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History as seen through the eyes of regular people

Even if you were there, the 1970s you encounter in Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan will probably take you by surprise. I mean, everybody remembers Watergate, and many will recollect the fierce ideological skirmishes over the issue of American Pows being returned by Hanoi. But how many of us have given any thought to the continent-wide panic triggered early in the decade by soaring meat prices? Or how that played into the emerging left-right dialectic that, by decade's end, would see an unlikely political star ascend to the White House?

Perlstein is among the most exciting contemporary writers of American history because he has an uncanny knack for dropping us right in the middle of a moment. His narratives, to a sometimes startling and always refreshing extent, are hindsight-resistant zones. By delving so exhaustively (and occasionally exhaustingly) into the buzz and chatter of the media and political pronouncements of the moment, Perlstein recreates history as it was lived – the daily struggle of people just trying to figure what this mess is all about.

It may be an inevitable function of human memory to embellish, edit and streamline the past; to make coherent stories of it that serve the present. But often that tendency warps and distorts the record.

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In casting America's cultural and political past in the present tense for three volumes – 2001's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, 2008's Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America and The Invisible Bridge – Perlstein has illuminated the current state of intransigent political polarization in America with flashpoint clarity. America's undeclared second civil war has been decades in the making.

The trick is to see through the mythology, a trick as challenging in its way as gazing in the mirror and seeing oneself objectively. (That's me?) But it's a trick Perlstein enlists in the service of clarity and fresh perspective, a way of reminding us history only comes later. At the time, it's just daily life. And really, when it comes right down to it, how many ordinary Americans in the early 1970s were more preoccupied with the cost of hamburger than they were with Watergate or the Pow issue?

In his movie Boyhood, which has proven to be the most-talked-about anti-blockbuster phenomenon of the summer, director Richard Linklater applies the same principle to a fictional coming-of-age story that Perlstein does to postwar history. While much has been made of Linklater's decision to film his six- to 18-year-old protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), in more or less real time chapters shot over the course of 12 years, little has been said about Linklater's remarkable and daring storytelling strategy, which avoids high drama and propulsive crisis with a truly eccentric and conspicuous insistency. We see, for instance, the result of spousal abuse, but not the act; the aftermath of a school graduation, but not the event; and the shadows left by divorce, but not the ordeals attendant to divorce.

We see, in other words, the world the way Mason might, with a growing child's awareness less of catastrophe than just adapting and getting on with the new normal, the process that ultimately marks his passage to adulthood. (The 1960s of Mad Men have a similar quality of weirdly incidental import: The times may be tumultuous, but the characters are just living them.) It's only later that people start to connect the events to their consequences, and we learn to impose our own kind of narrative mythology to our personal histories.

Perlstein's book makes generous use of the notorious transcripts of Oval Office tape-recordings that ultimately proved so instrumental in Richard Nixon's unravelling. But not as generous as such current volumes as The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972 by Douglas Brinkley, Chasing Shadows by Ken Hughes, The Nixon Defense by John Dean – all were published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the 39th President's inglorious resignation.

The transcripts reveal the former President's abundant legal, moral and constitutional transgressions. But they also show the sheer, numbing banality of daily occurrences in Nixon's inner sanctum. Like the recent documentary Our Nixon, which assembled the Super-8 home movies made by members of Nixon's staff, the transcripts emphasize just how oblivious people in the White House – even, and especially, Richard Nixon – were to the bigger picture as they tried to navigate their way through the moment. At the time, they were just making it up. Only later did history, so gamely abetted by self-interest, selective memory and mythology, make some kind of story from it.

Perlstein's work, however, suggests the clearest way to see and understand history, both personal and political, is not as a stand-back view of the past but as an eternal stumbling through the present.

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Geoff More


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