Taking the high pitched roar of right-wing caterwauling over Rick Perlstein's outstanding new book “The Invisible Bridge” as a ringing endorsement I ponied up the coin and purchased a copy. Mr. Perlstein has written two previous books on the rise of the modern American right, the Barry Goldwater centered "The Coming Storm" and the classic "Nixonland". I have decided to review the book myself as I read it as well as adding my take on the material. I will be writing on at least one chapter per week and this is the first installment in what will be what I have called "The Road to Reagangrad" series. The book, which has a full title of "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan" deals with a crucial period in our history as the USA!, USA!, USA! got it's ass kicked in Vietnam leading to the cynical revisionism that still has the psychic wounds of that goddamned disaster ready to pop up at any time - like a bouncing betty whenever it is politically expedient to tug on the trip wire.
The country was torn asunder during the period covered in "The Invisible Bridge" and the penultimate cynic Richard M. Nixon latched onto the return of prisoners of war from Vietnam which he exploited to the hilt. Reagan, who ran through Perlstein's previous books like a snake slithering through the tall grass burst forth into national demigod status by exploiting the same cultural divisions from the 1960's that Nixon did and "The Invisible Bridge" is a fascinating work in which The Gipper began to move into the limelight after Watergate sank Tricky Dick. Perlstein has done a truly great deed with his fine work on this part of our national history that began the moral and intellectual decline that has arguably created every serious problem that we face as a nation today in 2014.
PART ONE: GOD BLESS AMERICA and NIXON
-Hunter S. Thompson
The first chapter in "The Invisible Bridge" has Nixon still riding high in the aftermath of his historical 1972 presidential election wipe-out of the hapless Democrat George McGovern. The official title, "Small and Suspicious Circles" focuses on Nixon's disgusting and divisive "Operation Homecoming" in which he sought to accumulate political capital for his agenda by spinning the ass-kicking inflicted upon America in Nam as honorable in his typical divisive fashion. I excerpt the following from Perlstein:
It began twenty days after the president’s speech, at the airport in Hanoi. What the Pentagon dubbed “Operation Homecoming” turned the network news into a nightly patriotic spectacle. Battered camouflage buses conveyed the first sixty men to the planes that would take them to Clark Air Base I the Philippines; a Navy captain named Galand Kramer unfurled a homemade sign out the window, scrawled on a scrap of cloth: GOD BLESS AMERICA & NIXON. The buses emptied; officers shouted out commands in loud American voices to free American men, who marched forth in smart formation, slowing to accommodate comrades on crutches. ON the planes, and on TV, they kissed nurses, smoked too many American cigarettes, circulated news magazines with their wives and children on the cover, and drank a pasty white nutrient shake whose taste they didn’t mind, a newsman explained, because it was the first cold drink some of them had had in eight years. On one of the three plances they passed a wriggling puppy from lap to lap. “He was a Communist dog,” explained the Navy commander who smuggled him to freedom in his flight bag, “but not anymore!”
In days to come cameras lingered on cafeteria trays laden with strawberry pie, steak, corn on the cob, Cornish game hens, ice cream, and eggs. (“Beautiful!”) sighed a man in a hospital gown on TV to a fry cook whipping up eggs.”
The next stop was Travis Air Force Base in California, where for twelve long years the flag-draped coffins had come home. Now it was the setting for Times Square 1945 images: wives leaping into husbands’ arms; teenagers unabashedly knocking daddies off their feet; seven-year-olds bringing up the rear, sheepish, shuffling – they had never met their fathers before. From there the men shipped out to service hospitals around the country, especially prepared for their return with color TVs and bright yellow bedspreads to mask the metallic hospital tone; once more words like “God-God-God” and “duty-duty-duty” and “honor-honor-honor” and “country-country-country” echoed across airport tarmacs.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse Five the author uses the books of a fictional science fiction writer named Kilgore Trout to insert social commentary into his overall story. One of ‘Trout’s’ tales addressed the strange contradictions of a society that will accept with open arms one who kills civilians with state sanction during wartime while ostracizing one for silly, superficial reasons:
This, too, was the title of a book by Trout, The Gutless Wonder. It was about a robot who had bad breath, who became popular after his halitosis was cured. But what made the story remarkable, since it was written in 1932, was that it predicted the widespread use of burning jellied gasoline on human beings. It was dropped on them from airplanes. Robots did the dropping. They had no conscience, and no circuits which would allow them to imagine what was happening to the people on the ground.
Trout's leading robot looked like a human being, and could talk and dance and so on, and go out with girls. And nobody held it against him that he dropped jellied gasoline on people. But they found his halitosis unforgivable. And then he cleared that up, and he was welcomed to the human race.
On Valentine’s Day in the liberal New York Post, pointed out that the vast majority of the prisoners were bomber pilots, and thus were “prisoners because they had committed unlawful acts” – killing civilians in an undeclared war. He compared waiting for the POWs to come home to his “waiting for a guy up at Sing Sing one time, who had done hard time for armed robbery”
But in the New York Times, columnists like Tom Wicker rued “the warped sense of priorities on the home front” that allotted so much more attention to “these relatively few POW’s than the 50,000 dead boys who came home in body bags, some of them with smuggled heroin obscenely concealed in their mangled fleas,” and “for whom the only bracelet is a band of needle marks.” He noted that the administration had frozen funding for treatment of drug-addicted veterans and in its fiscal 1974 budget proposed to arbitrarily limit the allowable number of patients in veterans hospitals. Meanwhile the Times editorialized that in the “succession of hand salutes, stiffly prepared statements, medical bulletins, and canned handouts concerning the joys of steak and ice cream” of Operation Homecoming, the “hard-won” lessons of Vietnam are in danger of being lost.” Which, on the merits was sound editorial judgment. For that had been Richard Nixon’s intention for the POW issue from the start.
Matchbooks, lapel pins, billboards, T-shirts and bumper stickers (“POWs NEVER HAVE A NICE DAY!) proliferated; fighter jets made thunderous football stadium fly-bys; full-page ads blossomed in every newspaper, urging Hanoi to have a heart and release the prisoners for the sake of the children.
On February 21 the newspaper of record, noting how the POW’s praise for Richard Nixon sounded suspiciously close to the administration’s own catchphrases, reported that the “military’s repatriation effort was carefully programmed and controlled” by a team of nearly eighty military public relations men. The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Robert C. Maynard, echoed the argument the next morning in an essay headlined “Return of the Prisoners: Script by the Military.” “Not surprisingly, “ he concluded, we received a number of paeans to ‘honorable peace’ and could only wonder how that phrase happened to be among the first to pop out o fthe mouths of men in captivity for such long periods of time.” He also said, “They return to a society more surely programmed in ‘them-against-us’ terms than the one they left.”
The first chapter of “The Invisible Bridge” closes with an orgy of adulation for the POW’s and their right-wing supporters at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The event, packed with celebrities such as actors Lorne Greene of the television horse opera Bonanza and one Marion Morrison (more recognizable by his stage name John Wayne) and hosted by Reagan himself who as the Governor of California would offer up a glimpse of the demarcation from reality that took place in the 1980’s once Reagan had ascended to the presidency. Perlstein writes:
Lorne Greene gestured for silence. The guests of honor marched forth in grand procession, two by two with their consorts, as the band struck up the anthem “Stout-Hearted Men”: “Start me with men who are stout- hearted men, and soon I’ll give you ten thousand more”.
The men held longest in Hanoi finally took the stage. “Let it loose!” Greene commanded. The crowd rose as one. Their ovation lasted eight minutes.
The evening’s host took to the podium. Governor Regan’s final peroration was addressed to the men: “You gave America back its soul. God bless a country that can produce men like you.”
Next: The Road to Reagangrad: Oatmeal Meat