A conversation with Rick Perlstein: The bootleg tapes

Defeat in Vietnam, the OPEC oil embargo, Watergate, rising crime rates, and the first signs of the collapsing blue-collar economy marked the mid-1970s as among the toughest periods in American history.

Rick Perlstein’s current best-seller, Invisible Bridge, chronicles that time. It portrays the rise of Ronald Reagan from the Nixon presidency’s Watergate demise to the bitterly-contested 1976 Republican nomination fight between Reagan and then-incumbent president Gerald Ford.

I interviewed Perlstein for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog section. For reasons of space, not all of our conversation was posted. Below is an edited transcript of what didn’t fit within the Post. I think it’s pretty interesting: The FBI, Ford vs. Reagan, the legacy of Martin Luther King, the Manson family.

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The life of an independent historian

Harold Pollack:  You’re one of the few historians who’s doing this work in a free-standing way. You’re not a professor. You’re a writer. That’s a difficult path. I can’t say I know too many other folk who are able to do that.

Rick Perlstein:  Yeah. There have been some challenges. Luckily, I’m now in a very stable place and have been able to put together a solid living doing this. I went to graduate school. I was in a Ph.D program in American Studies. It was much more oriented towards abstruse academic stuff. I really wanted to reach a wider audience. I moved to New York and got into journalism.

HP: The style and sweep of this book does reach a wide audience. Its infusion of popular culture within a broader narrative has reminded several people of William Manchester’s The glory and the dream. It’s a very long book, but it actually reads very quickly….. Continue reading “A conversation with Rick Perlstein: The bootleg tapes”

Breaking: The Butler was not unfair to Ronald Reagan on race

Steven F. Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley and Kiron K. Skinner wrote a strange Washington Post op-ed yesterday decrying the inspiro-pic “The Butler,” for its allegedly unkind portrayal of Ronald Reagan’s racial views. I was a little surprised by their complaints, since the Butler is quite kind to Reagan on a personal level.

These authors believe that the film “perpetuates an ahistorical caricature of Reagan as racially insensitive,” largely due his policy of constructive engagement regarding South Africa. Unfortunately, the historical record indicates that Reagan was….really, really racially insensitive. He received fourteen percent of the African-American vote in 1980. It’s rather surprisingly that he received even that.

Hayward and colleagues note preemptively one episode themselves:

For decades, Reagan’s legacy has been unfairly dogged by claims that his 1980 presidential campaign was marked by the use of code words and symbols that accommodated white racists. Critics point, for instance, to his post-convention appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been killed in nearby Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, and some commentators say Reagan was insensitive to this tragedy when he said, “I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can . . . at the private level.” But the former California governor, a strong believer in federalism, had been talking about states’ rights since the early days of his political career.

Hayward and company don’t explain what’s unfair in the critics’ charges. Reagan’s comments certainly were insensitive, but that hardly covers things. A subtle politician attuned to the symbolic meaning of his statements and actions, Reagan could hardly have missed the general implications of his comments. On the substance, Reagan was standing on one of best spots, within one of the best states, to exemplify why his career-long support for “states’ rights” was always profoundly inadequate.

Yesterday’s op-ed somehow failed to mention that Reagan had opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Campaigning in Georgia, Reagan stated that Jefferson Davis was “a hero of mine.” This op-ed also omitted specific mention to his many coded references to race, such as his 1976 references to a “strapping young buck” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.

I wouldn’t deny or disparage Reagan’s personal kindnesses to individual African-Americans. He was a decent person to those he knew—something “The Butler” depicted well. This doesn’t change the much more important fact that his public record on race was abysmal.

Reagan’s difficulties go beyond various mis-statements, disagreements with civil rights leaders, or policy differences about incremental reforms in South Africa. His basic political strategy was to position himself as Barry Goldwater’s rightful heir in the GOP. Much of Reagan’s real base was among conservative Republicans in the post-1964 southern Republican Party.

I know of no evidence that Reagan himself held invidious racial views, but his limited-government views (like Barry Goldwater’s) were obviously congenial to those who did hold such views. In 1966, Reagan stated: “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” Such views carried over into his presidency, for example in his support for segregationist Bob Jones University’s unsuccessful effort to maintain its tax exemption.

Whatever Reagan’s inner racial views or his private behavior towards individual African-Americans, he chose to court what might politely be called race-conservative segments of the American electorate. He and his party prospered politically by making that choice.

Historians and biographers, of all people, should realize that today’s Republican Party can’t diminish or run away from that legacy. It needs to create something more inclusive and better than the party Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan built.

A Memorial Day Weekend Reflection on Political Memory

Why do we remember politicians as being against things they were for, and vice versa?

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Do you think you have a good political memory? Try this little five question quiz.

Which US President dramatically cut federal criminal penalties for marijuana possession, was a forceful advocate for expanded food stamps and affirmative action, and worked closely with Congress to create the Environmental Protection Agency?

(a) John F. Kennedy
(b) Lyndon Johnson
(c) Jimmy Carter
(d) Richard Nixon

The share of GDP devoted to social spending increased from 22% to an unprecedented 26.7% in just the first three years of what UK Prime Minister’s Rule?

(a) Clement Atlee
(b) Ramsay MacDonald
(c) David Lloyd George
(d) John Major

As governor, he signed a bill that expanded access to legal abortion, over two million of which subsequently occured on his watch. He also passed the biggest tax increase in the history of his state. Who was he?

(a) Mario Cuomo
(b) Patrick Lucey
(c) Terry Sanford
(d) Ronald Reagan

As President, he delighted the wealthiest Americans by pushing for a decrease in the top income tax rate from 91% to 65%

(a) Ronald Reagan
(b) Gerald Ford
(c) Calvin Coolidge
(d) John F. Kennedy

After their election in 2010, the UK Conservative-LibDem coalition inherited a record annual government spending level of about 670 billion pounds. They introduced what was widely termed “austerity” fiscal policy, with government spending in the first year doing what?

(a) Decreasing by about 70 billion pounds
(b) Decreasing by about 40 billion pounds
(c) Decreasing by about 10 billion pounds
(d) Increasing by about 20 billion pounds

The answer to all 5 questions is (d). Seriously. The “heartless” Richard Nixon wanted to end hunger among the poor, and the “liberal champion” John Kennedy was the millionaire’s best friend. “Tight-fisted” British Tories have expanded social and other spending and conservative icon Ronald Reagan signed off on big tax increases (and not just as governor) and expanded access to abortion.

Many people’s memories of politicians erase the contradictions, complexities and compromises of governance that are invariably characteristic of elected leaders. Often this is in the service of current political agendas (e.g., “Ronald Reagan never raised taxes so let’s not betray his legacy by doing it now!”) or emotional needs (e.g., the desire to see one’s own “team” as perfect or the other “team” as thoroughgoing monsters).

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman might add that our inherent cognitive laziness also plays a role. Not really knowing a specific fact such as John Major’s record on social spending, many people substitute in their mind something they do know (Major was a Tory and Tories often oppose social spending) and become confident that they recall an event or policy that in fact never happened.