clerical rule.

Such events were deeply disorienting for forces well left of center. What accounts for such a worldwide reactionary confluence? Why didn’t the victory of popular liberation forces in Vietnam and the anti-war movement in the developed world validate more left-trending developments?

Better answers to such questions might lend us a theory of the right-wing ascendancy suitable to complement Rick Perlstein’s witty, detailed narratives. The answers will come more readily if we are unafraid to air our respective differences and to disregard the present-day Right’s sound and fury signifying nothing — the latter phrase, I hasten to specify, being an allusion.