How Ronald Reagan lost the presidency and won the heart of America.
Building on his first two books—Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001) and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008)—Perlstein once again delivers a terrific hybrid biography of a Republican leader and the culture he shaped. Where Perlstein's Nixon was the cynic in chief who exploited resentment and frustration to get elected, his Reagan is the star of his own pseudo-reality show, who “framed even the most traumatic events in his life—even his father’s funeral—as always working out gloriously in the end, evidence that the universe was just.” Although the book only goes up to Reagan's loss of the 1976 Republican nomination to President Gerald Ford, the scope of the work never feels limited. Perlstein examines the skeletons in the Reagan, Ford and Carter closets, finds remarkable overlooked details and perfectly captures the dead-heat drama of the Republican convention. Just as deftly, he taps into the consciousness of bicentennial America. He sees this world with fresh eyes; for Perlstein, 1970s America wasn’t the "Me Decade"—a phrase he never uses—so much as the Fear Decade, when a paranoid country was beside itself with worry over CIA revelations, killer bees, abortion, losing the Panama Canal and the grim possibility that you could lose your children (whether Linda Blair or Patty Hearst) to the dark side. Always at the center of the narrative is Reagan, the self-appointed hero who assured a jittery populace that Vietnam and Watergate were just bad dreams. He was America’s cheerleader, the slick beast slouching toward Washington, waiting to be born again.
A compelling, astute chronicle of the politics and culture of late-20th-century America.