Rick Perlstein's latest book, The Invisible Bridge: the downfall of Nixon and rise of Reagan opens with this notable quote from Nikita Khrushchev to Richard Nixon:
"If the people believe there's an imaginary river out there, you don't tell them there's no river there. You build an imaginary bridge over the imaginary river."
So begins Perlstein's odyssey through the magical rebuilding of what should have been a completely marginalized Republican party. The river's wellspring is Reagan's unlimited capacity to ignore reality in favor of irrational optimism at a time where realism should have been the call of the day.
I haven't finished reading the book yet, since it's nearly 800 pages and just landed in my reading list late last night so this is not a review. But even from the first two chapters, it's easy to tell why there's so much conservative angst and anger over it.
Perlstein, after all, is tainting the legacy of Saint Ronnie, and everyone knows he's the untouchable hero of today's conservatives. Craig Shirley, lead St. Ronnie cheerleader and current 501c4 abuser is out in front of it with accusations of everything from plagiarism to just mean-spirited divisiveness.
The most serious accusations come from a fellow Reagan historian, Craig Shirley, who said that Mr. Perlstein plagiarized several passages from Mr. Shirley’s 2004 book, “Reagan’s Revolution,” and used Mr. Shirley’s research numerous times without proper attribution.
In two letters to Mr. Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, Mr. Shirley’s lawyer, Chris Ashby, cited 19 instances of duplicated language and inadequate attribution, and demanded $25 million in damages, a public apology, revised digital editions and the destruction of all physical copies of the book. Mr. Shirley said he has since tallied close to 50 instances where his work was used without credit.
Mr. Perlstein and his publisher said the charges are unfounded and noted that Mr. Perlstein cited Mr. Shirley’s book 125 times on his website, rickperlstein.net, where he posted his endnotes, which include thousands of citations and links to sources.
I suspect Perlstein's critics are more peeved about his unflinching honesty when it comes to St. Ronnie's invisible bridges and the Villagers' need to help build them through intentional benevolent neglect.
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No one who called the Watergate burglars "well-meaning individuals committed to the reelection of the President...not criminals at heart," as Reagan had in the spring of 1973, could be taken seriously as a political comer. But a central theme of my previous two books chronicling conservatism's ascendency in American politics has been the myopia of pundits, who so frequently fail to notice the very cultural ground shifting beneath their feet. In fact, at every turn in America's reckoning with its apparent decline, there were always dissenting voices.
I'm still reading the first chapter, but if the rest is as engaging as this I expect there will be howls and cries echoing throughout the halls of punditry for months to come. It is, after all, in their interests to discredit Perlstein in order to reclaim their rightful authority as the sole Creators of Invisible Rivers.