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 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
Richard Nixon has never been one of my favorite people anyway. For years I’ve regarded his existence as a monument to all the rancid genes and broken chromosomes that corrupt the possibilities of the American Dream; he was a foul caricature of himself, a man with no soul, no inner convictions, with the integrity of a hyena and the style of a poison toad. The Nixon I remembered was absolutely humorless; I couldn’t imagine him laughing at anything except maybe a paraplegic who wanted to vote Democratic but couldn’t quite reach the lever on the voting machine.
-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.
The POW’s for the most part eagerly performed in Nixon’s great dog and pony show to spin the loss of the war into a glorious and righteous cause. This would later morph into the commonplace “they didn’t let us win” whining and the right-wingers now forty years running crusade to destroy the free press. The loss in Vietnam was largely blamed on civilians, hippies, liberals and the media rather than to just accept the fact that it was an illegal war, based on lies and only benefitted the blood barters in the defense industry and the shameless fraud politicians like Nixon, Reagan and their ilk who took a shit on the war dead outside of their precious pilots who shot down and taken prisoner after their war crimes of bombing innocent women and children. Americans for the most part lined up to swallow the bullshit biscuits back then and they still do so today with the endless wars of the star-spangled Homeland of Oceania USA.
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.
“The Gutless Wonder” spoke to the hollowing out of America’s souls by the trivializing, politicizing and packaging war as a product. Nixon was a master at this and Operation Homecoming was a harbinger of all of the dishonesty of 2014 with the regime of Barack Obama who becomes more Nixionian by the day selling horseshit to justify recommitting U.S. military forces to Iraq and pushing ever closer for a ruinous war with Russia. Not even Nixon was that crazy and despite his bellicose rhetoric I don’t believe that Ronald Reagan believed in a winnable nuclear war with Russia as Obama and his deranged State Department apparently does. And neither Nixon nor Reagan actually backed actual neo-Nazi worshippers of Hitler (although Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy copped to being one in his autobiography “Will”) as Obama has done in Ukraine. Notable is that Fox News’ Roger Ailes cut his teeth in the business of selling the big lie under Nixon.
But not all Americans bought the “Operation Homecoming” hogwash, at that time we actually had a functional national media. Perlstein cites columnist Pete Hammil who:
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”
Perlstein also writes of the growing backlash against Nixon’s phony Vietnam revisionist carnival of perversion to put a glorious sheen on Vietnam:
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.
The typical grifters and profiteers were also cashing in by selling POW bracelets and other kitsch to the masses of asses. They were the forebears of the bottom-feeding parasites who were hawking the Bush era decks of playing cards with 52 members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the George W. Bush action dolls and the media war glorification movies and television shows like the dangerous and insipid Fox torture infomercial “24” and later Showtime’s ludicrous “Homeland”.
I again excerpt from the book:
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.
The business of America after all is war and that remains a constant. But more were beginning to smell a rat with Nixon’s big con per Perlstein:
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.”
One of the returning POW’s honored by Nixon was a certain admiral’s son whose name conjures up every rotten thing that America has come to stand for as we have become a warmongering bully abroad, a police state at home and have transformed from a democracy into a plutocracy. John McCain had it both ways – garnering favorable treatment at the Hanoi Hilton by making propaganda videos for the commies and then returning to participate in Nixon’s own dishonest propaganda operation at home. Today McCain is one of the lingering toxic byproducts of U.S. involvement in Vietnam as well as the failure to reach that necessary national reconciling of our collective sins, choosing instead to fall under the siren song of the snakeoil salesman Ronald Reagan.
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.”
Then Reagan hit the road to peddle the potent elixir of American exceptionalism that allowed him to change the trajectory of the country and which to this day threatens to end it once and for all.
Next: The Road to Reagangrad: Oatmeal Meat