Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus
, is a book by Nation
contributor and former Lingua Franca
editor Rick Perlstein
that tells the often-dramatic tale of the 1964
presidential election. For those of you who remember (or at least know some of the history
) you may be asking yourself, "Why is the 1964
election important? Lyndon Johnson
at the polls." This is true: LBJ
in what was up-until that time the biggest landslide
presidential victory in U.S. history. But, as Perlstein writes, "Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers."
Perlstein opens his book with the punditry's reaction to the election returns: Scotty Reston wrote in the New York Times, "[Goldwater] has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage." The New Yorker opined, "The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction." Finally, most fantastically, historian James MacGregor Burns, "By every test we have, this is as surely a liberal epoch as the late 19th Century was a conservative one." Then Perlstein writes, priming you for the story he is about to tell, "[This] was one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism."
So how did the learned men of the time get it so wrong? Well, it all began with several key figures working quietly behind the scenes in the mid-fifties, who tapped into the frustration of a great mass of Republicans who felt their party had abandoned them. The accepted consensus of the time was that liberal presidents were the only electable kind. The only difference between a Republican president and a Democratic one was that the Republican version was slightly less liberal, but "progressive" none the less.
By the time Harry Truman decided to not seek a second term amidst scandal in 1952, the country had not seen a Republican - let alone a conservative - president in a generation. When the powers that be were searching for a suitable candidate in the Republican ranks, there became evident a split in the party that had been dormant for a while. Traditionally, in the Republican Party, the corporate bankers on the east coast were the kingmakers. At party functions and at the national convention, if their choice was not accepted they started calling in financial markers such as loans and guarantees. It was though this manner that Dwight D. Eisenhower was selected over the conservatives and Midwesterners favorite Robert Taft, even though Taft was the favorite of most of the party. This rebuke would be remembered, as well as, the watering-down of the party's 1960 platform at the behest of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.
As a result, several family business owners along with a former Notre Dame law school dean Clarence Manion came up with a strategy. They would secretly propagate the idea independently that two men should be president. A traditional conservative Republican that would be acceptable to the party's sensibilities and a southern segregationist who would attract to the still dominant Democratic Party in the old south. The idea was that each would gain their own following, and then as the nominating convention came near one candidate would withdrawal endorsing the other. The end result would be a candidate who would have such an overwhelming following that the bankers back east could not - not nominate him.
This group approached several candidates, but decided that they only needed one - Barry Goldwater. He was beloved by conservative Republicans for taking on corrupt union bosses, and he toured the south extensively giving speeches on behalf of the fledgling state Republican parties in the the south. (It should be noted that Goldwater was by no means a segregationist (he found the practice abhorent), just pro states rights, which was good enough for most southerners.) The only problem was Goldwater didn't want to be president.
To solve this problem the conservatives looked to F. Clifton White a brilliant young campaign strategist. He came up with a plan that was breath taking in scope and difficult in execution. White decided that he wanted to take over the party apparatus district by district and in secret so Goldwater would not find out. Employing tactics that he learned from Communist party functionaries (know thy enemy) he slowly built up a network of conservative contacts that went about the business of remaking the state parties. When liberal Republicans went to state party functions expecting a cordial affair, they found themselves at the mercy of a mobilized conservative wing that took control of the meetings by use of better organization and understanding of the rules of procedure. As White directed, any deviation of their plan was an opening for the east-coast bankers to knock out their man. As Perlstein put it, if a liberal Republican wanted the group to accept "a resolution commending motherhood and apple pie, then motherhood and apple pie would simply have to be voted down."
In the end White was successful in getting Goldwater the nomination, and by this time Goldwater had come to resign himself to the fact that he would have to run for president whether he wanted the job or not. In the end Goldwater would be shot down by a brutal smear campaign by LBJ and by his own short comings (he spoke too freely), but in the end a movement was born, and several of it's stars debuted on the national stage - not the least among them Ronald Reagan.
As Perlstien's book is over 550 pages long I have only scratched the surface of what was a movement that held many colorful characters in its infancy. Through out the book Perlstein chronicles the birth of the John Birch Society, the founding of National Review and Human Events and the publishing of Conscience of a Conservative. He also talks about the death of JFK, the liberal response to the burgeoning movement and the albatross that became Viet Nam (Johnson was promising to pull Americans out, while secretly planning an escalation of hostilities for after the election).
For anyone interested in politics or history this is an excellent book. There have been many histories of the New Left, but if that is the only history you know of the sixties then you are only seeing one side of the picture. As Louis Menand wrote in his review of Before the Storm in the New Yorker, "...The point of Rick Perlstien's animated re-creation of the Goldwater campaign is that Barry Goldwater is as much a man of the 1960s as Abbie Hoffman or Malcolm X, and, what's more, his shadow looms a good deal larger than theirs."