The Edward Gibbon of the Conservative Movement
In my younger years, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was the byword for massive histories.
I’d never read it myself nor even knew of anyone who had, but that famous six volume work from the 18th century was almost synonymous with exhaustive length, though its nearly 4,000 pages hardly seemed excessive given that it told the story of the greatest empire Europe had ever known. Indeed, consulting the Internet I’ve now discovered that well over half the length was actually devoted to events taking place long after the traditional Fall of Rome in 476 A.D., including the Islamic conquests, the rise of the Mongol Empire, and the histories of the Byzantines and the Turks extending to 1590. So perhaps only about 1,700 pages were devoted to the empire ruled by Rome.
In our own day and age, historian Rick Perlstein has labored to produce a tetralogy of similar weight, documenting the rise of the modern conservative movement to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Each of his four volumes is of doorstop heft, and including notes the combined work runs well over 3,500 pages. In 2002 one of his early reviewers had hailed him as the Herodotus of the modern American Right, but perhaps calling him their Gibbon might have been more appropriate. Indeed, in many respects, Perlstein’s research and writing puts the work of his illustrious British predecessor to shame when we consider that he devotes twice as many deeply-researched pages to two decades of a transient American ideological movement as the latter did to the five century lifespan of the fabled Empire of the Caesars.
Beginning in 2001 I’d regularly read the mostly glowing reviews of Perlstein’s opus as each volume successively emerged and most of these had been sitting on my bookshelves for the last half-dozen years. Even leaving aside the story of American conservatives, the years from 1960 to 1980 were among the most tumultuous in our history, encompassing the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, the Vietnam War, the racial upheavals of the 1960s, and Watergate. So a few months ago I finally decided to tackle his tomes, hoping to fill the large gaps in my own knowledge of modern American political history, and the reading project absorbed around three weeks of my time.
The first book in Perlstein’s series recounted the rise of conservative icon Sen. Barry Goldwater from the late 1950s through his landslide defeat at the hands of President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, thereby also covering the very close 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election. Although Before the Storm was by far his shortest volume, it still ran nearly 700 pages, including over 150 pages of notes and index, and it received exceptionally favorable reviews from both the Left and the Right, winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History and making the author’s reputation. Prominent conservatives expressed astonishment that a writer of self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist inclinations could treat their own movement with such scrupulous fairness and even uncover so many interesting historical details previously unknown to them. My own paperback edition had been released by Nation books and highlighted a glowing blurb by former National Review publisher William Rusher, with numerous other accolades from across both sides of the ideological aisle.
Nixonland then appeared in 2008, covering the political revival and Presidency of that title figure through the end of the Vietnam War in 1973; The Invisible Bridge in 2014, recounting the fall of Nixon, the Ford Presidency, and the rise of Ronald Reagan, including his failed attempt to unseat a sitting President in the 1976 Republican Primaries; and Reaganland in 2020, describing the rise and Presidency of Jimmy Carter, and ending with his 1980 loss to Reagan. Each successive volume was longer than the last, while sometimes covering fewer years. And although the reactions became somewhat less uniformly glowing—many mainstream conservatives took angry exception to some of Perlstein’s negative appraisals of the Reagan whom they idolized—the overview verdict in the couple of dozen reviews I read was still very strongly positive.
Although I already knew all of this history in basic outline and had personally been following American politics from about the later Ford years onward, I encountered a vast quantity of important material previously unknown to me. The two decades culminating in the 1980 election were a turbulent time in American political life, while the careers of Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan had shaped the Republican Party and our nation as a whole, and the three weeks I invested greatly multiplied my knowledge of that era. Whether or not one agrees with all of Perlstein’s interpretations, the wealth of information he provides across his thousands of pages seems an invaluable resource for anyone interested in American history, and I’d strongly recommend his books to others.
Some particular insights stand out. Since FDR’s New Deal Era of the 1930s, white urban ethnics—Irish, Italians, and Slavs—had been a core constituency of the dominant Democratic Party coalition, but beginning in the late 1960s, the growing crime and social disorder of our urban centers began pushing them away, and this helped account for Nixon’s huge 1972 landslide reelection and also Reagan’s 1980 triumph. All of this was certainly known to me, but Perlstein’s diligent research demonstrates that particularly during the period covered by Reaganland, the reigning Democratic Party elites could not quite believe what was happening, failing to recognize that their once-solid base of political power was permanently slipping away, while the Republicans themselves were often slow to take advantage of the opportunity. I read these passages during the latter stages of the 2022 midterm elections, and noted the eerie parallels to what currently seemed to be happening with America’s Hispanic and Asian voters, as I recently discussed in an article.
A good example of this situation came in Boston, home to the Kennedys and a long a Democratic Party stronghold, as the forced busing of public school students between the Irish and black neighborhoods sparked a political revolt of the former group, led by School Board Member Louise Day Hicks. I’d always vaguely assumed that Hicks was a crude rabble-rouser, the George Wallace of Irish Boston, but according to Perlstein, she was “a genteel lady,” who merely stood with her outraged constituents, and despite the harsh attacks of the national media, she soon came very close to unseating the incumbent Democratic mayor of her city by running on an anti-busing platform.
I encountered numerous fascinating political vignettes previously unknown to me but set forth in great detail by Perlstein’s exhaustive research. For example, I’d never realized that Phyllis Schlafly—although well-educated and politically-engaged—had been an Illinois housewife raising five children and pregnant with her sixth when Goldwater’s campaign had inspired her to self-publish her own short book; and without placing a single advertisement or contacting a book store, over 600,000 copies of A Choice Not an Echo were circulating by the time of the 1964 Republican Convention. With that powerful start, she soon became an influential figure on the Republican Right, going on to play a central role in the totally unexpected defeat of the feminist Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s. Perlstein even argues that she had “become perhaps the most effective political organizer that the right had ever known.”
I’d vaguely been aware that singer Anita Bryant had led a campaign to repeal a local Gay Rights ordinance in Florida during the 1970s, but hadn’t realized that she’d won by nearly a 70% landslide vote in liberal Dade County, despite overwhelming financial and political resources on the other side. Moreover, her 1977 victory soon inspired a string of copycat measures the following year in other strongly liberal cities such as St. Paul, Minnesota and Eugene, Oregon, which also racked up 2-to-1 victories against similar odds, while she was nearly elected vice president of the huge Southern Baptist Convention. This pattern of conservative wins was finally broken when her allies overplayed their hand and the far more intrusive Briggs Initiative was placed on the California ballot by a state senator hoping to ride the issue to the governorship; despite its strong early lead in the polls, former Gov. Reagan was persuaded to come out against it and many other prominent conservatives soon followed in his wake, so it lost by a wide margin.
I’d always remembered that President Jimmy Carter’s July 1979 “Malaise” speech on the energy crisis had been a political disaster that helped doom his reelection chances the following year. Not so according to Perlstein, who notes in Reaganland that his national address had actually produced an unprecedented rise in public support, with his approval rating jumping eleven points in poll and seventeen points in another, before his disastrous mistake of purging his Cabinet destroyed his standing.
That same volume ultimately closed with Ronald Reagan’s triumph in the 1980 elections, and the author provided this striking passage describing the widely-perceived front-runner in the Republican primaries of the preceding year:
The men rising to challenge Jimmy Carter did not generally resemble superheroes. Most were painfully bland. No surprise, then, that the first to emerge from the pack was the most charismatic of the bunch—who practically had leadership tattooed on his forehead.
He was often photographed on his ranch, astride a horse. He grew up poor in the hinterlands, became a big man on campus in college, took a Hollywood screen test at the height of the Depression, and had served as a governor in the booming Sun Belt. He appeared the exact match for what a dejected nation desired in their president—not least in the way he held himself aloof from Washington, which he called a “jungle.”
Editors sent journalists to capture him for their readers in profile after profile after profile, which all turned out almost exactly the same. They talked about his “carriage,” and how he was “always absolutely in control of himself.” How he bore an “actor’s control over his body,” and was “never out of character.” (“Even in an airplane or an automobile he sits so erect that he resembles one of those inflatable dummy passengers used in safety tests.”) Producers of television commercials particularly admired him. In his memoir of the 1976 campaign, Gerald Ford’s adman Mal MacDougall told of cutting a Ford commercial with this exemplary specimen under trying conditions at a state fair. The first take was virtually perfect—except that it ran four seconds too long. MacDougall offered to cut a few words from the script.
“No,” the performer answered. “I’ll just shorten my drawl.”
The director called “Action!” The performer recited his lines precisely four seconds more expeditiously. MacDougall recorded his awe at how good he looked, “that tanned Texas face, the silver hair, the clean white shirt.”
The man was not Ronald Reagan. He was John Connolly of Texas.
Although I’d already been following politics at the time, I’d never realized that most shrewd political experts believed that Democrat-turned-Republican and Nixon protege John Connolly would be the GOP nominee in 1980, while they discounted Reagan’s chances because he was too old, a Republican has-been. Partly for this reason, Connolly successfully raised a then-unprecedented $11 million in funding, but he ultimately captured only a single delegate, and Perlstein tells the vivid story of that epic political disaster.
Conservative Paranoia and Communist Spies
Perlstein has devoted perhaps a quarter-century of his life to exhaustively researching and documenting a somewhat shorter period of American political history, and although his analysis of events can certainly be disputed, the massive narrative he provides will surely become the starting point for those in the future who wish to recapture the sense of that period.
Our media creates our popular reality, and in a later column Perlstein explained that in order to properly understand how the Americans of that era viewed the world and its politics, he had traveled thousands of miles visiting national video archive centers then spending hundreds of hours watching the television broadcasts that shaped popular perceptions, such as every national newscast mentioning Ronald Reagan between 1967 and 1975; he also read enormous numbers of the contemporaneous newspaper stories, now conveniently put online by Google. His project is unlikely to ever be matched in its thoroughness, and I noticed only the most trivial mistakes, such as when he repeatedly misidentified former LA Police Chief Ed Davis as the LA County Sheriff in his Reaganland volume. I have no reason to doubt that his factual content he provides is better than 99.9% accurate.
But history can just as easily be distorted by excluding or minimizing certain sufficiently important facts as by misrepresenting others, and here I noticed some serious problems in Perlstein’s enormously detailed work when I first began examining it, problems that I also found across his other volumes. Perhaps partly because of his research techniques, the author has produced a “media consensus” narrative of American political history, seeming to leave out those elements that the media of the time ignored unless they were eventually resurrected and elevated in the revised media consensus of the present day.
Such an approach may correctly explain what most ordinary Americans back then believed or what they believe about the past today, but sometimes the actual reality of what happened is different in startling ways. Interestingly enough, none of the dozens of major reviews I read reported any of these issues, presumably because all of the reviewers, whether Left and Right, favorable or critical, were bound by the limitations of the same media consensus as Perlstein himself.
These enormous, gaping holes became immediately apparent to me from the very early pages of his first, universally-praised volume on Goldwater. His story there was the early rise of the American conservative movement in the 1950s eventually leading to the Goldwater phenomenon, which had some of its crucial roots in the irrational paranoia of many of its leading figures, who had become alarmed by the actions of the earlier Roosevelt Administration and lived in mortal dread of phantom Communist conspiracies during the 1950s.
Yet right around the time that Perlstein was beginning his historical research, the declassification of the Venona Papers had unleashed a flurry of books by leading academic scholars that absolutely confirmed the conservative claims that Perlstein had so blithely dismissed. In 2018 I summarized some of these issues that I later discovered, including a sharp criticism of Perlstein’s unwillingness to acknowledge these important realities:
I soon read three or four of the Venona books and was very impressed by their objective and meticulous scholarly analysis, which convinced me of their conclusions. And the implications were quite remarkable, actually far understated in most of the articles that I had read.
Consider, for example, the name Harry Dexter White, surely unknown to all but the thinnest sliver of present-day Americans, and proven by the Venona Papers to have been a Soviet agent. During the 1940s, his official position was merely one of several assistant secretaries of the Treasury, serving under Henry Morgenthau, Jr., an influential member of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet. But Morgenthau was actually a gentleman-farmer, almost entirely ignorant of finance, who had gotten his position partly by being FDR’s neighbor, and according to numerous sources, White actually ran the Treasury Department under his titular authority. Thus, in 1944 it was White who negotiated with John Maynard Keynes—Britain’s most towering economist—to lay the basis for the the Bretton Woods Agreement, the IMF, and the rest of the West’s post-war economic institutions.
Moreover, by the end of the war, White had managed to extend the power of the Treasury—and therefore his own area of control—deep into what would normally be handled by the Department of State, especially regarding policies pertaining to the defeated German foe.
The particular timing of events may sometimes exert an outsize influence on historical trajectories. Consider the figure of Henry Wallace, probably still dimly remembered as a leading leftwing Democrat of the 1930s and 1940s. Wallace had been something of a Midwestern wonder-boy in farming innovation and was brought into FDR’s first Cabinet in 1933 as Secretary of Agriculture. By all accounts, Wallace was an absolutely 100% true-blue American patriot, with no hint of any nefarious activity appearing anywhere in the Venona Papers. But as is sometimes the case with technical experts, he seems to have been remarkably naive outside his main field of knowledge, notably in his extreme religious mysticism and more importantly in his politics, with many of those closest to him being proven Soviet agents, who presumably regarded him as the ideal front-man for their own political intrigues.
From George Washington onward, no American president had ever run for a third consecutive term, and when FDR suddenly decided to take this step during 1940, partly using the ongoing war in Europe as an excuse, many prominent figures in the Democratic Party launched a political rebellion, notably including his own two-time Vice President John Nance Garner, who had been a former Democratic Speaker of the House, and James Farley, the powerful party leader who had originally helped elevate Roosevelt to the presidency. FDR selected Wallace as his third-term Vice President, perhaps as a means of gaining support from the powerful pro-Soviet faction among the Democrats. But as a consequence, even as FDR’s health steadily deteriorated during the four years that followed, an individual whose most trusted advisors were agents of Stalin remained just a heartbeat away from the American presidency.
Under the strong pressure of Democratic Party leaders, Wallace was replaced on the ticket at the July 1944 Democratic Convention, and Harry S. Truman succeeded to the presidency when FDR died in April of the following year. But if Wallace had not been replaced or if Roosevelt had died a year earlier, the consequences for the country would surely have been enormous. According to later statements, a Wallace Administration would have included Laurence Duggan as Secretary of State, Harry Dexter White at the helm of the Treasury, and presumably various other outright Soviet agents occupying all the key nodes at the top of the American federal government. One might jokingly speculate whether the Rosenbergs—later executed for treason—would have been placed in charge of our nuclear weapons development program.
As it happens, Roosevelt lived until 1945, and instead of running the American government on behalf of Stalin, Duggan and White both died quite suddenly within a few months of each other after they came under suspicion in 1948. But the tendrils of Soviet control during the early 1940s ran remarkably deep.
As a striking example, Soviet agents became aware of the Venona decryption project in 1944, and soon afterward a directive came down from the White House ordering the project abandoned and the records of Soviet espionage destroyed. The only reason that Venona survived, allowing us to later reconstruct the fateful politics of that era, was that the military officer in charge risked a court-martial by simply ignoring that explicit Presidential order.
In the wake of the Venona Papers, publicly released a quarter century ago and today accepted by almost everyone, it seems undeniable that during the early 1940s America’s national government came within a hairsbreadth—or rather a heartbeat—of falling under the control of a tight network of Soviet agents. Yet I have only very rarely seen this simple fact emphasized in any book or article, even though this surely helps explain the ideological roots of the “anti-Communist paranoia” that became such a powerful political force by the early 1950s.
Obviously, Communism had very shallow roots in American society, and any Soviet-dominated Wallace Administration established in 1943 or 1944 probably would sooner or later have been swept from power, perhaps by America’s first military coup. But given FDR’s fragile health, this momentous possibility should certainly be regularly mentioned in discussions of that era.
If important historical matters are excluded from the media, a younger generation of scholars may never encounter them, and the historiography they eventually produce with the best of intentions may contain enormous lacunae. Consider, for example, the prize-winning volumes of political history that Rick Perlstein has written since 2001, tracing the rise of American conservatism from the pre-Goldwater era up to the rise of Reagan in the 1970s. The series has justly earned widespread acclaim for its enormous attention to detail, but according to the indexes, the combined total of nearly 2,400 pages contains merely two glancing and totally dismissive mentions of Harry Dexter White at the very beginning of the first volume, and no entry whatsoever for Laurence Duggan, or even more shockingly, “Venona.” I’ve sometimes joked that writing a history of post-war American conservatism without focusing on such crucial elements is like writing a history of America’s involvement in World War II without mentioning Pearl Harbor.
So the undeniable reality is that just the decade before the beginning of Perlstein’s narrative, control of America’s federal government had very nearly been seized by a network of Stalinist agents. These facts went entirely unreported in the mainstream media of the time and are just as widely ignored today, so both Perlstein and most of his reviewers either seem blissfully unaware of them or at least try to pretend that they are. But they were widely believed or at least suspected by the conservative activists who are the early protagonists of Perlstein’s narrative, and that probably helped to explain their apparent “paranoia.”
As I mentioned in that same 2018 article, the history of the Roman Empire was replete with dramatic, conspiratorial events, and I’d always naively assumed that these had been lacking in our own recent history, which was why I’d found the subject so much less engrossing:
However, I never had any interest in 20th century American history. For one thing, it seemed so apparent to me that all the basic political facts were already well known and conveniently provided in the pages of my introductory history textbooks, thereby leaving little room for any original research, except in the most obscure corners of the field.
Also, the politics of ancient times was often colorful and exciting, with Hellenistic and Roman rulers so frequently deposed by palace coups, or falling victim to assassinations, poisonings, or other untimely deaths of a highly suspicious nature. By contrast, American political history was remarkably bland and boring, lacking any such extra constitutional events to give it spice. The most dramatic political upheaval of my own lifetime had been the forced resignation of President Richard Nixon under threat of impeachment, and the causes of his departure from office—some petty abuses of power and a subsequent cover-up—were so clearly inconsequential that they fully affirmed the strength of our American democracy and the scrupulous care with which our watchdog media policed the misdeeds of even the most powerful.
In hindsight perhaps I should have asked myself whether the coups and poisonings of Roman Imperial times were accurately reported in their own day, or if most of the toga-wearing citizens of that era might have remained blissfully unaware of the nefarious events secretly determining the governance of their own society.
American Pravda: Our Deadly World of Post-War Politics
Ron Unz • The Unz Review • July 2, 2018 • 5,700 Words
Gibbon’s famous history would have been far less interesting and less accurate if all these dramatic developments had been struck from the text. And as I carefully read Perlstein’s four volumes, I increasingly realized that if he were the Gibbon of our recent American past, his text might represent a heavily expurgated Gibbon, excluding so many of the elements that were likely to challenge or offend the mainstream media consensus. Celebrities often release “authorized” biographies, and perhaps Perlstein’s volumes should be regarded as the authorized political history of an important two decade period.
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