Nixon’s lies and Reagan’s charms created the space for Clinton, Carter and Obama to redefine (and gut) liberalism
Sunday, Nov 16, 2014
“The Invisible Bridge” is the third installment in Rick Perlstein’s grand history of conservatism, and like its predecessors, the book is filled with startling insights. It is the story of a time much like our own—the 1970s, which took America from the faith-crushing experience of Watergate to economic hard times and, eventually, to a desperate enthusiasm for two related figures: the nostalgic presidential aspirant Ronald Reagan, and the “anti-politician” Jimmy Carter. (I discussed Perlstein’s views on Carter in this space a few weeks ago.)
Let’s talk Watergate. It’s a Republican scandal, obviously, but here’s the thing: It’s liberalism that has never really recovered. Think about it. Your book starts with Watergate and ends with…well, it doesn’t quite get to the triumph of Reagan, but it comes close.
That’s a profound question. That’s deep. I think that liberalism indeed has never really recovered from Watergate in the following sense: It gave a certain generation of Democrats — and we’ll talk about Gary Hart. . . .
Yeah. He’s going to come up.
It gave a certain generation of Democrats an argument to take on the Republicans at the exact same moment that a new political generation was coming up that had indifference, at best, and contempt, at worst, for the New Deal tradition. So you get this class of Congresspeople who hadn’t really run for any office at all. Very young. Swept into office in 1974, very much arguing on issues of corruption, to be sure, but also lifestyle issues. Often they were representing new suburban constituencies that had traditionally elected Republicans and their spokesman was, in fact, this guy Gary Hart…
You’re getting ahead of yourself here, Rick. There’s a more direct route — I probably should have hinted at it — which is cynicism. That Watergate kicked up this huge cultural contempt for government and all its works.
For government itself. Right, right. You know Ronald Reagan, his speech announcing his surprise challenge against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination centered around this idea of the “buddy system” in Washington.