Books postsThursday November 06, 2014
Q&A: In Bed with Rick Perlstein
This morning I interviewed Rick Perlstein, author of “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” via Skype. He, you can see, is comfortably ensconsed in his bed in Chicago, while I am, per usual, slouched at my desk in Seattle.
It was a wide-ranging discussion, taking in, among other topics, “Rocky,” “Roots,” media fragmentation, and whether Ronald Reagan would have won the general election had he upset, as he nearly did, Pres. Gerald Ford at the 1976 GOP Convention.
How Ronald Reagan Helped Integrate Baseball, or the Birth of Truthiness
Here's a quote from Ronald Reagan on why he was against the 1964 Civil Rights Act not only in 1964, but as late as 1975, when he began running for president against GOP incumbent Gerald Ford. Basically it's the idea that the American people are so decent they don't need the U.S. government telling them what to do. His example?
“I have called attention to the fact that when I was a sports announcer, broadcasting major-league baseball, most Americans had forgotten that at the time the opening lines of the official baseball guide read, ‘Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen,’ and in organized baseball no one but Caucasians were allowed. Well, there were many of us when I was broadcasting, sportswriters, sportscasters, myself included, [who] began editorializing about what a ridiculous thing this was and why it should be changed. And one day it was changed.”
And here's Rick Perlstein's response in his book ”The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan“:
And indeed, he had called attention to that, in 1967, in a televised debate with Robert Kennedy, when he told the same story about baseball. In the interim, if anyone had bothered to point out to him that there was no line in the official baseball guide asserting that “baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen,” or had pointed out to him that he stopped broadcasting baseball in 1937 and the sport wasn’t integrated until 1947, the intervention clearly didn’t take. He was still telling the story in the White House nine years later.
I'd say Reagan's ”one day" allows for the 10-year difference, but not for the fact that the official baseball guide never said the words he said they said. Reagan's whole story feels like B.S. to me. Is there any evidence that he editorialized in this manner on the radio? Does he ever say what he said? And even if he could provide any evidence, what does it matter to his argument? What does it mean to Montgomery, Ala., or Birmingham, Ala., or Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, were murdered in 1964, and where Ronald Reagan, his party's nominee, gave a states' rights speech in August 1980, on his way to the presidency?
Ick, ick, ick. Every time I read about Reagan, I can't get the ick off.
Rick Perlstein at Seattle Town Hall
Perlstein and friend.
Wednesday night we went to hear author Rick Perlstein speak at Seattle Town Hall about Nixon and Reagan, the fall of adulthood and the rise of a blinkered, willful innocence. That’s the theme, more or less, of Perlstein’s book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” which I’ve been reading for the last 2-3 weeks.
I agree with this theme, by the way. It’s in my wheelhouse. I remember reading the James Baldwin essay “Stranger in a Village” while living in Taiwan in the late 1980s, and thinking that this sentence, despite being written in the 1950s, fit the decade I’d just lived through but exactly:
Anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
That, to me, is America in the 1980s. It’s Reagan’s America. You could argue that it’s still the GOP's America, although they’ve given up on the twinkly-eyed thing Reagan had and just roar incomprehensibly to us now. They’re just monsters.
I’ve thought about Perlstein’s theme vis a vis the movies, too. A lot of mainstream, popular movies in the 1970s were for grown-ups (“The Godfather,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), even as I, a child, collected comic books. Now the movies are for children and feature those very superheroes I put away in the late 1970s. When I was a child I read as a child: but when I became a man, they gave me back these childish things.
Why the shift? That’s what I keep wondering. Perlstein has answers. America, in “The Invisible Bridge” period of 1973 to 1976, found out things about itself it didn’t want to know: we were corrupt (Watergate), losers (Vietnam), bankrupt (NYC), criminal (CIA). So we strove to not know them. We manufactured innocence long after that innocence was dead. That’s what Reagan was good at. According to Perlstein, he’d been doing it his whole life. He took the chaos of his early years—alcoholic father, itinerant life—and gave it a shine from within. He pretended what was unstable was stable. He projected certitude in doubt, moral absolutism amid the gray. That’s what he sold to America. We bought it. In spades. We’re still buying it.
So I was ready for Perlstein’s talk, excited for the talk. Except the talk wasn’t in the main part of Town Hall but basically its basement. Couldn’t we do better? Plus Perstein didn’t really talk to us; he read to us from the preface of the book. Couldn’t he do better? Plus I didn’t have a book for him to sign—I’m reading it on a Kindle—so I missed that part of the evening. Instead, Patricia and Vinny and I, as they say, repaired to the Sorrento for drinks. It was the best part of the evening.
Even so, I recommend the book highly. It’s always good to question what we’re buying, and why. Particularly when we’ve been buying it for 30 years.
Ronald Reagan's Message to George Clooney, Matt Damon, Et al.
“Some people think an actor should keep his mouth shut. I think that is wrong. An actor should be careful to know that no group is using him for a selfish purpose, but if he sincerely believes in something he should use his voice.”
-- Ronald Reagan, Democrat, in an AP column in 1945, as reported in Rick Perlstein's “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”
The Real Howard Beale
Throughout his book, “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan,” author Rick Perlstein talks about how all elements of the culture, including movies, were influencing other elements, but he is more reticent in drawing lines (or bridges, invisible or otherwise) between specific political acts and subsequent films. Thus the way Nixon talked about POWs led to the notion that we still had MIA over there, which led, 10 years later, to the awfulness of “Rambo: First Blood Part II.”
Then there was this cultural tidbit about Christine Chubbuck that I don't remember ever hearing about:
Two weeks before the impeachment hearings, the perky hostess of the chat show Suncoast Digest, who incorporated homemade puppets into the program, was angry that the station owner had told the staff to concentrate on “blood and guts,” and had cut away from her show to cover a shoot-out at a local restaurant. She began her broadcast with an uncharacteristic hard-news segment, with film from the restaurant shooting—which jammed in the projector, at which point she announced, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.” She then shot herself in the head and died, leaving behind the script she had been reading from, which included a postscript: a third-person account of the breaking news story, to be read by whomever took over the news desk next.
Yes, Virginia (or Florida), there really is (or was) a Howard Beale.