Before the Storm
Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
By Rick Perlstein
Hill & Wang
671 pgs. US$30/C$47

A debt beyond evaluation

Reviewed by Steve Martinovich
web posted April 9, 2001

Before the StormThere is a scene in Lawrence of Arabia that has always reminded me of Barry Goldwater. After his Arab National Council disintegrates thanks to infighting and leaves the process of forming an Arab state to Prince Feisal and General Allenby, T.E. Lawrence is promoted to colonel and about to make his return to England. Feisal turns to and almost mournfully tells the retreating Lawrence, "What I owe you is beyond evaluation." Ronald Reagan could have spoken those words in 1980.

Today's (somewhat) united Arab consciousness is arguably one result of Lawrence's work and I doubt you would find many who would disagree that Goldwater was at least partially responsible for the Reagan revolution. As Ted White once wrote, "Some see this as a last adventure in the politics of nostalgia. Others see this Arizonan as a symbol, cast up by the first crest of an early tide, thrown back this once, but bound to come again in greater strength." Reagan agreed in a 1986 speech when he told the audience that, "it took us more than 20 years, but who can deny it? We're rockin' and rollin'."

In the early 1960s, it would have been impossible, except for true believers, to believe that a Goldwater conservative could ever be elected president. As Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus tells it, conservatism was discredited as an extremist ideology by those in the mainstream. Proving perhaps that the more things change the more they stay the same, the early 1960s weren't dissimilar to today: the proper role of government was being hotly debated, America faced both internal turmoil and external threats, and every politician painted themselves as above partisan politics. Then, as today, extremism ostensibly made voters nervous.

It was into this cauldron that constitutionalist and Senator Barry Goldwater stepped into when he reluctantly announced he would seek the nomination of the Republican Party. Although popular and the subject of a draft campaign, Goldwater at first faced strong competition from the likes of Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge and Richard Nixon, and strong disapproval from party elders like Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Despite the forces that conspired to keep him from winning the nomination, missteps by the other candidates - notably Rockefeller leaving his wife for another already married woman - and an exceptionally well-organized campaign by Clif White made his victory all but a certainty. Perlstein brilliantly uses a combination of anecdotes and straight reporting to put himself inside of a campaign he wasn't even alive to witness. At times it almost seemed that Perlstein was an insider, laying out the complicated machinations of those involved and profiling famous faces as they pop in and out of his compelling narrative.

Barry GoldwaterAfter what could be charitably called a fractious convention, Perlstein moves straight into a campaign straight from hell. Despite the impressive grassroots organization built up during the nomination race by White, Goldwater's campaign almost immediately goes off the rails after a previously friendly, or least fair, press turns actively hostile. The "extreme right" is partially blamed for the assassination of John F. Kennedy - despite the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was a communist - and voters were scared enough to simply desire a consensus, no matter what it was.

Making matters worse, relying on his own "Arizona Mafia" instead of seasoned professionals (a hated Eastern Establishment, writes Perlstein), Goldwater shoots from the hip more often than not and misses much of the time - at least when it comes to the press and his opponents. His supporters, who never grow much more than one-third of the electorate, only become more passionate in their support. Perlstein points out that although Lyndon Johnson won the election, a record 3.9 million Americans actively worked for Goldwater - twice as many as Johnson who had a voter poll twice as large.

Goldwater and Reagan in the Rose Garden in 1981
Goldwater and Reagan in the Rose Garden in 1981

The colossally inept campaign saw Johnson handily dispatch Goldwater and the immediate consensus among pundits was that if the Republicans ever ran a candidate as conservative as the Arizonan again, Americans, the words of pollsters Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky, "can expect an end to a competitive two-party system." Others thought differently, such as William F. Buckley who in the final days of the campaign told Republicans that Goldwater was creating "seeds of hope," seeds that would one day grow into what is known as the Reagan era. Although Johnson won the battle, Perlstein makes it clear that it was Goldwater who eventually won the war. As Jonah Goldberg recently remarked, "Barry Goldwater was Reagan's equal in many respects and even his superior in a few, but in 1964 the times were not ready for Goldwater. The same held true for Reagan in 1976. But by 1980 America was ready for Reagan in much the same way that Britain was finally ready for Churchill in 1940."

Perlstein's remarkably impressive book argues that Goldwater's election loss triggered a sea change in American politics that shattered a Roosevelt built and Johnson maintained consensus that big government was inherently good. The Republican campaign witnessed the birth of a new star, Reagan, who would 26 years later win the White House and usher in many of Goldwater's policies and arguably forced politicians like Bill Clinton closer to the right. His influence is also felt across the world, thanks to politicians like Margaret Thatcher in England and Preston Manning and Stockwell Day in Canada.

Although Perlstein has written for left-leaning publications like Slate, Feed and The Nation in the past, Before the Storm is an impressively even-handed account of how today's conservative movement was born in the liberal 1960s. He manages to keep his personal politics out of the way and is even sympathetic to Goldwater while occasionally excoriating Democrats like Johnson advisor Bill Moyers for pioneering modern mudslinging techniques. Before the Storm is a marvelously and meticulously researched piece of work and a valuable contribution to the political landscape that both liberals and conservatives should read to gain an insight into today's politics. With the notable failure of Edmund Morris to capture Reagan in his novelized history Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, it would be interesting to see what Perlstein could do with a second work covering the modern conservatism movement. As it stands, Perlstein may be one of the most qualified to undertake the task.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

Buy Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus at for only $24.00 (20% off).

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