The rise of Reagan: ‘They yearned to believe’

Rick Perlstein, author of books about Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, has a new book entitled The Invisible Bridge: the Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

invisiblebridgeThe title is taken from a remark by Nikita Khrushchev to Richard Nixon, “If the people believe there’s an imaginary river out there, you don’t tell them there’s no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river.”

In the 1970s, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandals, the CIA scandals and the Arab oil embargo confronted Americans with the fact that we are neither all-powerful nor totally righteous, but in fact are not all that different from other nations.

Ronald Reagan’s political genius was in the fact that he was able to convince Americans that we are all-powerful, not matter what happens to us, and we are totally righteous, no matter what we do.

The Reagan illusion continues to this day and neither Republican nor Democratic leaders dare question it.

Perlstein gave a good interview about his book to David Dayen for Salon.  Here are some excerpts from the interview.

Reagan sees his 1976 run for president as an attempt to save the Republican Party itself, no?

He believed strongly that moderates had no place in the Republican Party. He gave a deliriously received speech at the second annual CPAC, a conference that still goes on today.  And there he said that the Republican Party had to be a party of “no pale pastels”  [snip]  And the pundits didn’t get it, they were like, what?  But conservatives rallied to it.

At that point in time, conservatives were starting to regain their organizational push after the Nixon years.  And they threw Reagan in the forefront of a nomination fight against an incumbent president, an astonishing thing. And he comes just inches away from pulling it off.  [snip]

By 1980, when he speaks before the VFW convention during his presidential campaign, he says Vietnam was a noble cause. That was considered in the press a gaffe.  What they didn’t understand was that he was touching something deep and powerful, this longing for innocence.

And that was true on both sides of the political aisle, right? You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone’s beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.

Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see?  Yes, how about Barack Obama?  It’s very similar.

Of course, there’s this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love.  But I hope people see the parallel between liberals’ love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day.  [snip]

That’s something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe.  And it’s a powerful force.


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