Clio Reads

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater

and the Unmaking of American Consensus

By Rick Perlstein

A Review by Jochen S. Arndt

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. By Rick Perlstein. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002. Pp. xiv, 671. Paper $17.00.

In his book debut, journalist and historian Rick Perlstein focuses on the rise of the modern conservative movement within the Republican Party in the early 1960s. He uses the political career of Republican United States Senator Barry M. Goldwater from Arizona to illustrate how this movement evolved from a radical minority to a powerful element in the Republican Party between 1950 and 1964. More than a biography, however, the book identifies the individuals, ideas, methods, and social forces that were instrumental in the ideological evolution of moderate republicanism à la Dwight D. Eisenhower to its modern conservative strain. This is an important book, because it highlights the roots of the conservative movement and the origins of the latter’s political machine, which has propelled men like Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush (both senior and junior) into the White House. And despite recent setbacks, the modern conservatives still represents the most powerful faction within the Republican Party. Given the current presidential race, Perlstein’s book is also relevant because it gives readers a detailed view of the nuts and bolts of “modern” political campaigning. Moreover, by combining solid academic research with the writing style of a novelist, the author presents his conclusions in a fascinating narrative, making this book appealing to both general and specialist readers.

Before the Storm is a book about a man – the handsome, anticommunist, and anti-Big Government Barry M. Goldwater from Arizona – and a reform movement within the Republican Party under the leadership of a group of new conservatives, such as Clarence Manion, William F. Buckley, Jr. (the recently deceased founder of the National Review), and Frederick Clifton White. Specifically the book illustrates the connection between Goldwater’s political career and the evolution of the conservative movement from a vaguely articulated idea to a powerful political organization over the course of a decade. Perlstein argues that the rise of this movement represented a fundamental shift in American politics; it signaled, according to the author, the end of the American consensus about political and social issues, especially Civil Rights and the size and power of the Federal government.

However, Perlstein contends that the success of the modern conservatives was as much the product of individual labors as it was due to the growing discontentment among Americans with New Deal and broad consensus based politics. In order to explain the success of the modern conservatives, the author therefore paints a detailed picture of America’s socio-political landscape. Thus, the book is also about the Democratic Party, its political heavyweights (John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and his trusted aide and now public television host William “Bill” Moyers), and its political ideology, as well as the divisive effects on the American psyche of Cold War politics and policies, the fear of a nuclear Armageddon and Communist infiltration, the conflict between unionized labor and Big Business, and, most importantly, the clash over the Civil Rights movement.

Perlstein’s narrative climaxes with the Presidential election of 1964 between the Republican contender and new conservative Goldwater and the incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, which the latter won in a landslide victory. Perlstein convincingly argues that the magnitude of the Democratic victory in 1964 masked the underlying success of the modern conservative movement. In fact, it led political pundits to wrongly pronounce the conservative wing of the Republican Party to be dead on arrival. “It was one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism,” Perlstein contends, “After the off-year elections a mere two years later, conservatives so dominated Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t even get up a majority to appropriate money for rodent control in the slums.” (Perlstein, ix)
Perlstein persuasively argues that experts failed to grasp that the election marked the beginning, not the end of the modern conservative movement. Despite the disastrous outcome, the new conservative message appealed to a growing number of voters, especially the Southern faction of the Democratic Party, who were increasingly discontent with federal anti-segregation politics. In addition, the movement had become skilled at organizing its political base. Most importantly, the new conservatives had used the previous decade to find one another ideologically, to refine their political agenda, and to build a political machine for the long durée. In Perlstein’s words, "It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts….It was something beyond the week, the year, the campaign, even the decade; it was a cause. You lost in 1964. But something remained after 1964: a movement. An army. An army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more." (Perlstein, xii)

Perlstein credits Frederick Clifton White with masterminding the grass-root organizing effort that was necessary to turn the ideologies of men like Manion, Buckley, and Goldwater into political results. The author is at his best when he dissects White’s methodology for creating and using the conservative machine that achieved Goldwater’s nomination at the 1964 Republican National Convention (RNC). Perlstein skillfully enters White’s thought process about the creation of a new political machine when he writes, “A single small organization, from a distance and with minimal resources, working in stealth, could take on an entire party.”(Perlstein, 181) He then details the unprecedented level of sophistication of White’s political machine: a strict hierarchical organization at the local, county, state and national level; a mail-order fundraising system; a quasi-despotic chain of command over convention delegates; secure communication networks at the RNC; as well as the more quotidian aspects, such as isolation of potential turn-coats, coaching of a candidate’s every word, and the bullying and the strong-arming of political opponents. Once this machine was in place, it could be used to achieve political power. Intentionally misquoting the Book of Genesis, Perlstein concludes: “Clif White surveyed what he had created, and he saw that it was good.” (Perlstein, 369)

The author’s analysis of the events and characters is sharp, his judgment unbiased, and his written prose incisive, witty, and revealing. Individuals on either side of the political aisle are fair game for Perlstein. Bill Moyers (code-name Bishop) and Lady Bird Johnson (the Southern Belle) represent but a few whom the author subjects to poignant and thought-provoking character assessments. For example, readers might not readily associate Moyers with masterminding negative campaign tactics and creating a “full-time espionage, sabotage, and mudslinging unit” to derail the Goldwater campaign in 1964. (Perlstein, 436) Equally illuminating is Perlstein’s account of Lady Bird’s 1964 whistle-stop campaign through the Deep South, which turned out to be a Secret Service nightmare because the majority of Southern Whites despised her pro-Civil Rights husband.
Insightful and always amusing are the author’s dissections of milestones in Goldwater’s political career. Perlstein’s analysis of Goldwater’s speech to the Republican Campaign Committee in 1960, and his interpretation of the effect of Goldwater’s ghost-written manifesto Conscience of a Conservative on an imaginary “pimply college freshman” are among the many jewels of the book. (Perlstein, 63) The author’s sardonic witticism reaches a climax when he describes the disastrous Goldwater television ad Conversation at Gettysburg that featured both Goldwater and former President Eisenhower at the latter’s ranch. “It seemed like Eisenhower and Goldwater were in different rooms,” Perlstein explains, “More than one of Ike’s remarks that aired slyly disparaged his interlocutor.” (Perlstein, 443)

Yet, despite being presented in a fast-paced and humorous style, the book does contain several sobering messages about American democracy. First, Before the Storm identifies the deep rifts that existed (and often still exist) in American society over questions of race, socialized healthcare, unionism, and the power of the federal government. It also shows how Americans had difficulty dealing with these differences in a non-violent manner (e.g. the Civil Rights riots and anti-union brutality), especially when under the stress of war (the Cold War and Vietnam War). Before the Storm also exposes the charade-like nature of the 1964 election campaign, highlighting how the candidates and their political machines willfully engaged in mudslinging and character-assassination, disinformation and counter-punches to secure the election. Finally, Perlstein demonstrates how fiery speeches and television ads were increasingly designed to circumvent reason and appeal solely to the emotions and fears of the electorate. As Perlstein contends, “The best measure of a politician’s electoral success was becoming not how successfully he could broker people’s desires, but how well he could tap their fears.” (Perlstein, xii).

Before the Storm is well-researched and based on a wide-range of primary source material, such as newspapers, presidential and private papers, and personal interviews, as well as pertinent secondary sources. Although this reviewer would have preferred individual over composite endnotes, in order to make the arguments traceable to their sources, the more than one hundred pages of documentation testify to Perlstein’s extensive research. In addition, the illustrations are helpful and give the reader a visual idea of the people, the place, and the time. Moreover, Perlstein succeeds in bringing out the humanity in his characters. Regardless of one’s political persuasions, one cannot help but feel touched by the tragedy of Goldwater as a political failure, and the personal frustrations of a man like “Clif” White who helped secure Goldwater’s nomination only to be sidelined shortly afterward by the latter’s associates from Arizona. For the most part, the book reads like a novel rather than a work of non-fiction and features a heavy dose of political jargon – for example, one reads of “blue-ribbon commissions”, “barnstorming”, “do-gooders” and “eggheads”, “wildcats” and “blue laws” – giving readers an impression of the political world at the time. (Perlstein, 9, 12, 31, 48)

With Before the Storm, Perlstein makes an important contribution to the history of the Republican Party and its modern conservative movement. He succeeds in writing a balanced account of the period demonstrating academic rigor with his sources and using an unencumbered prose to deliver his findings. Given the fact that a new presidential campaign is currently underway, Perlstein’s book is especially relevant to our time. As campaign ads, fiery speeches and debates will increase in number over the course of the next weeks, one might wonder if the ground is shifting again. This time maybe toward a new consensus!

Further Information:

Jochen S. Arndt a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Chicago.