Elizabeth Fitton

8 May 2006

KC Johnson


Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001). 

      Perlstein’s book Before the Storm sets out to explain the rise of the conservative movement in the 1960s through an examination of Barry Goldwater. He specifically focuses on the drama surrounding Goldwater’s seemingly unlikely nomination in 1964 to be the Republican’s candidate for president.  It was a fight for the Republican party; liberal versus conservative, East versus West, with Goldwater’s ultimate defeat actually paving the path for conservative control of the modern Republican party.  For Perlstein, Goldwater is as representative of the 1960s as any countercultural figure revered by the American left. 

      Books containing such political detail as Before the Storm can border on the tedious, but Perlstein’s narrative is captivating as well as educational.  A self-proclaimed member of the political left, Perlstein ably presents a story in which one can understand why a person would be attracted to conservatism.  The author asks his readers to imagine a liberal Democratic president occupying the White House today.  One who would tout the line of large military cuts or expanding welfare?  The rise of the conservative movement that has created this boundary traces its legacy to Barry Goldwater and his conservative supporters.  It was an army that Goldwater inspired; the army that ushered in the Reagan Revolution and made conservatism a formidable and viable ideological alternative. 

      Like many of his political descendants, Goldwater came out of the West with a fresh perspective and firm commitment to a belief that a government that governed least governed best.  Perlstein describes Goldwater’s ancestry demonstrating that he came from a long line of nonconformists who carved out their own spaces in America.  Goldwater entered politics in the post-World War II era as a fervent anti-Communist who believed that the New Deal was a gross overreach of the government.  Unions and its leaders like Walter Reuther were as bad as the white supremacists of the South—forcing votes and discouraging independent thought.   

      Perlstein places Goldwater in the greater context of a rising conservative movement that included Young American’s for Freedom, William Rusher, L. Brent Brozell, and William F. Buckley, Jr., along with Buckley’s new magazine National Review founded in 1955.  This conservative cadre, which did not always see eye-to-eye on everything, came to stake its claim in a Republican party they believed had gone soft.  Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and William Scranton represented the Eastern Establishment who sold out to liberals so they could be liked by the New York Times.  

      By 1960, where Perlstein’s story really gets its start, Buckley, et al and his friends were making inroads into the Republican party and Goldwater’s famous Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by Brent Bozell), resonated with many “silent” Americans who could relate to Goldwater/Bozell’s distaste for government expansion and for coexisting with Communism.  Goldwater’s popularity in Arizona brought him to victory in the Senate where he made an even greater name for himself.  Goldwater, Buckley, and company had disabused many Americans of the idea that conservatives were ill-humored stiffs with chips on their shoulders.  This crop consisted of funny, normal, and brilliant personalities that drew audiences the liberal establishment could not ignore nor quickly dismiss.  Interestingly, many were Catholics who saw the atheistic Communist regimes in Europe as real threats to religion and who were nauseated at Catholic America’s blind worship of Kennedy. 

      The first two parts of Perlstein’s book depict Goldwater from his youth to his political rise in the early 1960s.  Part two ends with Kennedy’s assassination which Perlstein explains changes everything in politics.  In these two sections, we see Goldwater and his fellow conservatives coalescing their ideas as well as a coalition.  Goldwater and Kennedy liked each other, though Perlstein notes that Goldwater found it hard to believe not everyone was his best friend and underestimated Kennedy’s ruthlessness.  Kennedy’s dubious defeat of Nixon in 1960 only encouraged conservatives.  And there was early discussion of Goldwater running, which he demurely discouraged.  Perlstein seems to conclude this humility resulted in Goldwater not wanting to make a fool of himself in the showings. (Goldwater’s humility was certainly less genuine during the push for him to run for the Senate.)  For many at this time, both liberal Republicans and Democrats believed that running as a conservative Republican was political suicide.  They were labeled as hate mongers and even received the blame in many circles of killing Kennedy.   

      Conservatism was not a monolithic movement either as Perlstein shows.  There was debate about isolationism and the U.S. role in the world.  The John Birch Society, run by the extreme right-wing Robert Welch posed a philosophical and practical challenge to Goldwater, Buckley and others.  Ultimately, their irrational conspiracy theories alienated them from the “mainstream” conservatives.  However, Perlstein spends time on the society to illustrate the internal struggles with which the conservatives had to contend. 

      The second two parts Perlstein dedicates to the fight over the 1964 Republican presidential nomination.  With the Great Society’s Lyndon Johnson as the opponent now, the stakes were even higher.  Perlstein shines in his depiction of the battle within the Republican party and introduces more players like Clif White and the B-movie star Ronald Reagan.  Perlstein illustrates in great detail the maneuverings, the meetings, the traveling candidates Nelson Rockefeller, Margaret Chase Smith, William Scranton, and Barry Goldwater endured and indulged in in order to secure the nomination.  Scandals, uncertainty and campaign managing all contributed to the nomination going to Barry Goldwater in 1964. 

      Perlstein credits Goldwater campaign manager Clif White with creating the structural and rhetorical devices that would serve Republicans’ successes over a decade after Goldwater’s 1964 defeat.  White, according to Perlstein, saved Goldwater volunteers and managed to associate disorder with the Democrats.  Spokesmen like Ronald Reagan, who had an uncanny ability to deliver clear and heartfelt messages to the public, foreshadowed the importance of communication that would be Reagan’s ticket to the White House.  Essentially, Goldwater was a bore to many who could not keep up with his detailed denouncements of military cuts and readiness. By this point in Perlstein’s book, Goldwater has become part of a larger force and not just the renegade individual of the book’s beginning.  The ideas took center stage. 

      Issues, Perlstein stresses, such as crime and social disorder were prominent, but more important, they were new to the political discourse.  These issues, which were legitimate concerns to many people, had not concerned politicians before to nearly the extent they did in 1964.  In a world of uncertainty and fear conservatives offered many Americans a home where they were permitted to voice their anxieties without being branded as backward or alarmist.  Perlstein handles the concerns surrounding race as they were perceived then. It was not inevitable that the black vote would go to Democrats as it has done. Goldwater was hardly a racist but he could not stomach government intrusion in the states and forced integration, and because Kennedy, not Nixon, called Coretta Scott King when her husband was jailed, Perlstein says Democrats won the black vote for the foreseeable future.  Race would come to haunt the Republicans at this time as many disgruntled white Democrats entered the Republican party attracted to its states’ rights platform. Yet, from reading Perlstein, its debatable where that attraction was a cause or a consequence of Republican rhetoric. 

      Johnson won in a landslide, and Perlstein tells us the story should have ended there, but it was only beginning.  Goldwater had been (unfairly) depicted as a militant reactionary who would rob from the poor and work only for the white man.  But Perlstein argues that the message of Goldwater stuck—smaller, less intrusive government, individualism, and duty to the strict interpretation of the Constitution—ready to be taken up by better orators with similar policy ideas.   Perlstein quotes Bill Buckley’s message to a YAF convention: That the 1964 election was not the end goal; defeat should not denote despair.  Rather, they should marvel “at the well planted seeds of hope, which will flower on a great November day in the future…if there is a future” (473).