AUGUST 10, 2014

Amy Macdonald:  Good afternoon.  I am Amy Macdonald, the Forum Producer at the Kennedy Library.  On behalf of Heather Campion, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and Tom Putnam, the Director of the Kennedy Library, and all of my Library and Foundation colleagues I thank you for coming and acknowledge the generous underwriters of the Kennedy Library Forums: lead sponsor Bank of America, Raytheon, the Lowell Institute, the Boston Foundation, and our media partners The Boston Globe, Xfinity and WBUR. 

On August 8, 1974 -- forty years ago this past Friday – after winning the 1972 presidential election in an unprecedented landslide, President Nixon resigned in the midst of the Watergate scandal.  Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge:  The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan – the third in his examination of the rise of American conservatism – chronicles, from 1973 to 1976, every crisis, every fad, every hit movie, every small town newspaper, every time Chevy Chase tripped on Saturday Night Live, to contextualize, examine, and explain the psychology of this country and how it proved ripe for the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan.  It is so fitting to be hosting Rick Perlstein today at a Presidential Library and to be reminded that all presidents – no matter how much we admire or loathe them -- are the products of their times.  

A former online columnist for The New Republic and Rolling Stone and former chief national correspondent for the Village Voice, Perlstein’s journalism and essays have appeared in Newsweek, The Nation, the New York Times, among others. He has been called the "chronicler extraordinaire of American conservatism." Rick’s book is on sale in our museum store and he will be signing copies at the end of the forum.  

Our moderator today (and my former boss) is Christopher Lydon, host of WBUR’s Radio Open Source; founder and host of WBUR’s The Connection; and anchor for many years on WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News.  He is Boston’s omnivore extraordinaire.

Please join me in welcoming Rick Perlstein and Christopher Lydon.  

[Missing beginning of conversation] 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  And then this guy, James McCord, posts a letter directly to the judge – he's one of the defendants; he was the head of security for the Committee to Reelect the President, the aptly named CREEP – and says, basically, "I've been threatened. I've been paid off, and this thing goes all the way to the top."  Very soon after that, the televised hearings -- which were authorized 98-0 in the Senate, which never would have won 98-0 had people not presumed that nothing would make a connection to the White House -- opened up. And every day, suddenly Americans are discovering that the people with whom they've entrusted the People's House, the People's Mansion, the White House, are running it like Mafia dons.

Very soon after that, in the spring, meat prices double. Housewives begin boycotting meat. For the Memorial Day weekend, people are talking about rationing of gasoline. So we had the first hints of an energy crisis, which is profoundly disconcerting because people don't even know that energy is something that you can have a shortage of. It's just a new concept. Energy is what you breathe. What's the most American pastime? Your 20foot Cadillac driving until your eyeballs bleed.

Then finally, we have Vietnam and this humiliation of America, obviously, despite what Nixon says, having lost its first war. And turn by turn, a remarkable bipartisan investigation, first by the Senate Watergate Committee and then impeachment proceeding by the House Judiciary Committee, sees Nixon resigning. Gerald Ford promises our long national nightmare is over.  But one month later something very important happens. It's the first political debate I can remember in kindergarten – I did not live through these events. I was born in 1969. This is not my life.


RICK PERLSTEIN:  But I remember going to kindergarten and we were arguing at the top of our lungs about something that happened a month after the Nixon resignation, which was, of course, whether Evel Knievel had pulled his parachute on purpose when he jumped over the Snake River Canyon. [laughter] Nothing seems to be going right in America. All our heroes are kind of sailing straight into the canyon floor below.  But of course, Ford pardons Nixon and people think the jig is up; everything's rigged. Ford, who has promised to run this transparent administration, obviously did this in a dirty deal. 

The next year after that, in 1975, there are actually 83 terrorist bombings on American soil. People are terrified to have a bicentennial celebration, not only because it doesn't seem like there's anything to celebrate – the poll numbers are astonishing, the apathy is astonishing. That was the article that I quoted Christopher Lydon on. He did an article about how no one was voting in the primaries because "none of the above" was the only person that people were interested in voting for. 

Not only that, in 1975 you have the Church Committee hearings, which not only investigate the CIA – and it's discovered that the CIA is basically running assassination squads of foreign leaders – it investigates the FBI. And the same day Ronald Reagan announces that he's going to run for president -- November 20, 1975 -- against Gerald Ford, it's revealed that the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, basically sent Martin Luther King a dossier of wiretaps that were intended to get him to commit suicide.

Also, not a lot of people remember this, the Church Committee, very much against the president's wishes, investigates the NSA, something that Americans hadn't heard of. The joke was "No Such Agency;" that was the NSA. That's how it was learned that the NSA, the telegraph companies – remember telegraphs, they were before Internet – at the end of every business day was handing over the day's telegraph traffic overseas to the government, completely illegally.

By the way, after the Martin Luther King investigation, during a press conference – after Reagan announces he's doing something incredible and unprecedented, running against a sitting president -- a sitting president has not lost his party's nomination since Chester Arthur – someone asked him in the press conference about the day's headlines, about the FBI and Martin Luther King. Reagan has consistently said that these investigations are terrible for America. He was on a commission, the Rockefeller Commission, to investigate the FBI after a Seymour Hersh article revealed that the CIA had spied illegally on 10,000 Americans. And Reagan says, "Well, I didn't read the morning papers." And that's really the narrative arc of this book. 

If I may, quickly, things like the Church Committee investigation, the Watergate investigation, the beginnings of a real conservation movement in which people are thinking hard about what it might mean to be energy-independent, a serious debate about whether America could any longer be the world's policeman, you get things like, when the POWs come home, a columnist like Jimmy Breslin, a very popular columnist in the New York Daily News, he says, "Why is everyone making a big fuss about these POWs coming home? It reminds me of the time I was waiting for a friend of mine to come home from Sing Sing. These people were war criminals bombing civilians."  Now, I think if The Nation published that now, they might get in trouble. That was in a major tabloid in a syndicated column.

There was this real level of civic engagement in which people were really beginning to look hard, even at the level of popular culture, in a show like MASH, where the good guys were the people who didn't follow orders and the bad guys, the comic butt of the joke was the guy who was the spit-and-polish kind of John Wayne character, Frank Burns, who was, of course, a clown in the show. We were really beginning to, in my estimation, grow up as a nation and really think hard about what it would mean not to proceed as if we were God's chosen nation. 

The arc I show is that every turn of this new reality also had a kind of antithesis, and that was kind of the Reaganite sort of ascension, in which people began to say, “Why do we need to run the American people down? Why do we need to always be apologizing for America?”  And that struggle between two definitions of patriotism – the traditional one and the new definition of patriotism that's rising in the '70s, which says, “The true patriot is the guy who is willing to acknowledge the sins of his country in order to make it better,” are really kind of locked in this kind of political culture civil war. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Rick, thank you. And that's a fair outline of not only the themes, but the method of Rick Perlstein, which is sort of everywhere on all the crazy fringes of American life and at the core, too. 

So much to chew on there, but I want to go back. The big thread in Rick's book is this kind of assertion of American innocence, of American denial, of a kind of sleepy forgetfulness, and then plunging often into the same old blunders. I want to argue that with you a little bit. But this is also a book of extraordinary studies of people, most particularly Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. 

I also want to direct this – and this may be argumentative, too – to sort of our big theme of what was happening in American public life, in American power, in this odd transition from Nixon collapsing, to Ford sort of inadequately holding the bag, although fending off Ronald Reagan, Reagan being defeated for the nomination in '76, but he comes back to haunt Jimmy Carter in 1980. The question in my mind is still sort of open, but I have my own point of view about what was actually being done and who was doing it to whom.

We'll get to it. 

But give us your kind of direct sketch, Rick, of this eternal enigma of Ronald Reagan, the man himself, for whom, I've got to tell you, I have a certain abiding affection and respect.

But we'll come to that. Give us this notion of an incredibly likeable man, who we all question whether he was really human in the end. Even his biographer, Edmund Morris, wondered was this a real earthling or was this something else? [laughter] 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  First of all, be as argumentative as you like. I'm here to start conversations and debates. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Okay, I'll try not to let you down.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Sure, thanks. [laughter] Edmund Morris, of course, was Ronald Reagan's chosen biographer. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  The very distinguished biographer before that of Teddy Roosevelt.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Of Teddy Roosevelt. And this is very significant -- this idea of this kind of hero on horseback who charged up San Juan Hill -- that was enormously attractive to Ronald Reagan for reasons that I think will become apparent. 

Ronald Reagan, of course, comes from a very chaotic home. His father was a serious alcoholic. He flitted from job to job. He was a failed shoe salesman -- not just a shoe salesman, but a failed shoe salesman. This kind of blarney-full Irish man who was very quick-witted and kind of brash, but never really could amount to anything. Moved his family from one rented house to the other. They finally settle in this town called Dixon, which claims itself as Reagan's hometown. Well, of course, he had no hometown and even in Dixon, they were moving from rented home to rented home.

Ronald Reagan grows up knowing that any morning his dad could be showing up in the paper for breaking the law. This is during Prohibition. He doesn't. My surmise is that might have had something to do with the fact that he was the police chief's pinochle partner.  His mom is an inveterate do-gooder, almost like a martyr. She's always over at the local hospital ministering to people -- there's even talk that Nelle Reagan is a faith healer -- but also very charismatic. Reagan imitated her voice, the modulation of her voice, how she was able to kind of create intimacy with her interlocutor by talking low and making them listen in. But she also had this very clarion voice. Someone said, "I can always remember Nelle Reagan calling her kids in a very theatrical way when it was time for dinner from the front porch."  But she also would go to the local prison and would minister to the prisoners. She was so respected and trusted in this role that she began boarding prisoners, after their sentences were up, in the family's sewing room. But imagine this: There's some recent ex-con in the family's sewing room and there's these two boys who are sleeping two to a bed. A biographer once pointed out, can you imagine how kind of strange this house was, of this Catholic drunk father, this fundamentalist mother, these prisoners coming in and out, and then finally we have this kind of lonely, scared kid, who, in all of the descriptions we have of him from people who remember him before the age of ten or so, is always kind of off by himself, playing with lead soldiers or just kind of absent, even when he's present?

One of the things I relayed in the book is that if you look at pictures – there are very few pictures of Reagan, by the way; we didn't know he was going to be this world historic figure – at the age of, say, nine. There's a picture of him as a caddy. And he looks like what he is – a lonely, scared kid. If you look at him the next summer, in the same kind of picture, of all the caddies at the Dixon Country Club, he looks like Ronald Reagan. He has a sparkle in his eye. His chest is straight.  One thing we can hypothesize that happened in between is he got his library card at the Dixon Public Library and he tells us the kind of books that he reads – Tarzan, Frank Merriwell at Yale, Horatio Alger – boys' adventure stories in which people from degraded circumstances, kids from degraded circumstances kind of are transformed by both the gift of grace and their own kind of inner pluck into heroic rescuers, larger-than-life figures.

We also know that he was absolutely obsessed with sports in a period, the 1920s, known as the Golden Age of Sport, in which sports heroes like Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey are gods on earth. I mean, it's amazing to read the sports writing by Grantland Rice. He says Jack Dempsey fought a battle like any before the age of imagining, from the time of the aurochs bull. Amazing, purple stuff.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I'm glad you mentioned Grantland Rice. Ronald Reagan is in many ways a child of Grantland Rice. The man who said, "When the great scorekeeper comes to write against your name, he'll note not whether you won or lost but how you played the game." 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Right, and Reagan in unattributed fashion uses that quote in a college essay he writes -- a college kind of prose poem, you might say -- called "Gethsemane," in which he literally analogizes a football player rising from degraded circumstances and becoming the star to Jesus Christ's dark night of the soul in the garden of Gethsemane when he is meditating with the disciplines about what he's about to face the next day on Calvary.

So these sports figures are kind of godlike figures. How do we know that this stuff sedimented itself so deeply in his mind? Well, I'll give you two examples. One is from Ron Reagan's memoir, My Father at 100, which is a wonderful book. He emerged from this family and is a very wise and Zen-like kind of commentator on it. He says when his dad was completely racked with Alzheimer's dementia, he would wake up in the middle of the night and he'd say, "They need me, they need me" in a panicked voice. And as Ron Reagan points out, he wasn't saying "They need me on the set at Warner Brothers with Bette Davis," which of course he did; “They don't need me in the White House situation room" – "The guys in the locker room need me." He was kind of imagining himself as a football hero.

The other example I would give is in 1981. Chris, do you remember what he said to Nancy Reagan when he finally came to after being shot? 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  "Honey, I forgot to duck."

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Right. And do you remember where that came from? 


RICK PERLSTEIN:  It's in the book. You're failing your orals, man!

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  There's so much in this book, Rick. It wasn't Spencer Tracy, was it?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  No, it was what Jack Dempsey said after he lost to whomever it was in a fight, by the way, in Yankee Stadium, before 90,000 people.  This is how big this stuff was. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I want to interrupt on the sports theme, just to say we're being introduced to Ronald Reagan, the fantasist. 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Or maybe the guy who transcends the degraded circumstances and becomes a self-made man of the imagination. There's a positive spin to be put on that.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Yes, imagination is one of the big headings and what we've got to talk about. But I was thinking flying with Ronald Reagan west in that period when he was, before the convention in '76, he was going to the Mississippi convention, various state conventions were consolidating. 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  The Mississippi one was very, very important.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I asked him about his days with WHO I think in …



RICK PERLSTEIN:  Just fly over a country, it doesn't matter.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  No, but his job, Ronald Reagan's job, one of his first out of college was to relay baseball games of the Chicago Cubs, as I remember. And he would get the ticker, which is all by number, identifying …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  The box score.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Exactly. It was sort of the running tape – here's Rick Pros– you wouldn't be listed as a player by name; it was your number -- and out by …


CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Exactly, this kind of thing. And it was Reagan's job to make a narrative out of it, and make it fun. 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  And he'd mix in the crowd noise. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Crowd noise and the ball hitting the bat, and little sort of background on this slugger from Birmingham.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  People presumed that he was at the stadium.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Exactly. But I asked him -- we were flying west and I said, "What about those days?" And he could flip into it automatically with great pleasure.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  He won the job by literally reciting an entire game of, I think it was Northwestern versus Notre Dame, just kind of slipping into the play-by-play.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Loved it. But the whole point was there was a certain limitation. He had the facts – so-and-so is out at third -- but he could make a billow of dust and a heroic action out of it, and yet there was no limit on what he could do as long as he stayed with the fact that the guy was out at third.


CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  And that became sort of a modus operandi, for which I give him certain credit. It was tremendously entertaining to hear him do it, and he never outgrew it.

I want to reverse engineer your Reagan a little bit to account for the things I liked about

Ronald Reagan and like about him to this moment. Colin Powell said, after the White House years -- but I said it before -- that he'd never met anybody in public life with a deeper horror of nuclear weapons.


CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I believe Ronald Reagan was sort of our secret peacenik president all those years. As soon as the Marine barracks blew up in Beirut, "We're out of here, and we're going to beat up Grenada on the way home." 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I used to go on talk radio, I used to say, what would Ronald Reagan have done if he were caught in a religious civil war in the Middle East? He'd get out of there.


RICK PERLSTEIN:  That's of course analogizing Bush in Iraq.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Exactly. I've started a lot of arguments with the notion that he never remotely would have done what George W. Bush did in Iraq, which is also related to a theme – I'd better lay it out there, because we could fight about it – that when people talk about the nervous breakdown of the Republican Party, or they talk about extremism in the party in the modern era, they're not talking about a legacy of Ronald Reagan. They're talking about a legacy of George W. Bush, who comes out of the Rockefeller Eastern moderate, but Big Oil, Big Wall Street, Big CIA sense of imperial possession of the whole world. That was not Ronald Reagan's view. It was the Bush view.

So account for the peacenik and then the rest of it.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Sure. This sounds like a million miles from the question of geostrategy, but there's the Ronald Reagan, who … They would always have a selection of personal letters for him to read in the White House. The same day he vetoed some increase in supplemental nutrition assistance, or something like that, his heart would be so tugged by some story of someone who was hungry out in Peoria that he would literally get out his checkbook and write a check from Ronald Reagan and put it in the mail. And of course, that's a moral failing, not being able to do systematically what you're doing on the individual level. At the same time, he had this ability to empathize with individual lives, and I think that was kind of how he thought of war. 

He also very much was driven by the idea of being a hero. I've been toying with this more and more, and I haven't really worked it out deeply, but of course he was the first president to eliminate a class of nuclear weapons, intermediate range nuclear weapons, through negotiation. He was the guy who went to Reykjavik and proposed to Gorbachev that they try to get rid of all nuclear weapons. He was the guy who only got in one teeny, little armed skirmish in Grenada, which was kind of ugly because it really was intended to cover up for the fact that they'd screwed up in Lebanon in the Marine barracks.  They left the gate down and Reagan said, "Well, sometimes I leave the front door unlocked." So there's lots to beat up on him for and there's also the fact that he really does seem to have been very, very moved by watching The Day After. So this kind of Hollywood guy who really was able to kind of interpret something in the lens of a really good story.

But what I'm playing with is this idea that he could be history's hero if he got rid of the worst weapons that mankind has ever known. I think that that was the kind of stage he had rehearsed himself playing on forever. Yeah, maybe he would have liked to have been Dwight David Eisenhower defeating Hitler, but these weapons make conventional war unpractical.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  The identification of nuclear weapons as the nightmare comes early. Before he was president.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Very interesting, yeah. I wasn't aware of that.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Well, even in the farewell speech at the '76 convention … RICK PERLSTEIN:  Right, right, of course. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Nuclear weapons are a big thing …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  He's writing something for a time capsule and he says, "When this time capsule is opened, we'll know whether our generation has stood the test of peace or not." 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  But he was also living in a world that basically accepted mutually assured destruction as a viable policy. It took a certain imagination, and I think courage, on Ronald Reagan's part to say, "No way, we're not going to live the rest of time with these …"

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Basically, there's this conservative distrust of experts, too. And the guys who are into the game theory stuff -- it's people like Tom Schelling -- these Nobel Prize-winning economists who are figuring out very complicated game theory schema and almost mathematically proving that if you have a parity of nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons aren't going to be used.  But he has a more, if you prefer, literary understanding of human motivation. And yeah, Ronald Reagan's imagination, when it came to achieving policy goals, could be really remarkable. 

You remember a few years back, everyone was listening to – although his hagiographers who have gotten YouTube to take it down – the audio from the Nixon tapes of Nixon and Kissinger talking about how inconceivable it is that Ronald Reagan could ever become president. And if he was, that he'd probably start a nuclear war. Absolutely savage stuff.  Well, not two years later, during the Yom Kippur War when America airlifts all this weaponry to Israel, during the Arab oil embargo, Nixon calls him because he's an important political figure that needs to be kind of assuaged. It's almost like a perfunctory political call. And he says, "I have this problem. Egypt keeps on bragging about how many Israeli planes they're shooting down. And we know that they're lying."  Maybe he was making small talk. This is after the tapes, so we don't know. But we have Kissinger's testimony that's in his memoirs. And Reagan immediately – they hadn't thought of this – says, "Well, all we have to do is say we'll replace Israeli planes that Egypt claims to have shot down on a one-to-one basis." End of problem. It's this emotional intelligence he has, this ability to kind of solve problems by thinking himself into people's situations. Immediately Henry Kissinger says, or depicts himself saying, "I wish I had someone that smart on my staff." That is not the Ronald Reagan we think about.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  No, exactly, it's not the Ronald Reagan we've been sold, in a way. But I think of another instance when, in a critical moment in '79/'80, he's running, and the Soviets have moved into Afghanistan and there's a threat to the Persian Gulf. Brzezinski in the Khyber Pass sort of pointing a gun at Ivan, don't-come-any-closer kind of thing. And people like James Schlesinger -- even Brzezinski -- was saying we might have to go nuclear if the Soviets came closer.  

What was Ronald Reagan's response? No nukes. He said, "Well, we might have to put an embargo on Cuba, and we might have to invade Mexico and get their oil. But thank god," he said, "there's more oil under Alaska than under all of the Persian Gulf." Pure nonsense, I mean, pure fantasy on his part. [laughter] But it did express to me, very tellingly, the Reagan view of a hemispheric, continental power that lacked nothing, basically. The last thing we were going to do, though, was to go to nuclear war over the oil supply, no matter what. 

At the time, I knew what he was saying and I thought the whole Carter notion – again, in retrospect of 40 years – of going to war in the Middle East at the drop of a hat was the wrong move, and Reagan had the sounder instinct. 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  And this was also the guy, by the way – you might recall this one – who told Menachem Begin, publicly, that they were creating a Holocaust in Lebanon. And he said in his diary, he said he used that word deliberately. He was excoriated for that, but he also told Begin privately that the image of Israel around the world is now a baby with its arms blown off. He had a real ability to get to people where they lived, which was a very powerful political thing. 

Now, the question is, this is not the Reagan that ran for president in 1976. This is the guy who said the teachers unions want federal control of education and that's the first thing Hitler did -- comparing the National Education Association to Nazi storm troopers. This is the guy who … Do you remember that kerfuffle?


RICK PERLSTEIN:  There are so many little kerfuffles. But there were all these kerfuffles. He'd say these very violent, crazy, what sound like crazy things. And he of course also wins that election on the issue of the Panama Canal, which is so important. The Panama Canal issue, a forgotten issue, basically the 1904 treaty that establishes the Panama Canal is gunboat diplomacy at its very worst. I mean, it's the kind of thing that you expect to see from a potentate and a strongman.  Basically, we invent this country, Panama, give it as a gift to the guys who will let us build a canal there and take over the entire interior of the country and write a treaty that basically gives us sovereignty over it for perpetuity. Starting in the '50s and through the '60s, there are riots in the Canal zone by Panamanians who are just, reasonably, fed up that they've kind of become this colonized power.

Beginning with Eisenhower and through every president, basically there are these backroom negotiations to rewrite this treaty that is just a total relic of a different age.

When Gerald Ford picks up the negotiations with Henry Kissinger, and Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms get wind of it, after the debacle in Vietnam, after the humiliation of Vietnam, Strom Thurmond picks up this formulation – we built it, we paid for it, it's ours. The idea that these kind of …

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Didn't Senator Hayakawa say, "We stole it fair and square"? [laughter] 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Reagan had a better way of putting it. He was the Great

Communicator:  the idea that these unaccountable Washington elites were selling off America's glory piece by piece. The Panama Canal was a heroic TR narrative that you read about in your history books when you were a schoolboy, the America that could do anything, the great world-bestriding Colossus. Here we are -- you can almost think of the Colossus -- one foot in the Atlantic and one foot in the Pacific. All the mandarins are asking him to leave the 1976 election because he's beginning to lose primary after primary, and suddenly they turn it around on this one issue of American pride. Also, by the way, I write about this in the book, this kind of under-the-radar, right wing, grassroots organizing using direct mail, people like Richard Viguerie.

But the point when it comes to this is he was very different as a campaigner and as an executive. He gave Ford a very hard time because Ford suddenly is … Governing is not a hero's profession. Ford has to compromise. Reagan did compromise when he was in office in California. He signed a very liberal abortion law. He signed tax hikes. He was really at his best as a rhetorician and as a salesman when he was on the road campaigning. The conservatives consistently hated him when he was president, that every other month he was doing something to sell out conservatism. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I hear in that Reagan you're just paraphrasing, to me the not-so-secret subtext in all of that is about the Panama Canal. Again, we're a hemispheric nation. As Ronald Reagan used to say, "Why did God put this great nation between the two oceans?"

RICK PERLSTEIN:  He said, "Some people might think it's mystical, but I think God put this continent here for us to kind of conquer." 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Because he was creating something new though -- to wit, the American. And this was the whole thing. I can see that. But also in the anti-détente stuff, or … I think he totally rejected the Kissinger hand, which was the hand of the Rockefellers. And again, to me that's international oil and Wall Street, a whole combination. 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I think that Casey was his CIA guy and he was a creature straight from Wall Street. And his number one backer was Henry Salvatori, who was a big oil magnate, too.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  But not on the Exxon scale.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  He wasn't at Exxon, right.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I still hear vibrations of this kind of secret peacenik. I want you to shoot that down, if you want, but then I want to move on to the other misrepresentations of Jimmy Carter.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I think the secret peacenik thing wasn't so secret. It was out enough in the open that George Will was ripping him a new one every week in the Washington Post for his quisling willingness to negotiate with the Commie, Mikhail Gorbachev. 

But I think ultimately it comes down to he saw a world historic role for himself. It was, sure, it was defeating Communism. Although I think this idea that Reagan defeated Communism without firing a shot -- that's a conservative line -- is an abject insult to the heroic dissidents who risked their lives to defeat the Soviet Union. It's like in historiography, Lincoln didn't free the slaves; the slaves freed themselves by running away.

But I think that he was really scarred by World War II. Of course, he didn't fight in World War II, and he claimed he liberated the concentration camps when he really only saw films of the liberations of the concentration camps. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Again, the confusion between reality and …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Yes. But he did have this, kind of part of his moral core, where he really knew the damage that modern war could do and lived it, and didn't abstract himself from it. Like Lyndon Johnson did, where he was ordering bombing strikes from the Oval Office, or Richard Nixon when he was secretly bombing Cambodia to such a degree that the very foundations of the society there were unthreaded.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Rick, the Jimmy Carter Presidency comes in your next volume, but you get deep into it in this one. I covered Jimmy Carter early, and I stayed in his governor's mansion overnight. He's been to my house. I watched him carefully.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Ted Sorensen, a name that's known around here, said the best thing Jimmy Carter did when he was running for president -- because they couldn't afford hotels in 1974 and 1975 -- was staying on supporters' couches. How are you going to vote against a guy who stayed on your couch?

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  He carried his own garment bag off the plane and all that stuff. But to me, looking back -- and you touch on some of it -- we got Carter almost entirely wrong, and the press got him wrong. And I think in many ways the people got him wrong. Arthur Schlesinger, no stranger to this place, used to say he was the most conservative Democratic candidate for president, the most conservative Democratic president …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Chris is being modest. July 1977, Carter revealed he's a Rockefeller Republican. That's Ted and Jimmy in the hot tub. Or was that the wash basin?  [Holding up Atlantic Monthly cover with Lydon cover story.]

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  It was a Gold Dust Twins ad; it was a takeoff on a Gold Dust Twins ad.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  That's before my time, clearly.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Yeah, mine, too. [laughter] But the point was Jimmy Carter …I say Reagan was a secret peacenik. Jimmy Carter was a Southern governor from a right-to-work state, who had completely let go or ignored both the civil rights crisis and the Vietnam War protests. He celebrated Rusty[?] County Day in Georgia. He was a great friend of Martin Luther King, Sr., not Jr., who had voted for Richard Nixon against John F. Kennedy. And he was, to my mind, at the same time, he was really a creature of Time magazine, the Rockefeller interests. He was on David Rockefeller's Trilateral Commission, in which he really met his own government. He recruited his government from the Trilateral Commission. It's always a little scary to some people to mention the Trilateral Commission, as if great power is sort of organized there, influenced.  But talk about Jimmy Carter and what that confrontation represents.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Let me mention another name to start out with:  Barack Obama.

There was a great article, 2007 I think it was, a great article by the investigative reporter Ken Silverstein in a 2007 issue of Harper's, in which he said, “This guy Barack Obama that everyone's in love with, he's no insurgent. Look at how in bed he was with the coal companies of Illinois. Look at his flacking for the ethanol subsidies. And look how skillfully he would sell this to environmentalists.”  And things like that, and no one paid any attention. 

Liberals were perfectly willing to call him one of their own. I like to say that both the right and the left converged on their opinions of Barack Obama and believing he must be some leftie because of his name and because of the color of his skin. But of course, he turns out to be a guy who's deeply tied into the establishment, frustrates liberals left and right, loves what he calls them his own personal ninjas, and kind of the clandestine special forces branch of the military, all that sort of thing. Liberals feel sold out by his closeness to the bankers, saying Jamie Diamond is one of the smartest bankers we have, and all that stuff. 

There was a very similar article around the same place in the process when people were falling in love with Jimmy Carter, in early 1976. It was by Steven Brill. It was called, "The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter." And it debunked every claim that Jimmy Carter was making – that he was an outsider; that he was a brave civil rights warrior; devastating stuff about the 1970 gubernatorial campaign in which he engaged in some ugly racebaiting that he refuses to address even to this day; claims he was making about administrative efficiencies that no one in Atlanta government even knew what he was talking about.  Yet, he emerged unscathed from that article, too. It really kind of proves the old saw that Republicans fall in line and Democrats fall in love. This idea of this pure, clean sirocco blowing in from Washington, from the provinces, who was not compromised by their connection to the ossified, old ways of doing things -- this ability to kind of fall in love and then be disappointed over and over and over again. 

I was really struck by how poorly Jimmy Carter's … Well, how well it stands the test of time when it comes to political tactics, but how poorly it stands the test of time when we think of the question of whether Jimmy Carter was a moral paragon. And not to take anything away from Carter's considerable achievements as a peacemaker himself and his extraordinary, extraordinary ability to bring light, as opposed to president.  The important thing from my book is this whole post-Watergate longing for innocence. I have a chapter called, "The Yearn to Believe," and it shows people over and over again falling in love with Jimmy Carter as this guy who was rising above the sordid Washington establishment. It was really striking to see.

In a lot of ways he is Reagan's opposite, because as president, his way of transcending the politics as usual was precisely to ask hard questions; to demand stringent things of Americans – that they set down their thermostats and wear sweaters at home, and that sort of thing; putting solar panels in the White House that Ronald Reagan promptly takes down his first month in office.  But really what they share in common, and what they illuminate about the political culture and the time, is this perennial American longing for innocence in a country that really suffers profound trauma in its past, and believing that someone can magically deliver us from. 

In the context of the arc of the book, it's that inability to continue the work that I find so redemptive about the Watergate Committee, or the generation of people who looked at Vietnam and said, "Let's not get into a counterinsurgency war 10,000 miles away," or really think hard about whether our way of life is sustainable for the planet that really to leap across the invisible bridge, if you will, speaks to our inability to, say, call bankers to account in the financial crisis, to really do something about global warming. It's that Reaganite register.

I tell a story in these interviews quite frequently about Samantha Power, a remarkable human rights activist and scholar, who Barack Obama has named our UN representative. I'm sure she's doing a great and noble job, but in order to get nominated … She had once written an article for, I believe, the New Republic, in which she pointed to lots of sins in America's past and said, "We need to reckon with this, this, this and this." I don't know what her examples were -- I really should revisit that article – but, of course, there are.  I mean, we spent millions of dollars to overthrow the democratically elected government of Chile, September 11, 1973. And she was asked about that article in her confirmation hearings by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. He said, "What are these things you believe America has to apologize for?" And she responded, and this is a quote, "America is the greatest nation in the world, and we have nothing to apologize for."

Now, as long as formulations like that are de rigueur in our public life, that Reaganite register, I don't know how we can begin to solve the major structural problems that confront us. The prehistory of how that came to be is the story of this book and why I wrote this book. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  That's a point on which we should ask people to be ready with questions. But I always want to ask you on the way, two things:  One about the media and one about, again, the big picture and the roots of where we are today.

On the media, I've got to say it's humbling, and your book just kind of rubs it in, for somebody who's worked for establishment media organizations, especially the Times, how the public conversation in the free media has not helped us see where we are and talked straight to us on so many issues, including the ones you mentioned, but most especially about the war in Iraq and the selection of George W. Bush. Not one paper in this country, this wonderfully free, First Amendment country, asterisked that man's name in every reference. He was the first selected president in the United States. 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Gerald Ford was selected, too.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  But he went through the constitutional process.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Okay, I see what you're saying. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  But also, especially around the war in Iraq, not one newspaper that you can think of, that I can think of, that we know or read opposed that war and said, "Here comes billions of dollars and lives, a folly."  You keep quoting, especially the New York Times, which in 1976 wrote off Ronald Reagan, "There he goes, bye, bye, his life is over."

RICK PERLSTEIN:  The last line is … Well, I won't tell you; you've got to buy the book. [laughter] 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Speak to – and I've been at the game too long – this inability of American public media to be the party of memory, the party of correction, the party of a certain kind of residual wisdom.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Yeah, to fulfill their responsibility entrusted to it by Thomas Jefferson who said, "I'd rather have newspapers without a government, than government without newspapers." 

Well, two things:  First, there's the consistent inability to understand how deeply structured and sutured into the American life is right wing populism, that it's not going to go away. The last lines of my book on Barry Goldwater, after he loses his landslide against Lyndon Johnson, is that this proves … I quote all these pundits, including people like Reston and Wicker saying, "This proves that America's a liberal nation and the less the Republican Party purges all those conservatives, they're never going to win another election." Well, they won another election two years later by campaigning against the 1966 Civil Rights Act. 

Just a couple months ago, we had all the pundits saying, “Well, the Tea Party is on the run and the establishment Republicans are finally regaining control for their moderate, sensible center.” And then the day after that, with no prediction from anyone in the media, Eric Cantor loses his seat to a Tea Partyer.  So this happens over and over again, and it's going to keep happening again.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  What's the problem?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I was going to give my other example. The other example is in 1975, basically the response of the media to the Church Committee is, "Why are they still wallowing in this stuff? Watergate is over." And I have some incredible quotes from people like William Greider criticizing people like Katharine Graham for this, and Katharine Graham gives a speech and says basically, "We should give the CIA a wide berth. We should trust these guys." And of course, nothing serious comes out of the CIA investigations. Basically, the CIA is still run with a secret budget. 

I think the biggest problems the media faces in terms of calling power to account were pretty well diagnosed in a book that's seen as gossipy and fun – Chris here makes another cameo in that one – but really was a profound moral meditation on the duties of a free press, and that's the Boys on the Bus, which is an amazing book that came out in 1973 by the Rolling Stone reporter Tim Crouse.  And by the way, Tim Crouse was not from a journalistic background. He was a dramatist. And after that book, he pretty much became a playwright and a theatrical producer. Maybe that's why he was able to see this, but he really shows the media as this very clubby set of folks. The most memorable scene is everyone peering over the shoulder of Walter Mears, the famous Associated Press columnist, to know what their lede was supposed to be for that day.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  "What's the lede, Walter?"

RICK PERLSTEIN:  "What's the lede, Walter," exactly. A herd of independent minds.

[laughter] I didn't make that up; that's Dwight MacDonald. I cite my sources. [laughter] 

I think how that comes about and why that comes about is really a subject for another book, but we all know what the consequences are. A journalist really should be somebody whose funeral no one attends. I don't think that Luke Russert or Chelsea Clinton are going to be people whose funeral no one attends.  It's a lonely life. It's a lonely life speaking truth to power. Seymour Hersh doesn't seem to be able to get his articles in The New Yorker anymore. But his accomplishments are astonishing. I'm just amazed. Every time I research a new book, I find five or six stories that he broke wide open that people don't even remember anymore. It's a stern standard to live up to, but I'm not sure what choice we have but to demand it of our friends in the media. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I'm going to save my last question for last, but I'd love to ask people with questions or very, very concise comments to come to the microphone and give Rick Perlstein your best. 

Q:  Hi, this is about Ronald Reagan. I always understood that he was a liberal who became a conservative. And if that's your view, too …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  That's a fact.

Q:  Okay. That he was a closet peacenik, as you put it.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  No, I mean, it's a fact that he was a self-described liberal in the '30s and '40s. I give an account of how he converted to conservatism in the book.

Q:  Then very quickly, could you describe that transition?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  It actually turns out to be the longest chapter in the book. [laughter] It's 50 pages. There are lots of things going on. One of them involves his own relationship with the tax system. It involves his wife Nancy Reagan, who had a very charming and persuasive stepfather named Loyal Davis, who was very conservative. It involves the social circle that he was involved in. It involves the fact that the Democrats rejected McCarthyism, but he saw that twilight struggle between the forces of light and dark as very important. It involved him believing himself to be a martyr to the Communists in a way that turns out to be not too true. It's a complicated story.  But the important bottom line of the story is that when he was a liberal and when he was a conservative, he really did think in the same way. It was still this kind of twilight struggle between good and evil. He just kind of switched the poles.

There's an amazing switch he gives for Hubert Humphrey in 1948 that you can find on

YouTube. One of the stories he tells is how awful inflation is. It wasn't that awful in 1948, but whatever. He completely blames it on the greed of corporations, and he names the corporations. He tells this story -- amazing Ronald Reagan story -- about some 90year-old guy named Roger Smith. He gives the name and says … He read an Associated Press story about how … I kind of stepped on my punch line. He talks about a guy who has to go back to work because inflation has eaten up his savings and the punch line is: He's 90 years old. Now we have Google historical newspapers and we have dozens of Associated Press running feeds, and I could not find any evidence that story ever showed up in any newspaper. 

So Ronald Reagan was Ronald Reagan, but you just kind of saw the good guys and the bad guys switch identities. Thanks. 

Q:  You've said that if you want to understand the 1970s, you also have to understand the 1870s. And I've noted in the era following Reconstruction, you had some attempt by radical liberal Republicans to reckon with the Civil War and the history of slavery and oppression. There's an attempt both also briefly in that era to act like adults and address problems like adults with the nation. Of course, it fizzles out in that case as well. I'm wondering if there are any other echoes in there, and any other instances perhaps where the nation also had an attempt to see itself as just another nation which needs to face its problems in a practical manner. Which we failed at, of course.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  May I read? This is Chapter One:

Once upon a time we had a Civil War. More than six hundred thousand Americans were slaughtered or wounded. Soon afterward, the two sides began carrying out sentimental rituals of reconciliation. Confederate soldiers paraded through the streets of Boston to the cheers of welcoming Yankee throngs, and John Quincy Adams II orating from the podium said, "You are come so that once more we may pledge ourselves to a new union, not a union merely of law, or simply of the lips; not ... of the sword, but gentlemen, the only true union, the union of hearts." Dissenters from the new postbellum comity – like the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who argued that the new system of agricultural labor taking root in the South and enforced by Ku Klux Klan terror [this is sharecropping] hardly differed from slavery – were shouted down. "Does he really imagine," the New York Times indignantly asked, "that outside of small and suspicious circles any real interest attaches to the old forms of the Southern question?" 

America the Innocent, always searching for totems of a unity it can never quite achieve even, or especially, when its crises of disunity are most pressing:  it is one of the structuring stories of our nation: The "return to normalcy" enjoined by Warren Harding after the Great War; the cult of suburban home and hearth after World War II; the union of hearts declaimed by Adams on Boston's Bunker Hill parade ground after the War

Between the States.  And in 1973, after ten or so years of war in Vietnam, America tried to do it again.

So that's my overture to the book. And it's a very important cornerstone of my thinking, that one of the most profound problems Americans have is reckoning with the divisions in our own society and how deeply rooted they are. 

There wouldn't be a United States of America unless we had given – we, Yankees – one side in the debate had given away to the other side of the debate the privilege of having two Senators, every state having two Senators, even if their population was tiny, such that now Senators representing 10% of the population can veto an idea preferred by 90% of the population, and whether slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person. We had to paper over that profound structural division in the very organization of our society in order to have a society.

 I follow Freud in this one. When you repress a trauma, the trauma always comes back. The return of the repressed, it's called in psychoanalysis. I'm very pleased to see someone nodding. Two people nodding. [laughter] When the repressed comes back, it comes back in distorted forms. That's the definition of neurosis. We get civil wars where 600,000 people died. We get the '60s when in 1963, on the eve of John F. Kennedy's assassination, pundits were all saying that we were a society that was united and at peace with itself.

It doesn't do us any good when Republicans, for example, criticize people for not understanding "American exceptionalism" -- which is their way of saying America should be considered above the rules. It doesn't do any good when we get quotes from Barack Obama saying, "We keep our eyes fixed on that distant horizon knowing that Providence is with us and we are surely blessed to be citizens of the greatest nation on earth."

To take it back to Ronald Reagan: His famous line, "We are a shining city on a hill," is a complete misreading of a very dark sermon by Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan divine, who didn't use the word "shining,” and by "city on a hill, the eyes of the world are upon us" was not we are innocent, but that because everyone's looking at us, because what we're doing is so important and so vital and so difficult, God is holding us to a higher standard than any other nation. We have to be better; we have to be better at acknowledging our problems, because how can we solve them until we acknowledge them?  That's what the book is about, too. 

Q:  Two quick questions: What's your next book? 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  That's easy.

Q:  And are you ever tempted to write about contemporaneous events?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Well, the second one, I've written quite frequently about contemporaneous events. For a year-and-a-half, I blogged for The Nation every day until maybe six or seven months ago. You can look for my stuff there. Before that, I wrote a weekly column for the Rolling Stone website, and I explore historically informed meditations on political events there. 

The next book … This was intended to go to 1980. I ran out of pages. I already needed to pick up the thing with a forklift. So I ended up the book basically with the Bicentennial and the Republican convention, which turned out to be a nice story in itself.  So the next book is going to take us through Ronald Reagan's Presidency and the election of Ronald Reagan. I'm especially looking forward to writing about the transition before Reagan was inaugurated in which there were all kinds of cat fights, people fighting like cats and dogs over the attempt to shape what the Reagan administration was going to be all about. It's going to be shorter and it's going to take less time, I hope. 

Q:  You made a reference to, I guess, our failure to deal with how the banks' power during the recession wasn't called to account, and you made some references past of Wall Street and banks and their role. Could you say a little bit more about how you see that power and their role?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Sure. We rushed to get the book out in time for Nixon's – because there's a lot of about Nixon and Watergate – for the 40th anniversary of Nixon's resignation. But to me, the most important anniversary happens in a month. It's not Evel Knievel, but it's Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon. He did it on a Sunday when people were in the mood for mercy after church. He said he was pardoning Nixon not only for what crimes he might have committed in Watergate, but any crime he might have committed since January 20, 1969. And by the way, he was so nervous that he said July 20, 1969 on live TV. So if Richard Nixon had gone out in an alley and beat someone up with a truncheon the day after his inauguration, then he'd get off scot-free; that was the Constitution. 

Why that's so profound is, to me, it really opened up the culture in which elites didn't hold each other to account for their sins. We've seen a rapid devolution over the decades.

Of course, how many people went to jail because of the Savings and Loan crisis? Hundreds. We know Michael Milken, he's famous for going to jail. How many people have gone to jail for what we now know to be cut-and-dried, black-and-white fraud of mortgage holders? We have several smoking guns. I think there's one low level guy. Iran

Contra: the Democrats said, “Well, it will divide the country to really go after these guys.”  But some people went to jail, or some people were convicted like Caspar Weinberger. And as soon as there was another Republican president, George H.W. Bush, he pardoned them all.

So that's another thing. There's this kind of stern Joseph Kennedy-thing -- how he molded himself to this Yankee Brahmin ideal that if you are going to join the power elite, you have to hold yourself to this stern standard of moral rectitude. There's this inner Protestant, Calvinist "To those who much is given, much is expected." I don't think we see a lot of that from our elites today. They think they're gods on earth. Every billion dollars is a billion smart points, so they can tell us all what to do, because if they weren't so smart, how would they have gotten so rich?

By the way, it resembles something Ronald Reagan said when he was staffing his government after 1966. He wanted to get as many corporate executives into the government as possible, into what he called the Creative Society, because he said if the government bureaucrats were smart, they would be in the private sector. So this idea that public employees are, perforce, by the very fact that they haven't gone after the big prize, must be mediocre. And I quote him all the time saying that in 1975 in his radio broadcasts.

Q:  Rick, given how close the 1976 presidential election was, do you think …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  The primaries or the general election?

Q:  The general election. If Reagan had won the Republican nomination in Kansas City, do you think he would have beaten Carter in the general election, given how that race was decided on thin margins in a couple states?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I don't think it would have been a Republican year. And if you look at the difference in how Ronald Reagan ran in 1976 and how he ran in 1980, he was just much, much – and tell me if you agree – much more disciplined. He was really listening to his campaign manager and keeping his powder dry, not showing up in public as much, and that sort of thing. He wasn't saying things like calling the National Education Association crypto-Nazis. So maybe one of the reasons Republicans nominate the next in line is they've been around the track once and they have that kind of practice.  Then, of course, there's Gerald Ford, who wasn't exactly the most dazzling and charismatic figure, although I think he gets a bum rap. He inherited some problems and did the best he could and did so honorably.

Q:  Hi. Whenever I tune into a Republican convention, they always refer to themselves as the party of Ronald Reagan. Can you comment on how the present Republican Party is or is not the natural outgrowth of Ronald Reagan's administration?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  The whole Ronald Reagan cult, if you prefer, it's a natural for a political party to hold up their most successful presidents as lodestars. Certainly, the Democrats did it for a generation or three with FDR. 

And where are we again? [laughter] Every election season for decades – I would say Clinton was probably the last one – had the Kennedyesque figure. In fact, the first reference I've seen to Jimmy Carter as Kennedyesque was in the 1966 election when he ran for Governor of Georgia, and his campaign literature had a picture that made him suspiciously look like John F. Kennedy. One of his pathetic lies was, "Oh, we had no idea we were posing him like John F. Kennedy."

Is the Republican Party the party of Ronald Reagan? I was the sole token liberal at a conference on the prospects for conservatism at a conservative think tank at Princeton University. I hadn't written a book about Reagan yet, and I said that the Republican Party was much more the party not of Goldwater, but Watergate. The piece – you can look it up and Google it – it was called, "I Didn't Like Nixon Until Watergate." And I was quoting a conservative movement activist who said, "Nixon wasn't a conservative, but once the liberals were after him, I knew he must be doing something right."

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Can I just interrupt? Someone else said Richard Nixon was just an ordinary corrupt California Congressman until Henry Kissinger made him a world-class criminal. [laughter] 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  You've got it in for old Henry. [laughter] Yeah, well, talk about unaccountable elites, my God, the fact that every president is on the phone to this guy. Oh, and by the way, Samantha Power and Henry Kissinger were seen arm in arm wearing Yankees jackets, and that was tweeted out by the State Department. That must have been thrilling for you. [laughter] 

Anyway, to answer the question, I think because they're searching for a new Reagan and the part they've had trouble accomplishing is finding someone with that lightness of affect, that lightness of heart, that happy warrior. And unfortunately, the strain of the conservative appeal that's all about vilifying the other and stoking people's cultural resentments has made it very hard to find a character who can express those sentiments because Ronald Reagan really did. 

I was very careful to put a picture of Ronald Reagan in my Nixon book that showed him with a sneer. I mean, this is the guy who said a hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, smells like Cheetah, and dresses like Jane, and said if the New Left wants a bloodbath, let's get it over with. He was not always sunshine-y, but he did usually say these things with a smile. I think it's his unique rhetorical accomplishment that they've kind of been unable to put that lightning in a bottle again. 

Now, I do divert from a lot of liberals who point out, “Well, Ronald Reagan was a compromiser.”  Which he was and Ronald Reagan did things like sign a liberal abortion bill, which he claimed he didn't understand, that he'd been tricked, basically. And that he raised taxes several times, both when he was governor and when he was president, which he did. But every time they made the tax code less progressive, by the way.

I don't really think that's a compelling argument, because presidents don't just choose the policies, the laws they're going to sign from a catalogue; there's a political context. Ronald Reagan faced a very strong Democratic opposition, led by your homeboy Mr. O'Neill and I really do think that if he were alive now, knowing what we know – I've read hundreds of speeches and articles by him – that if he had been able to govern in a time in which there was a more strong conservative infrastructure and conservative control of Congress, he would have tried to get rid of Social Security, because he hated it. He would have tried to do all sorts of things that never got done because they couldn't get done. But he wanted to points on the board, so he did. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  You've got to give him a little bit of credit. If his own staff had allowed him, he and Gorbachev might have eliminated nuclear weapons at Reykjavik.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Yeah. I don't think you can take that away from him. But what's fascinating about the lionization of Ronald Reagan is everything that he did that was popular and successful was liberal, and everything conservative he did – like supply side economics – was a failure. So a pretty good writer from Philadelphia named Will Bunch wrote a book called, Tear Down This Myth, in which he expounds upon that point at book length.

Q:  I really enjoyed this talk.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Thank you. Me, too.

Q:  If I understand you saying that the core premise of the book is that America is a little exceptional in that we have this quest for innocence, we believe God is on our side. We have these traumas that we don't address, and if they don't, they come up in these spasms of unrest and civil war, and that we feel we have a unique place in the world, and that we are a unique society, let's say the special ones. I believe what you're saying is that America is unique in thinking this, in approaching it this way. Is that true?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Probably not. I think that someone should give me a nice research grant to travel to 100 other countries to do a comparative study. 

Q:  I guess what I'm trying to say is … 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I think everyone of a certain level of patriotism is a human trait, right?

Q:  No, I guess what I'm saying is from what I understand of most of the European countries, Japan, China, Brazil, a lot of these countries do think that they're the special country and that they have had spasms of very strong …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Germany does have that history in its past.

Q:  Well, the British have had some pretty awful civil wars, and they have had a history of thinking they're exceptional. And they have created their Ronald Reagan in James Bond. [laughter] They really did.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  "The lady is not for turning"-- I mean, they had their Ronald Reagan in the form of Margaret Thatcher. 

Let me return to … I made a wonderful trip this spring to Berlin. That trip was an astonishment for precisely this reason:  First of all, I'd never been to a place that had a stronger sense of history coursing through the streets. Literally, you can see where the Berlin Wall wended its way through the city because it's a brick path.

But one of the things that struck me the most was an exhibit on the history of the Nazi Party in Berlin, on the former site of the Gestapo headquarters, with signs explaining exactly what building was what and what was done in that building. It was outdoors. It was absolutely merciless about the German people and their role in allowing the rise of Hitler. It was even merciless on Berliners for not allowing a museum like this, or of evading a museum like this being built until very recently; maybe it took the end of the Cold War to do that.  And it was mobbed, four deep, with Germans, who are looking at these panels. 

I realized the parallel would be in Charleston, South Carolina, at their beautiful waterfront, having a museum of slavery. But we don't have that in Charleston, South Carolina. We have statues of Confederate generals. To me, that's a society that's not reckoning with the evils of its past. And the sort of thing I saw in Germany, which is of course not a perfect society, was an extraordinary maturity.

There's a wonderful writer who lives in Cambridge named George Sciabbala, and I stole something from him in the preface, which is Immanuel Kant's definition of the Enlightenment -- "Mankind emerging from its self-imposed minority." In other words, human beings growing up, not acting like children.

The Senator Al Franken, former comedian, said, "The problem with my Republican friends is that they love their country in the way a child loves their mommy." Since he's a Senator I can put it in his words and not sound like I'm too mean to the Republicans. But unless we can begin to love our country in a stern and self-critical way that we love our partners and our parents, hopefully; unless we're willing to have fights with ourselves, like in a good marriage, again I don't think that we can begin to rise to that level of national maturity we need in order to persevere as a country. It sounds like I'm predicting the downfall of the Republic. I think we're going to be around for a while.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  I hope this isn't overkill. I'd just like to ask one more question. It's sort of to wrap it up. You're talking about the long consequences of this moment, almost 40 years ago. When I think of what are the consequences we really have to account for and what do we worry about in our world today, for me, overall in that period, it's the sort of, I would say, imperialization of American policy, American investment, American identity, this sense that we own the world. It's a matter of not only the thrust of American power in the world, but it's also a kind of impoverishment of the social democracy at home – education, arts, regular life.

I'm still, I've got to say, confused in my own feelings about Ronald Reagan, because I think he was all for impoverishing the public sector, but I think he was also, fundamentally, an isolationist. He was a kind rather lazy Midwestern …

RICK PERLSTEIN:  He was not an isolationist, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  But he had an impulse, an isolationist impulse, a deep one,

I think. He is the guy who walked through Red Square with Gorbachev, ended the Cold War, with deep feeling and a deep sense of that was his mission and he'd done it.  In terms of the way we feel about our country today, what do we give Ronald Reagan credit for? And what do we hold him profoundly responsible for?

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I think why can't Republicans acknowledge the richness of that legacy?

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  Exactly. When somebody said the Republicans are always celebrating themselves as the party of Reagan, they're not the party of peace anywhere. They're not the party of recognizing the other interests of the [simultaneous conversation] 

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Look at how Reagan always stood down from his former

isolationism itself once he started grabbing for the brass ring. I think that sets up a nice final thought.

I've had a lot of frustration with my liberal friends. They all seem to have a favorite Regan story that shows how stupid he is and how you don't need to really pay attention to him. All you need to know is he fell asleep at Cabinet meetings. All you need to know is that he would not read any memo that was longer than one page. Well, Franklin Roosevelt also demanded that his memos be one page. That's simply a good managerial practice for someone who has thousands of memos to read a day. I think, Chris, what you've really done well in this conversation, and which I really appreciate, is realizing that this guy who changed history was a complex figure. 

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  You've done it.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  Well, thank you. Not everyone agrees. To give both the man his due, and more importantly to me, our fellow citizens their due, we're not going to help ourselves as citizens by dismissing a phenomenon that had such deep roots, that made such an impact on our country and the world by diminishing our sense of Ronald Reagan.

We need to enlarge our sense of Ronald Reagan. What is the good? What is the bad?

In the preface, I talk about a friend of mine of a certain age who grew up in California and was so mad at Ronald Reagan, she at first could not bring herself to read the manuscript. She could not think straight. And I talk about conservatives who literally write books that come out from real publishers that argue that Ronald Reagan was put here on earth providentially and that his every act on earth was the working out of God's plan to end the Evil Empire. 

I hope that I've been able to write a book as a person of the post-'60s generation that transcends that dichotomy. Whether I have done so or not is for you, the readers, to judge. I very much welcome your feedback over whether I've managed to do so, because I'm all about starting conversations. And if this is it, I thank you for letting me have this one. [applause]

CHRISTOPHER LYDON:  This wonderful book is for sale right here, and I'm sure Rick will sign it for you.

RICK PERLSTEIN:  I'll sign until my hand falls off. [laughter]