Forty years ago, Richard Nixon became the only American president in history to resign his office, the culmination of two years of Watergate revelations that exposed criminal activity in the White House. His ignoble fall, so soon after his landslide 1972 reelection, exacerbated a national crisis of confidence that was further aggravated by the fall of South Vietnam, the oil embargo, inflation, and daily reminders that America didn’t stand for what it used to. Into this maelstrom stepped Ronald Reagan, a political Music Man who peddled simple, commonsense solutions and reassured Americans that their best days still lay ahead. Just two years after Nixon left the GOP in tatters, Reagan nearly unseated President Gerald Ford for the presidential nomination and paved the way for his subsequent ascendancy and Republican restoration.
Perlstein, whose Before the Storm and Nixonland chronicled the rise of modern conservatism that began with Barry Goldwater’s quixotic 1964 presidential bid and laid the groundwork for Nixon, reconstructs the psyches of demoralized 1970s American voters who flocked to Reagan — blue-collar workers who despised government interference like forced school-busing, a new coalition of Christians who rallied against abortion and liberal textbooks. Though he occasionally pummels the reader by simply curating dire headlines and op-eds of the times, Perlstein explains how the nation’s malaise permeated every aspect of the culture in popular films and TV shows such as The Exorcist, Jaws, American Graffiti, and Happy Days.
For most voters, Reagan was a welcome dose of the good ol’ days. Perlstein admires the man’s political acumen, but like many biographers of the 40th president, he’s flummoxed by the disparities between Reagan’s folksy anecdotes — about himself and the issues — and the stubborn historical record. He points out serial untruths and blatant whoppers that would disqualify an Internet-era pol but never derailed the Gipper’s mythology. This isn’t the history your Reagan Democrat father-in-law remembers; it’s a painstakingly crafted illustration of the political landscape that made the improbable inevitable. B