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Book review

‘The Invisible Bridge’ by Rick Perlstein

Ronald Reagan is sworn in as 40th President of the United States by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981.

AFP/Getty Images

Ronald Reagan is sworn in as 40th President of the United States by Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1981.

It was a time when all the arrows pointed downward: the economy, America’s prospects in a divisive war, public respect for authority, morals in Washington. It was a time when Americans abandoned their élan, their idealism, their confidence, and their sense of mission. It was a time when the citizens of the great western superpower yearned to feel good again — about the country, of course, but also about their futures and even themselves.

It was, in short, a time perfectly suited for the sunny outlook and resilient optimism of Ronald Reagan — or, as Rick Perlstein calls him, “Ronald Reagan, rescuer.’’

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“The Invisible Bridge’’ is a book about Reagan, but it is also a book about his time — or, more precisely, the years, roughly 1973 to 1976, that led to his two terms in the White House starting in 1981. It is about what Perlstein calls “America’s season of melancholy’’: spiking meat prices, a stagnant economy, the energy crisis, the twin curses of Vietnam and Watergate, all leading Americans, for the first time since their ascension to world power after World War II, into a period of crippling self-doubt.

This book is the third in Perlstein’s works on conservative figures — volumes on Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon came earlier — and what fills this deceptively complex and nuanced work about a blithe character is a nearly unbearable tension: between the reflex to celebrate America for its promise, opportunity, and virtue and the impulse to examine America for its crimes, deficiencies, and hypocrisies.

Reagan himself, who would emerge in folklore as a great unifier, spoke of a “confrontation between two opposing philosophies that have polarized this nation.’’ But he did not recoil from controversy, even in the face of strong opposition from his advisers, who, for example, cautioned him against wading into the mid-1960s upheaval on campuses. “The last thing they wanted for the candidate who costarred beside a chimp in the film ‘Bedside for Bonzo’ only 15 years earlier,” Perlstein writes, “was for him to associate himself with anti-intellectualism by attacking higher education.’’

That and another unlikely issue — a revolt against big spending in California, a state with a healthy budget surplus — won him national notice, and national promise.

All this is rendered in a wise-guy narrative (Nixon as “the demon in the White House’’) that often detracts from a vital kernel of wisdom embedded in these 856 enthralling, entertaining, but sometimes irritating pages: Together the drama of Watergate and the rise of Reagan constitute what Perlstein calls ‘’a battle over the meaning of America,’’ a clash between “[t]wo visions of patriotism.’’

That conflict begat the culture wars whose reverberations we feel still. It’s Perlstein’s achievement that he identifies its origins; it is his triumph that he reminds us that, revisionists be damned, Watergate was a full-fledged constitutional crisis, not a mere caper; and it is his insight to recognize that while the seeds of Reaganism may have been planted in the Goldwater movement — that’s the received wisdom — they were watered in the Nixon years, even if, in the White House tapes, Nixon said Reagan was of “limited mental capacity.’’

And, in fairness, Perlstein gets in his jabs at the establishment left as well, particularly the “unthinking arrogance of liberals when it came to intruding into the formerly private realm of the family’’ and “those liberal media gatekeepers who had made ordinary longings for simple order, tradition, and decorum seem so embarrassingly unfashionable.’’

Along the way we encounter the cultural touchstones of the period: gas lines, ‘’The Exorcist,’’ the Patty Hearst kidnapping, the phrase “women’s lib,’’ Roy Acuff in an outfit with silver piping, streaking, expletives deleted, the movie “Jaws,’’ CB radio, and the Bicentennial.

At the center of this book, of course, is the Great Communicator himself, on whom Perlstein has a sharp analytic eye. The actor had many roles, none greater than this: “ministering to a wounded nation’s soul.’’ And during a major stop along his route to the oval office he had one surprise for detractors: “the antigovernment supposed [governor] actually governed.’’

There was a bit of the magician about Reagan as California’s chief executive, as there would be as president. In his years in Sacramento the state budget grew and the individual tax burden grew. He signed a liberal abortion bill.

No matter. Reagan always had a wonderful sense of timing, and he emerged in a period when, largely because of Watergate, only 18 percent of Americans identified as Republicans — but 61 percent thought of themselves as conservatives: “A bereft nation had just lost its first war; change was everywhere; and, quietly, Americans were hugging any excuse not to change.’’

It was in Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 nomination challenge to Gerald Ford that he found perfect pitch with his welfare queens/school prayer/Panama Canal/patriotism recitative. Perlstein also demonstrates that it was not only in 1980, when Reagan was elected, but also in 1976, when he was defeated in a bruising nomination fight, that Jimmy Carter and Reagan were operating in oddly parallel universes, their similarity being the evangelism that moved Carter even as evangelists were moving into Reagan’s camp

Even in 1976, Carter seemed weird and Reagan normal, though the truth might have been the reverse. But this truth is unmistakable in this oddly charming and ultimately irresistible book: The same forces that elected Carter, an outsider with a hymn book of values and national redemption, allowed Reagan, an outsider with a copybook of values and national redemption, to defeat him four years later.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this review misspelled Rick Perlstein’s name.

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