Thursday, October 15, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: “BEFORE THE STORM – BARRY GOLDWATER AND THE UNMAKING OF AMERICAN CONSENSUS” by Rick Perlstein

I had been wanting to read Rick Perlstein’s 2000 book on Barry Goldwater and the early 1960s for a long, long time. I, like you and everyone else, grew up and was fed incessantly on conventional narratives of the 60s, focused squarely on the counterculture, the godlike John F. Kennedy and his brothers, the struggle for Civil Rights and on Vietnam (mostly the protests). Sure, I knew that Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the quote-unquote “silent majority”, but relatively unexplained to me was the 1964 Republican Party nomination of arch-conservative, deeply principled Barry Goldwater (who was buried in a landslide by Democrat Lyndon Johnson), as well as the strong undercurrent of right-wing thought during this era manifested in the John Birch Society and in rabid anticommunism in general.

While I’m exaggerating my ignorance a bit, I will say that some of this was unwound for me when I read Brian Doherty’s “Radicals For Capitalism” last year. That focused on the libertarian undercurrent (WAY under, let it be said) to conventional liberal Democratic & liberal Republican dominance from Roosevelt era until Reagan. Sure, that tome covered way more than those exact years, but that particular era was the most fascinating to me, particularly those radicals who held the line against creeping government intervention in American lives during the decades of the 50s and 60s. It whetted my appetite to say, yep, I’m finally going to tackle that Perlstein book, all 730 pages of it (small type, no less). I’m extremely glad I did, as it’s one of the most engrossing books of history that I’ve ever read, with a premise – the rise of ideological conservatism as “the unmaking of American consensus” - that very much deserved to be tackled in this form.

Simply put, Barry Goldwater was the first compelling, national-level ideologue of the right. He re-introduced ideology as a driving factor into politics, and while his consistency and stubbornness may have lost him the 1964 election in a landslide, he never truly wavered from his core beliefs in limited government and personal liberty. Goldwater’s one of the very few Republicans of the past 50 years of whom that can be said. He was a cantankerous, reluctant leader, one whom Perlstein shows was essentially pushed into the limelight his entire career. His bold ideas were captivating millions, initially well under the radar, at a time when American government was a squishy blend of mealy-mouthed, consensus-oriented economic liberalism and strong but fearful anti-Communism. This book paints very well the strong antipathy that many Americans had with President Eisenhower during the 1950s, a man with few political convictions who coasted on inarguable likeability and his war hero status. The American Right boiled up during these years in fascinating and unpredictable ways, leading on one hand to Goldwater’s eventual nomination and actor Ronald Reagan’s conversion to free-market libertarianism-lite, and on the other to the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society, the rabid pamphleteers and the campus movement Young Americans For Freedom, whose heyday was in the first half of the 60s. Perlstein captures it all in minute detail, all under a grander thesis that this movement was just as much an ultimately meaningful part of 1960s social- and political disruptions as those coming from the Left.

There are so many interesting scenes painted in this book, and I’d have to do a NY Times Review of Books-length review of my own to get to them all. A few highlights: the death throes of Eastern establishment Republicanism, as embodied by liberals Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge; the craziness surrounding the 1964 Republican National convention, in San Francisco of all places; the way Goldwater’s campaign manager in the primaries, Clif White, used parliamentary tactics and intense, ahead-of-his-time knowledge of “gaming the system” to win Goldwater delegates; crazed, racist kook George Wallace asking Goldwater if he could run on his ticket as Vice President; and best of all, the cranky, curmudgeonly Goldwater himself, alternating between self-sabotaging shooting from the hip and intense, rousing speeches. There’s also the backdrop of the Kennedy presidency and of course the national trauma of his assassination, which is at times argued here may have been the biggest blow to Goldwater’s chances in ’64. I’d argue that Lyndon Johnson, a master politician and arm-twister in his own right, did everything right and had the wind of recent history and a nation’s fear of nuclear annihilation at his back, giving Goldwater’s “free markets and states’ rights” no chance at all of victory.

I’m ambivalent about what has always been the most debatable part of Barry Goldwater’s political career: his stand against the 1964 Civil Rights act on fear that the government was being used for social engineering. "You cannot pass a law that will make me like you -- or you like me," Goldwater told one rally. "That is something that can only happen in our hearts." In another he said, "Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society," he said. "It is to preserve a free society." Opposition to the Civil Rights Act would be unthinkable now, and only a racist would argue against it – and many of the predictions that Goldwater and other conservatives had for its consequences did not come to pass (their cautions against Johnson’s “Great Society” social welfare programs, on the other hand, were dead-on). In the context of the time, though, one can see at least some of the logic for opposing it, but I still believe it was tinged with a sense of “too much, too soon” and more than a little fear of what would happen in America’s imploding cities if blacks were, with the sweep of a pen, given full and enforceable rights. I think it’s sad that a man of Goldwater’s principled character saw it as a left/right, government/anti-government sort of issue – he might have even won the election if he’d found common cause with the Left on this issue. Of course, he’d probably have completely lost his base as well. I guess he was doomed as a candidate in any case. Never mind.

Great history books not only inform and give you day-to-day nuance that you’d never get in articles, but they capture the ramifications of an era or a movement that were unseen at the time. I loved this book because Perlstein finally overturned the consensus about the 1960s, the one told exclusively about the Left or about the best-and-brightest Democratic minds working their way through the muddle of Vietnam and riots in the streets. This (and its sequel, “Nixonland”, which I’m going to start reading in a couple weeks) will be the standard works for years to come for people who want to dig deeper, and understand how the 1980s rise of Ronald Reagan and the general spread of conservatism took root during the 20 years previous.

5 comments:

nox said...

I've been wanting to read this since I heard about it, as I was really impressed by Nixonland. You might be interested in reading this recent Washington Post article by Perlstein, "In America, Crazy is a Pre-Existing Condition," at

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401495.html

I liked what you had to say about the era in your review, as well. But it's clear that Goldwater simply refused to understand that the Civil Rights Act was not passed in order to make people "like" each other--it was passed in an effort to make sure that whites who didn't like blacks had no power to have their irrational dislike backed up by law. That's the thing about anti-government absolutists; once they've made up their minds that government cannot ever be used for positive ends, there's no getting through to them.

Anyway, I'm a fan of this site and, of course, of Detailed Twang. I'll keep my eye on your posts here, and I hope you post some updates to the latter soon.

Cheers!

Shawn said...

This book is on my list too.

Goldwater (from the little I can claim to know) strikes me as one of the only politicians in modern times who had strong convictions - and more importantly the courage to speak and act on his convictions - yet still managed to rise to national prominence.

Another might be Jimmy Carter. Two guys who ultimately failed in politics in part because they spoke honestly and told the truth instead of toeing the party line and telling the American people only what they like to hear.

Unfortunately, society is happier with its delusions.

Shane said...

If you want more of a grassroots examination of the growth of the 1950s and early 1960s new Right movement, particularly in California, check out Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors. Also if you want to read about the strange convergence of the libertarian right and the new left in the mid 1960's see Rebecca Klatch's A Generation Divided.

I take a little issue with your claim that Perlstein "finally overturned" the consensus about the 1960s. Historians overcame it in the early 1980's, it is the general population that still lags. Also, this book is not considered the standard work on the subject, start with McGirr.

Jay said...

Shane, I'm embarrassed to admit I've never seen nor heard of either of those books. They both just went on my must-read list. Thanks!

Dave said...

Halfway through the book right now. The point you brought up - Goldwater's refusal to back the Civil Rights Act on the case of "states' rights" - I see as a pretty pathetic act of cowardice and completely misguided principle on his behalf, as was his reluctance to really denounce the kooks in the John Birch Society. For a guy who publicly spoke out against the racism of segregation, but then wouldn't act on it through federal legislation (as if you'd convince a state governor like George Wallace to budge on it) on the grounds of impinging on states' rights.... for me that stance makes him a fool more than anything else.