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Perlstein's "Reaganland" Sheds New Light on a Familiar Story

Rick Perlstein, America’s preeminent historian of modern conservatism, in his latest book, Reaganland, America’s Right Turn 1976-1980, takes us more deeply than anyone writing today into the minds of those who, with Ronald Reagan as their willing front man, started us on our current political path.

Perlstein began his long-ranging study of conservatism with the insightful Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. In that book we have a detailed chronicle of the beginnings of modern conservatism. Perlstein continued with Nixonland, and now his latest important work, a devastating, demanding and encyclopedic account (the book is more than 900 dense pages long, with 144 pages of source notes) of the two antagonists at center of the book, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It is a tale of the political party each belonged to, and the handlers and manipulators who surrounded them.

Because of Reagan and the cult that enveloped him, conservatism as we know it became a unified, carefully crafted movement that eventually took strong hold in the United States. Though not always in power, its right-wing ethos grew stronger every year. If we had kept our eyes open, we would have seen what was taking place. There had always been a strong conservative bent in America from the days of the Revolution. It picked up steam without abating to where it is today. But no one knew at the time in the early 1960s, that conservatism would turn into a movement that threatens democracy as we know it. Goldwater as a presidential aspirant crashed and burned. Eventually, as Perlstein sees it, Jimmy Carter, encircled by an incompetent staff who were also not up to the presidency, failed miserably. In doing so, he and the Democratic Party allowed Reagan and his dedicated managers to remake American politics, and to bring into the open many Americans’ deep-seated intolerant beliefs.   

It is that story that Perlstein tells in Reaganland so well, with great zeal, detail and context. He makes an interesting point that were it not for his editors and their potentially active red pencils, his study could have run many volumes longer. It’s a credit to him that he was able to compress what he discovered into what he needed to make the book as rich as it is.

As a producer for NBC News including the years 1976-1980, the years Perlstein writes about, I covered both men and their minions many times, though I spent more hours observing Carter than I did Reagan, including trips to Carter’s home in Plains, Georgia. As a news producer, I met, worked with and reported on many of the key players from that era. I was never close to any of the people on either side. Still, I thought I knew pretty much everything that was going on at that time.  Perlstein showed me what I did not know by opening my eyes to behind the scenes activities, including intimate conversations gleaned from diaries, letters and interviews. His research is prodigious.

In covering politics, it is important to understand how each campaign operates in its quest for the White House. A surprise for me was learning from Perlstein that when campaigning, Reagan sometimes wrote his own columns and speeches. In the press, we believed that Reagan was a mere the actor, a puppet rather than the policy maker. Though he gave the same speech at every stop – the cards with his speech were soon falling apart -- it hardly mattered to his audience which adored him. Reagan helped set the lighting at every stop. He knew what he wanted. Covering the campaign I saw him express his vision and I marveled at how he had the pulse of his audience at every stop. Rarely did he hold a press conference after a speech. His handlers were very careful to limit his unscripted appearances.

Once when I had been working with Douglas Kiker, a well-informed political reporter for NBC News, we were on the campaign trail covering Reagan. One night after a Reagan speech Kiker and I hustled to the back entrance of the hotel where Reagan had appeared.  We caught up with him in the back of the hotel on a very humid night in front of a steamy pool for a quick, difficult, rare, and not very revealing interview. But it was a real interview, one on one, not the usual speech template. It showed Reagan to be equally adept spontaneously as when he performed a prepared speech. Though his handlers worried about what he would say and how he would say it, our short interview showed they had little to worry about. We see his advisors as calculating and secretive, something they were. In the end they were looked on as sinister but their success with Reagan’s followers wiped those concerns away. Reagan, though at times headstrong, after eight years as governor of California and long experience as an actor and spokesman on television, understood that his staff knew his strengths and weaknesses. He understood they were guiding him in the right direction. He usually did what he was told and he did it very well.

There are critics who believe Perlstein is too tough on Carter. Perlstein gives Carter credit for his success with the Camp David accords, but that victory was not enough to define his presidency.  Carter had no one except himself to blame for his failure to reach the American people. It was a time when the country was starting to devolve into deep partisanship, more divided than anyone thought. Witness the partisan divide today. Perlstein thoroughly details how Carter, during his presidency, to his lasting detriment, refused at times to listen to his equally inexperienced advisors. Carter wanted to make America better. I do not doubt his desire, but in pushing the idea that the nation had to suffer to succeed, Perlstein says he never made a convincing case for his imprecise, muddled vision. Carter’s speeches and folksy ways -- his wearing a cardigan sweater, sitting before a fireplace – failed as he tried to connect with a nervous public that could only see difficult days ahead. His so-called folksy ways did not work for Jimmy Carter. Americans did not want to suffer. The public decided life was much better than Carter said. It assumed life would get better over time so why make it worse than it was. In the end voters chose Reagan because he offered a sweeter vision for America.

Perlstein does not give Carter any breathing room. He makes a very good case that Carter, Hamilton Jordan, Jody Powell, Gerald Rafshoon and sometimes Pat Caddell rarely understood how to run the country. He also makes the strong case that Reagan and his handlers, Richard Wirthlin, Richard Viguerie (with his direct mail genius), John Sears and Lyn Nofziger, though not always in agreement as a group, had a purpose. They wanted to change America for all time, which they did with Reagan’s eight years in the Oval Office.

A great strength of Perlstein’s is his use of context, never letting the reader forget what else was going on in the world at the time of Reagan’s emergence. In chapter after chapter Perlstein outlines where society was in movies, on television, in books, popular music and more. It gives us a chance to pause in the central narrative, take a breath and remind us what the world was like between 1976 and 1980. Context also explains how Carter and Reagan were reacting to the world around them. Two major social realities, homophobia and anti-feminism were ugly strategies fostered by Ronald Reagan’s advisors. Republicans understood how effective those ideas were in turning people toward Reagan instead of against him. Conservatism was on the move.

In 1980 we had peanut farmer and former governor of Georgia as president with very little real experience in governance and a B actor who was also a TV host working at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Though at the time they were unaware of the consequences of their battle, they helped create a new idea of America, a clear juxtaposition of ideas by the handlers and advisors each man had. Then, by whittling away at who we thought we were, Reagan and his inner circle eventually achieved their goal. Despite the victories of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, the conservative movement now seems a permanent fixture on our political landscape.