Vail area Republicans remembered in “Reaganland”
New book recommended to those who remember Ford, Kemp and the American Enterprise Institute in Eagle County
Among the best pieces of media released in 2020 is the book “Reaganland” by Rick Perlstein, an examination of “America’s right turn,” as the subtitle describes.
The book’s four-word title and subtitle, surely one of the shortest you’ll find published in 2020, is the perfect pitch for a book that uses no unnecessary words in mining the most interesting gems from its subject matter.
Perlstein’s ability to make every word count would receive praise from William Strunk Jr. himself if he were alive to enjoy it, and at more than 900 pages without a word wasted, the book is a concentrated blast of the culture and politics of late-1970s America.
A good example can be found in Perlstein’s synopsis of the Disney corporation’s efforts to build a ski resort in Sequoia National Park in the 1970s. The idea was started by Walt Disney and received favorable treatment by Reagan as governor of California after Walt died. But the interesting part is Reagan’s explanation of why he favored it, which has been largely forgotten. Perlstein captures it in two sentences, one a direct quote from Reagan.
“Is public land really for the public or for an elite who want to keep it for their own use?” Reagan asked.
“(Reagan), for one, would side with the public who wanted their ski resort, not the selfish elite campers who wanted to keep that land pristine,” Perlstein writes.
Ski area promoters rallying against “elites” in an effort to construct a Disney resort in a National Park is a perfect detail not only for its vast departure from where we are today – where ski resort real estate is synonymous with elite – but also for the mental journey that just one sentence of Perlstein’s work can elicit. He recommends a bevy of source material for further reading, including the book “Reagan’s Path to Victory,” which has Reagan’s entire speech on the Disney ski resort.
The immense amount of study that went into the assembly of “Reaganland” can be seen in Perlstein’s reading recommendations and the 190 pages of acknowledgments, notes and references that accompany the work. One of Perlstein’s recommendations is a piece that was penned for the Aspen Times by longtime arts writer Andrew Travers. In writing about Phyllis Schlafly and the Equal Rights Act of the 1970s, Perlstein adapts Travers’ style, parenthetically inserting a detail from 1975 about a Boulder Country Clerk’s reason for denying a man’s request to wed his horse (Dolly was only 8 years old, too young for marriage).
Along with Aspen Times readers, Vail residents who remember the days when prominent Republicans Gerald R. Ford and Jack Kemp were established locals and served on the Vail Valley Foundation board will enjoy the book for its examination of those two local characters, to whom Perlstein dedicates ample space.
While national news correspondents are said to have an East Coast bias, covering more stories from the side of the country that’s first out of bed, the western states media of 1976 to 1980 receives lots of attention from Perlstein in “Reaganland.”
We’re reminded how the politics of Utah helped give birth to the New Right movement prior to Reagan in 1976, when Reagan’s support of Orin Hatch became a harbinger of his own popularity in the West after Hatch rolled a Reagan endorsement into an unexpected Senate win.
The New Right, frustrated with Nixon’s inability to venture a right-wing position, began to attack Nixon-and-Ford style Republicanism from the right, finding their own candidates, starting with Hatch in Utah.
But it was two large figures in Colorado who represented one of the biggest divides between the New Right and the more moderate Republicans – Joseph Coors and Gerald Ford. The New Right found support in Coors who, as Perlstein points out, helped fund “a more combative alternative to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank which, fearing for its IRS tax exemption and its reputation for scholarly probity, was loath to take sides in partisan disputes.”
The American Enterprise Institute’s most distinguished member was Ford who, after Reagan was elected, started hosting the AEI World Forum in Beaver Creek, where it was held for more than three decades, culminating with Vice President Dick Chaney cutting the ribbon at the forum’s new location – Gerald R. Ford Hall – in 2007. The event has since moved on to a different resort location.
The New Right also latched onto Senate candidate William Armstrong in Colorado in 1978, Perlstein writes, and Armstrong went from being an underdog in the Senate race to beating incumbent Floyd Haskell by almost 20 points.
In 1980, Hatch stumped for Reagan, giving many speeches and Perlstein, in examining Hatch’s words to supporters of Carter-era labor law reform, finds one of the most prescient quotes to come out of Utah in 1980: “I’m going to be here for 30 years or more, and whoever does that will be one sorry company,” Hatch said. Hatch remained in office until 2019.
When the Sagebrush Rebellion sought to cede BLM and Forest Service land to the states in the 1970s, Reagan signed on with their cause. The rebellion’s oft-overlooked roots in Colorado are mentioned in “Reaganland,” with the involvement of Anne Gorsuch (who is distantly related to the Gorsuch family of Vail), and while the famous quote from Reagan “Count me in as a rebel” may be how Reagan is remembered in association with the rebellion, Perlstein characteristically unearths another gem in Reagan’s activities as a sagebrush rebel.
In Idaho, where Big Bill Haywood made history with his involvement in America’s labor movement in the 1890s, the labor movement today is practically non-existent. “Reaganland” takes us to its bitter end in the 1980 Senate race between Steve Symms and incumbent Frank Church, a Democrat who had been in office since 1957. Symms endorsed the Sagebrush Rebellion’s agenda to open 30,000 acres of public lands for cobalt mining, to perform dredge mining in rivers, to break ground on a new phosphate mine in a national forest, and to storing nuclear waste in exchange for federal money, Perlstein writes.
Perlstein’s nugget from the Sagebrush Rebellion is not Reagan’s oft-remembered quote, but rather the fact that he visited Idado in October of 1980 to campaign for Symms.
“The days when (Church) dreamed of restoring Idaho’s progressive populist heritage were but a memory,” Perlstein writes.
A quote from Reagan follows: “The next administration will reflect the values and goals of the Sagebrush Rebellion.”
Church was the last Democrat to have served as a Senator in Idaho after being defeated by Symms in 1980. In Utah, Frank Moss was the last Democratic Senator after being defeated by Hatch in 1976.
Perlstein captures the Western perspective on America’s right turn in the final sentences of his book, while also hinting at the new Republican party Reagan sought to create with the New Right, starting on his inauguration day.
“Ronald Reagan stepped up to the inaugural platform,” Perlstein writes. “For the first time, it faced west: to symbolize, aides told reporters, the ‘new direction opened by a man of the West’ – as if Richard Nixon had never been president at all.”
Description over analysis
“Reaganland” is a good fireside book for this winter, especially if you’re here in Eagle County and, like so many who have been visiting over the holidays for decades, have memories of President Ford lighting the Christmas tree in Vail.
The book is part of a series chronicling the conservative tide that has swept over America since the 1960s – Perlstein says “Reaganland,” the fourth in that series, will be the last – and in comparing it to its preceding works, I see the criticism that Perlstein went longer and even more detail oriented with this one. It didn’t bother me, but I haven’t read two of the books in the series.
The only other book I’ve read by Perlstein is his first, “Before the Storm,” a biography of Barry Goldwater. I think about that book often for its description of Goldwater flying his plane around Arizona, showing people videos “sometimes five times a day” of him running dangerous sections of the Colorado River in a wooden raft.
“He descended from the ski, a witness who was ten years old at the time remembers, like a ‘bronze god who had just beaten the river,'” Perlstein wrote.
I think it’s fairly well known that Goldwater rafted some of the most difficult sections of the Colorado River in the 1940s, but before reading Perlstein’s biography of him, I was not aware that Goldwater had filmed the whole thing, that he had such a “flair for self-dramatization,” or that he was a self-portrait enthusiast, as Perlstein pointed out. In the digital era, where the West has become a giant extreme sports venue for thrill seekers to become Instagram famous, Goldwater should be recognized as the original “check out this vid of me shredding” guy. And he also loved selfies.
Another line from “Before the Storm” came back to me while reading Perlstein’s new book, as well: Perlstein’s description of just how dramatically things have changed, politically, in the U.S.
“It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today,” Perlstein wrote in “Before the Storm” of Goldwater’s failed run for president. “In 1964 there were sixteen Repbulican governors, all but two of them moderates; in 1966 ten new conservative Republican governors were voted in. In 1980 Americans elected one of them, Ronald Reagan, as their President. And in 1995 Bill Clinton paid Reagan tribute by adopting many of his political positions.”
In “Reaganland,” we receive fewer conclusive statements from Perlstein, and more details from his research, which has frustrated some readers.
“This imbalance between description and analysis recalls the chronicles written by scribes in the Middle Ages, where relevant-seeming events — often, as in “Reaganland,” picturesque disasters — are listed, one after another after another,” writes Peter Berard for Dig Boston. “This was supposed to have gone out the window with the work of Edward Gibbon and other historians who used sources to construct an argument about the past, but alas, here we are.”
It’s a valid critique, but I found the description in “Reaganland” to be so good, I wasn’t missing the analysis.
For more on “Reaganland,” visit Perlstein’s website at rickperlstein.net.
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