Historian Rick Perlstein has been criticized by historians and reviewers for using the internet for sources. But the real criticism ought to be directed at Perlstein’s method of editing out competing information, slanting the treatment toward a leftist agenda, and relying on dubious sources that bolster his side of the spectrum.
This is never truer than with Perlstein’s treatment of Ronald Reagan.
Perlstein is sturdily anti-patriotic and has blasted even Obama for praising America as the greatest country ever. Perlstein traces this rah-rah attitude back to the Nixon presidency, but it received its fullest expression, according to him, under the mindlessly optimistic Ronald Reagan. Our current President is urged to instead embrace a different kind of patriotism emerging out of the 1960s. At this point in the text, Perlstein grows somewhat coy. We can infer, though, that he would have everyone adopt the rather tortured patriotism exhibited by the countercultural types, who treated America as an unexceptional nation and zealously searched out its flaws. If more people did this, apparently, we would be united in our anger and we’d be able to transcend the political teams –the “silent majority” versus the liberal elitist minority—that characterize today’s stalemated politics.
Perlstein seeks to show how Nixon and Reagan landed us in that stalemate. Nixon, for political gain only, articulated the frustrations of “the silent majority” as against the limousine liberals and the New Left. This construct gave him an even larger victory over George McGovern in 1972 than Johnson’s victory over Goldwater eight years before. The President, guided by Patrick Buchanan, played political theater by appearing among protesters who could be counted on to throw fruit and chant. Amid the catcalls and waving placards, he would then talk about a better America than what the youth represented, and his poll numbers rose. But according to Perlstein, Nixon’s warped and unshaven personality couldn’t make these patriotic speeches sing.
Enter Ronald Reagan, whom Perlstein denounces as being authentically optimistic about everything. Like many on the Left, Perlstein tries to explain away Reagan’s popularity as an amiable talent for making Americans feel good. Had he not had this folksy appeal, Perlstein asserts, voters would have recognized his foreign policy views as frightening and his economic views as retrograde in their return to the laissez-faire concepts of the 1920s.
But this slights the popularity of Reagan’s views. It is true that Americans were depressed about our troops’ withdrawal from Vietnam and about the lackluster economy, and needed cheering up. This, however, did not dent their anticommunism. Indeed, it would be Gerald Ford’s gaffe during the 1976 presidential debate, in which he deemed the communist satellite Poland an independent country (a mistake Jimmy Carter exploited), that many pundits believed cost President Ford the election.
Moreover, there was palpable anger at the welfare state. With even some liberals believing the Great Society had gone too far (among them Senator Ted Kennedy), economic policies of the kind Reagan espoused were sure to find an audience.
To adhere to his liberal hit piece on Reagan, Perlstein cannot mention the Soviet Union, for such mention would show the regime violating the Salt II agreements and rapidly outpacing the United States in an arms buildup. President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, no friend of Reagan’s, said pretty much the same thing.
It is true that Reagan seldom if ever wavered in his views, but Perlstein doesn’t include all of them. To do so would reveal that at least one of them—Reagan’s belief that Soviet society would implode if Washington engaged Moscow in a costly arms race—would be validated by 1989.
Ideologically, Nixon and Reagan don’t match up. Perlstein acknowledges as much, but it’s a throw-away line; he fails to do justice to this interesting difference. Nixon was what Camelot partisans thought John Kennedy was: He supported gun control (even for handguns), was pro-choice, and, as President, instituted wage and price controls. He famously said that “only conservatives can do what liberals dream of.” Reagan, in contrast, supported the Second Amendment, was anti-abortion, and believed in cutting taxes. Some of which assimilates him to—well, in fact to John Kennedy, that optimistic President who was also anticommunist and a tax-cutter.
Perlstein is so enmeshed in his coping mechanism for Reagan’s popularity—that the Governor was superficial but lucky about the temper of the country when his presidential prospects ripened—that he misses an ironic point. For we might wonder how, so close in time to the Vietnam withdrawal, to Watergate, and to the subsequent Democratic sweep of the Congress, a Republican who supported the Vietnam War, and was more conservative than Nixon, came within an inch of wresting the 1976 Republican nomination away from President Ford.
No doubt patriotism did play a part in Reagan’s near-miss, as did the perception that the Soviets were winning the Cold War. But the libertarian factor should be noted as well. Voters were fed up with big government abuses of the Constitution. They were also fed up with Washington politicians. (Unused as an insult since the 1920s, the word “politician” at that point resumed its place as a nasty epithet.) More than anyone else at the time, Reagan came across as a non-politician, a folksy type with whom voters could see themselves having a beer. Even his supposedly inappropriate resume as an actor helped him. Unlike Nixon, he had not followed the path of the professional politico, spending decades building up chits and “you owe me’s.” Reagan’s handlers recognized this, and “allowed Reagan to be Reagan.” But “Reagan being Reagan” also frustrated them, especially when he did not act like an ideologue—he could have condemned the anti-libertarian behavior of Nixon but desisted, believing Nixon to be his friend. (This was quite mistaken, for Nixon despised him.)
Certainly, there is some portion of Reagan’s political success that owes to his sunny view of America. But Perlstein can’t stick to this arguable view.