Updated below. Monday evening. October 20, 2014.
Cartoon by Pat Oliphant courtesy of the Library of Congress, from the exhibition Pat Oliphant’s Anthem.
I’m enjoying Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge but I don’t recommend it as middle of the night reading for insomniacs awakened by nightmares and kept awake by personal demons and family ghosts.
It’s not that the ghost of Richard Nixon is terrible company during a dark night of the soul. Not just that, at any rate.
It’s that he’s not doomed to walk the night alone. He travels with lots of company, including his gang of attendant minor devils, Haldeman, Erlichman, Mitchell, and the rest, of course, but also hundreds, thousands of other tormented souls. Just about everyone who knew him or in some way arranged their lives in alliance with him or in opposition was corrupted by him or his influence. He had a knack for bringing out the worst in people. You can see this happening again and again throughout the portions of Perlstein’s book that focus on Nixon and Watergate. Even decent, well-intentioned, honorable people turned mean and spiteful in reaction to him. They grew small-minded and petty, shrank in spirit and withered at heart. They lost their senses of proportion. They lost their senses, period. This happens to whoever enters the stage Perlstein’s set. All the players are diminished morally and emotionally and intellectually.
Some of this is just due to the nature of storytelling. Perlstein has chosen to tell the story of a great villain on the loose in a time when all the great heroes were dead. There are other ways to approach the story of Watergate and Nixon’s downfall that are more uplifting and more reassuring and more conducive to continuing to think well of one’s fellow human beings. But in Perlstein’s telling all the lesser characters are lesser and lessened because they are there to reflect, highlight, reveal, and react to aspects of his main character and the themes he’s using Nixon to illustrate.
But most of it is due to the nature of the man.
Like I said, he just brought out the worst in people or, with those of stronger minds and stouter hearts, frustrated their determination to be at their best.
Dismaying to watch. Especially so when you’re watching it happen to someone like Barbara Jordan.
Perlstein takes care to portray Jordan as a hero of the moment and to give a sense of the effect of her famously eloquent and moving speech to her fellow members of the House Judiciary Committee who were vacillating and weaseling on the question of impeachment. He wants his readers to hear it in their heads as the profound, powerful, and heart-lifting thirteen minutes of political oratory it was felt to be at the time.
But much of what was inspiring in that moment was its promise. The promise was general. Impeachment would be justice, justice would be served. Richard Nixon would be punished and not just driven from office but driven back into the past. The future of the nation would not include him. He would not do any more harm to the United States or its people. He would go away and we would be free to be the country we could have and should have been if not for him. And the promise was particular and focused on Jordan. Here was not just a heroine for the moment, but possibly one for the future. Many people saw then what many others saw thirty years later when Barack Obama stood up to speak at the 2004 Democratic convention, a future President. Our first African-American President. Our first woman President.
People were getting carried away, of course. But that of course is hindsight in action. It’s very possible that Jordan would have gone on to be become the important political leader whose potential was revealed in the speech. It was unlikely that she’d have gone on to be President. But the unlikely is also hindsight in action. It was unlikely to happen because of what did happen.
Illness robbed Jordan of her---our---future greatness. But in addition to that, Nixon did not go away. He wouldn’t go away. He still hasn’t gone away. His influence and the effects of what he did were too broad, too deep, too infectious. Vietnam has had better luck getting over what he did to it than the United States has had getting over what he did to us, which was to bring out the worst in us and make it a permanent, near irresistible force in our body politic. He’s our chronic disease. The symptoms are mutual distrust, mutual resentment, paranoia, constant anger, recurring bouts of self-pity and spite, and diffuse and pervasive hatreds for enemies real and imagined. And don’t try to tell me I’m describing only them, the Republican Right. They have the disease more virulently, but the very them-ness of our argument is a sign we’re infected. It’s forced on us. But it’s still what it is. We’re still reacting to Richard Nixon and it diminishes us.
So, robbed of their promise, general and individual, Jordan can be seen for what she really was at and in that moment, another minor player in the drama of Richard Nixon, one who’d written herself some great lines and performed her part brilliantly, but still a supporting character defined by her effect on the fate of the play’s lead, and that effect was minimal, and the speech for what it was, not all it was, but still what it was along with what else it was: partisan, opportunistic, and show-offy---Jordan was many good things but she was still a politician with a microphone in front of her and a camera trained on her. And Richard Nixon did that for her and to her.
Jordan wasn’t making the case that the President was guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. She was actually arguing that it didn’t matter whether or not he was. Impeachment was the constitutional prerogative of the House of Representatives and the Constitution left it up to its members to decide what was an impeachable offense. The question of guilt was for the Senate to decide. In other words, a President could be impeached for whatever reasons the House felt like impeaching him for. She was responding to Nixon’s defenders who were attempting to stave off impeachment by pettifogging on the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors. Her argument was opportunistic and legalistic and therefore unavoidably cynical. It was also specious and, as it turned out, destructive because it provided the justification for the impeachment of another President twenty-four years later and will provide the justification for the impeachment of the current President if Republicans in the next House go through with their plans to impeach him. “Just because we don’t like him and we’ve got the votes” is grounds for impeachment if you follow the logic of Jordan’s argument.
She didn’t intend for that but that’s what it was or how it comes across now that we know would come of it. The thing was it was forced upon her by Nixon himself.
And not just the argument but the moment.
It shouldn’t have happened.
Jordan shouldn’t have been in the position of having to make that speech. The Judiciary committee shouldn’t have been meeting to decide on sending articles of impeachment to the full House. Impeaching the President shouldn’t have been under discussion because the President should not have done the things he did to warrant it. Watergate shouldn’t have happened! None of it would have happened if Nixon hadn’t been President. Nixon shouldn’t have been the President. He was President because the times were what they were. And they shouldn’t have been what they were. And that’s primarily what makes The Invisible Bridge depressing reading. It’s the story of those times and how events and tides of culture and economics contributed to bringing about what shouldn’t have happened and prevented what should have and could have.
Reading it is total re-immersion in the 1970s or, depending on your age, an initial and I imagine shocking immersion. (Just an interesting and to me amusing sidenote: Rick Perlstein was five years old in 1974. Punk kid.) It’s one of Perlstein’s themes that the 70s were strange times. All times are strange. But in The Invisible Bridge the strangeness of the 1970s is the story.
Perlstein is as assiduous, meticulous, detail-obsessed, and relentless---ruthless---in chronicling particulars of the 70s peculiar strangeness, not as background but as integral to the characters, actions, and fates of all the people he brings onto the page, as a pathologist charting the course of a disease. In fact, in Perlstein’s recounting, the 70s begin to seem like a disease, like Nixon himself, infecting anyone who comes in contact with any aspect of the zeitgeist, which is to say just about everyone in the country, and reducing them to their worst. The only character who seems resistant---so far---to both the times and Nixon is Gerald Ford, but with him it’s just a delayed reaction. We know what’s coming for him. Everyone else, from the wives of returning POWs to Patty Hearst comes down with a severe case of the 70s or the Nixons or both---and the illnesses begin to look like one and the same.
When the 70s don’t feel like an infection, they appear like a nation-wide defect of character.
People stink and they are stupid at all times but when you dress them in polyester, give them bad haircuts, fill their heads with adolescent nonsense about the liberating effects of what’s essentially narcissistic self-indulgence, and let them run loose on the paths of self-actualization and self-fulfillment at a time when the times require a collective, grown-up response to society’s problems (which is all times, of course), they look stupider and smell worse.
In the 70s, everything good about the equal rights and liberation movements of the 1950s and 60s was perverted to justify individual irresponsibility and selfish desire. Pop culture---movies, the music, the many bestselling books published to cash in on the rising self-help and New Age movements, the nightly news and the morning and evening papers (There were still evening papers then. There were still newspapers that everybody in town subscribed to.), the news magazines---pushed alienation, disaffection, self-infatuation disguised as self-reflection and self-improvement. The idea grew that individuals owed more to themselves than to society, which was portrayed as corrupt and corrupting, oppressive, repressive, reactionary, and worst of all, uncool (much of this was true), and that a person served the world best by serving himself first. Emerson and Thoreau preached this but they had something different in mind with regard to self-reliance and individual responsibility and pointed the way to different ends, Walden Pond and principled nights spent in jail. The 70s version led to Studio 54 and then to…the 1980s.
All that Perlstein does comes together to make for great storytelling and essential daytime reading. But there’s another reason I don’t recommend The Invisible Bridge to anyone unhappily and anxiously awake and afflicted by doubts, blues, and existential dreads in the dead of night.
The book’s haunted by another ghost.
A twinkling, chuckling, superficially genial ghost dragging along his own army of the damned, many of them still living and making mischief among us today.
The most depressing thing about The Invisible Bridge is that its story doesn’t really stop with the 1970s or the 1980s. It’s ongoing. It’s the story of today.
Our long national nightmare didn’t end with Nixon’s resignation. We’re still living in it.
Updated to promise another update because I need to make one thing perfectly clear: Rick Perlstein dropped by and left a comment telling me I’m “misreading” Barbara Jordan’s argument. Rick says, “She wasn't saying impeachment was whatever the House said it was, not at all.” He would know, and this a case where I’m glad to be wrong. I loved Jordan for that speech and I still revere her memory. But I have to figure out how to correct things. I suppose I could just leave it at this. I could do that. I could leave it alone. But that would be wrong. I’ll think on it. I may need to write another whole post.
The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein, published by Simon & Shuster, is available from Amazon in hardcover and for kindle but fortunately not on tape so there are no eighteen and half minute gaps.