Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
List: 20th Century.
Subjects: Politics, Elections, Ideology, New Right, Conservatism.

An astonishingly well-written work of narrative history, Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm recounts the coalescence of conservatism around the presidential candidacy of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964, and how this chaotic continuum of true believers and organization men set the stage for the triumphs of the New Right that would follow Goldwater's electoral fiasco. In Perlstein's book, what's past is prologue: "It is hard, now, to grasp just how profoundly the tectonic plates of American politics have shifted between 1964 and today...the opening years of the twenty-first century [are] as surely a conservative epoch as the era between the New Deal and the Great Society was a liberal one." (x, xiv) In sum, Perlstein sees the beginnings of the conservative maelstrom that has engulfed our present in the Goldwater eruption of 1964, and given how expertly and entertainingly he puts his historical ducks in order, its hard to disagree with him.

After beginning his tale with a thought exercise to help well-meaning liberals understand the pre-Goldwater conservative's frame of reference, Perlstein introduces us to a number of the colorful characters who would help to reanimate the conservative cause. Among them are Clarence "Pat" Manion and L. Brent Bozell (who first dreamed of uniting right-wing Republicans and Southern Democrats into a conservative force), rabid anticommunist Marvin Liebman, (whose fund-raising prowess would make him "the right's P.T. Barnum" (104)), National Review luminary William Buckley and publisher William Rusher, Frederick Clifton "Clif" White (the organizational genius whose mastery of delegate arcana was unparalleled), and - of course - Barry Goldwater, the handsome, tempestuous senator from Arizona (whom, Perlstein notes, was as much a child of federal largesse as his anti-government cohort Ronald Reagan.)

Equally germane to Perlstein's story, naturally, are the many other candidates for the nation's highest office, and he never fails to capture each of them in vivid, telling detail:

Let's indent hereNelson Rockefeller - "Rockefeller surprised the world with his effortless populism on the campaign trail (though to be sure he was a populist who instinctively threw his arms back whenever he stepped outdoors to accomodate whomever -- there was always someone -- was putting his coat on for him.)" (56)

William Scranton - "Scranton had mulled [entering the race] over on the flight back home Wednesday, and he had his aides arrange a dinner buffet meeting with his closest associates at the governor's mansion the following night. He brooded around the executive mansion all day Thursday as if it were Elsinore." (359)

Richard Nixon - "Richard Nixon's coronation [at the 1960 convention] threatened to break into war, and the vice president was nervous...Nixon had been working for this moment, sweating for it, slaving for it, cringing for it, bowing and scraping for it...[He was] Richard Nixon: collector of chits. And now, when it was finally time to call them in, would the whole thing disintegrate before his eyes?" (80-81)

Lyndon Johnson - "The new president was a perfect match for a traumatized nation. Consensus was Lyndon Johnson's religion. He was a liberal -- a liberal in an older, Southern sense of the word: liberalism as liberality, as the large-souled dispensing of generosities." (249)

As you can see, Perlstein is a gifted writer with an insider's understanding of political procedure and a knack for lively prose, prose made all the more impressive by its attention to well-researched historical specifics. In fact, the narrative zips along so fast that it's easy to miss how painstakingly Perlstein has reconstructed the plans and personalities that animated the Goldwater machine. By the end of the tale, he has made a convincing case that -- though Goldwater may ultimately have been too undisciplined and freewheeling a candidate for his grassroots organization -- the Goldwater movement lived on, and, only two years later, found a more capable and media-savvy leader in Ronald Wilson Reagan.

In sum, Perlstein's Before the Storm -- a superlative work of narrative and political history in its own right -- joins the work of Lisa McGirr, Matthew Dallek, and other recent historians in making unmistakably clear one central fact: "America would remember the sixties as a decade of the left. It must be remembered instead as a decade when the polarization began." (xiii)

More thoughts on Before the Storm here.

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