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.