Before the Storm

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Rick Perlstein. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. New York: Hill & Wang, 2001. xvi, 671 pp. $30.00, ISBN 0-8090-2859-X.

Summary

The first half of Before the Storm is more important for understanding Goldwater’s ideology and how it was formed. Built in concert with Clarence “Pat” Manion, a constitutional scholar and former Dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School, and Brent Bozell, a Yale graduate and later ghostwriter, Goldwater’s ideology was fully articulated in Conscience of a Conservative (1960). Here, Goldwater (through Bozell’s ghostwriting) takes on communism, arguing that the U.S. was not as committed to war as was Russia and as such, policymakers should reexamine alliances related to the Soviet Union. Further, foreign aid for purposes other than military and technical support should be abolished, thereby allowing the United States to build a force of small nuclear weapons that could be used on a traditional battlefield. Under these conditions, Goldwater argued, the United States would keep more tax dollars within its borders and be able to actually fight communism by offering weapons technology beyond a doomsday apparatus (66-67). His message offered an alternative to conventional political wisdom but remained in tune with political realities and struck a chord with disaffected conservatives.

Though these committed conservatives offered vocal and enthusiastic support, their numbers were not enough to bring Goldwater’s vision of conservative Republicanism to fruition. Barry Goldwater understood two key elements for building the reach of conservative Republicanism. Echoing Bozell’s argument, Goldwater maintained that “in a political scene jammed with minority and pressure groups, the only population left unorganized were those Americans ‘who quietly go about the business of paying and praying, working and saving’” (138) and that the Republican party was responsible for organizing those voters. Further, Goldwater also understood that by ignoring the South Republicans would lose the election altogether. Therefore, Goldwater is credited with finally beginning to build a Republican base in the American South by understanding its similarities to a transitional post-World War II U.S. West.

Part of Goldwater’s historic success in the South stemmed from his views on civil rights legislation. As a staunch opponent of government interference, “he reviewed his own record fighting discrimination, his conviction that racism was fundamentally a problem of the heart and not the law” (364). On the campaign trail, Goldwater stated that the aim should be to “‘neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society…[but] to preserve a free society’” (461). Goldwater’s other views on domestic policy included anti-union right to work measures (30) and the belief that the free market could produce prosperity (457).

Goldwater’s strategy of winning the uncommitted middle through uncompromising conservative principles led to the eventual Republican rise in the 1980s. As is made clear in Before the Storm, Goldwater did not have the personality or temperament to carry him through to victory. Perlstein documents numerous cases of Goldwater’s surly uncooperativeness and mentions several times that Goldwater became nauseous at the mere idea of his nominating convention (194). In many ways, Goldwater is painted as an image of contrasts: he is a consummate politician able to build a coalition of eager supporters, but at the same time, brusque, rude, and tactless. It took the charismatic Ronald Reagan, who provided confident and sure statements during the Goldwater campaign, to bring Goldwater’s conservative Republicanism to fruition.

Commentary

Amy Lechner, Fall 2007

Despite the title, this is barely a biography of Barry Goldwater. Rather it is a highly detailed description of the political climate in which he operated and rose to prominence. In fact, most of the book details the events going on outside of the Goldwater camp—the policy debates of other candidates, both Republican and Democrat, including Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson; student activism; and business and community networks, to name a few. In the process the real story of Goldwater’s attack on consensus is reduced, and indeed in many places, lost. Perlstein has an engaging writing style, but does not seem to know what is really important and instead provides play-by-play descriptions of virtually daily discussions and activities. Instead of providing a tightly argued, concise analysis of Goldwater’s conservatism, the 1964 election (which we do not reach until page 300), and the impact of both on future American political life, readers are provided with an overly long and detailed history that lacks big picture assertions.

Perlstein’s retelling of Goldwater’s life reveals a distinct political response to the social and legislative changes of the first half of the twentieth century. Perlstein’s style allows him to merge the story of competing political narratives at the highest levels with details of how others were responding to Goldwater. For example, Perlstein tells of ‘Goldwater for Halloween’ buttons that, as Perlstein argues, illustrated how “Barry Goldwater personified everything frightening and evil” (507) to Johnson supporters in 1964. These details reveal the depth of Perlstein’s research and add a layer to the book, but also obscure the important aspects of the concepts and rhetoric of the conservative backlash Goldwater came to represent.

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