Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus , by Rick Perlstein. Hill and Wang, 671 pages, $30.
At the 1964 Georgia state Republican convention, the worst Presidential candidate in modern American history was offered a sip of the soft drink named after him (Gold Water–”the right drink for the conservative taste!”). “This tastes like piss!” he winced. “I wouldn’t drink it with gin!” Barry Goldwater’s public-relations outrages were nothing compared to his ideological ones: He called for withdrawing diplomatic recognition from the USSR, scrapping the progressive income tax and making Social Security voluntary, and mulled using atomic bombs in Vietnam. He wasn’t exactly courting controversy when he told a Chicago reporter, “Doggone it … I’m not even sure that I’ve got the brains to be President of the United States.” Lyndon Johnson drubbed him with 61 percent of the popular vote.
Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm sees the Goldwater debacle as a lost battle in a won war. In 1960, John F. Kennedy had 22,000 donors, Richard Nixon 44,000. Goldwater gathered more than a million–along with a record 3.9 million volunteers. The Goldwaterite Young Americans for Freedom recruited 5,400 new members in that campaign summer, as against 1,500 for Students for a Democratic Society. Ten new Republican governors (including Ronald Reagan) would come to power in 1966, and Republicans would win five out of the next six Presidential elections. What had happened? Other historians have noted that democracy went into the streets in the 1960′s, but Mr. Perlstein is the first to suggest that Republicans got there first.
This was not simply a triumph of reactionaries. By the time of Goldwater’s Presidential run, the conservative movement had been wrested from the control of the John Birch Society and delivered to the young activists around William F. Buckley Jr., who sought “to articulate a position on world affairs which a conservative candidate can adhere to without fear of intellectual embarrassment or political surrealism.” Easier said than done: General Edwin Walker was lecturing his troops on the treasonous tendencies of Truman, Acheson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Birchers were blaming the “loss” of China on American Civil Liberties Union subversion and fretting over fluoridated water. California Republican Tom Kuchel was taking to the Senate floor to vent his alarm that “African Negro troops who are cannibals” were training in the Georgia swamps for a Russian-United Nations takeover of the U.S.
Mr. Perlstein’s politics are firmly on the left. But here, rather than gloat for the millionth time over right-wing hubris, he introduces a new villain into the plot. The Negro-cannibal rumor may have been appalling, he grants, but it “spoke volumes about the psychological paradoxes of running a democracy in a Cold War. In America citizens are charged with making sense of the world around them. But they are refused the information to do so by Cold War secrecy. So they do what they can with the facts available.”
The America of the early 1960′s, Mr. Perlstein thinks, was a society in which few such facts were available. A “doctrine of managerial expertise” offered comfort and security to those who graciously left problems to the experts. For Southern blacks, of course, the doctrine was a prima facie fraud. But technocratic ideology (which passed itself off as no ideology at all) soon began to fail others. Small businessmen were unable to compete with corporations that had carved out special protection from Washington. Crime rose, blacks rioted, neighborhoods changed (Berkeley, as liberal then as it is now, voted down an open-housing law in 1962), the semi-secret war in Vietnam escalated and practically everyone worried about getting blown up in a nuclear war. All sorts of previously apolitical people, from all walks of American life, came to see their elites as unaccountable, their democracy as shallow, their freedom as imperiled. Against an Eisenhower-Kennedy liberalism that, when push came to shove, had little to say to its supposed beneficiaries beyond Shut up and listen to your betters , Goldwater set his own motto: Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice .
Goldwater himself (like today’s Western Republicans) was a fair-weather friend of limited government. The New Deal had provided Arizona with $342 million in projects for just $16 million in taxes. The Central Arizona Project (providing the state with a water supply) was peeling $1 billion out of Washington even as Goldwater proposed selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority as a boondoggle. And Goldwater benefactor Walter Knott had made his millions by cultivating boysenberries (developed by the USDA) and selling them to Orange County daytrippers (enriched by Pentagon contracts). But Goldwater was a libertarian more than a conservative. He had ended legal segregation in Phoenix schools and later remarked, “If I were a Negro, I don’t think I would be very patient either.”
What made Goldwater a most unlikely Republican champion is that his own party was arguably as paternalistic as the party he opposed. Nelson Rockefeller, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, Michigan Governor George Romney and Vietnam Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge all held their noses at the participatory democracy swelling around Goldwater. It was a class thing. Lodge complained at the San Francisco convention, “What in God’s name has happened to the Republican Party! I hardly know any of these people!” When it became clear Goldwater had won the nomination, Scranton and Rockefeller sabotaged his convention with the help of a sympathetic press. They destroyed the party to save it.
The visionaries of the campaign were not its ideologists (Robert Bork, Richard Kleindienst and William Rehnquist, among others) but its strategists. Never was a candidate more “made” by a behind-the-scenes operator than Goldwater was by Clif White, the Cornell-trained political scientist turned Machiavelli. Modeling his operation on Communist cell organization, White had been running Goldwater for President for months before even Goldwater found out about it. White theorized that Goldwater could win the Republican nomination without its traditional base in the Northeast, and rigged a dozen ballroom coups at state conventions to prove it.
Goldwater may have thought like a rebel, but he campaigned like an establishmentarian. “Above” politics, he pushed White out in favor of a few “young, bright-eyed incompetents” from Arizona. In Montgomery, Ala., they misplanned a pageant so that 565 Southern belles had to sit in the mud in their formal dresses. Goldwater took aim at General Dynamics in its hometown of Fort Worth, and chose impoverished West Virginia for his attack on the War on Poverty. By the time of Goldwater’s campaign-closing whistlestop tour, people were lining the railroad tracks with signs reading: “DON’T STOP HERE, WE’RE POOR ENOUGH.”
Meanwhile, L.B.J. worked with J. Edgar Hoover and R.F.K. to gather dirt on Republicans. After a men’s-room sex scandal brought down his chief of staff, he trolled for similar material on 16 Goldwater aides. He used E. Howard Hunt, the C.I.A.’s head of domestic covert actions, to place spies in the Republican National Committee, and employed his aide Bill Moyers to run what Mr. Perlstein calls the first “full-time espionage, sabotage, and mudslinging unit.”
The campaign turned Goldwater into a caricature. He claimed at one point that Kennedy had staged the Cuban missile crisis for votes. He grew more sympathetic to Southern segregationists. By November, his speeches were often “sheer extrusions of rage.” And the press slaughtered him. Media references to Goldwater’s belligerency outnumbered references to Johnson’s 100 to one–at a time when Johnson was planning the massive bombing of North Vietnam as soon as the election was over. Goldwater himself opposed the mutually-assured-destruction doctrines of Robert McNamara’s State Department and attacked Johnson’s Vietnam policy: “Does he hope that he can wait until after the election,” Goldwater asked a roaring crowd in Cincinnati, “to confront the American public with the fact of total defeat or total war in Asia?” In the end, L.B.J.’s hand held only two cards–J.F.K.’s martyrdom and Goldwater’s craziness. They were enough. L.B.J. won, Mr. Perlstein thinks, as “the true conservative in the race–the calmer of fears, the bringer of order, the preserver of peace.” A failure to realize that would deprive Democrats of the White House for most of the next three decades.
Clif White and his guerrilla followers had built Goldwater a sophisticated ideological and tactical machine that required only a politician sophisticated enough to use it. With a week to go in the campaign, he showed up. Over the kicking and screaming objections of his Arizona cronies, Goldwater let the washed-up actor Ronald Reagan give a televised campaign speech for him, and the effect was stunning: Mr. Reagan began to harvest hundreds of inchoate and unnamed legitimate grievances into a political program. As Mr. Perlstein puts it, Goldwater “presumed you already knew what he meant. Mr. Reagan showed you. How the government was cheating you: the foreign aid money that bought Haile Selassie a yacht, Greek undertakers dress suits, Kenyan government officials extra wives, and … a thousand TV sets for a place where they have no electricity.”
Mr. Perlstein has a very human–you could even say very literary–sense of politics. Details provide the texture of the time: Networks cutting away from black speakers at national conventions to avoid offending their Southern audiences, advertisements for “Foam-ettes–the Toothpaste Tablet You Can Use ANYTIME, ANYWHERE … even in a family fallout shelter.”
Occasionally, as in its minute-by-minute account of the Berkeley free-speech movement’s clashes with university brass, the book seems too detailed. But it’s not. For at Berkeley, Mr. Perlstein explains, “a core of a few hundred activists told a story about the hypocrisies of consensus liberalism, and it rang true for the thousands of new allies who had never given the matter any thought before. They contemplated The Story–that America was fundamentally decent through and through, its citizens content, their differences resolved through reconciliation and persuasion and compromise–and they refused it.” Goldwater–in his own half-cocked, right-wing way–was just such a refusenik.
In lumping Goldwater with Martin Luther King, Michael Harrington, Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan and others for whom activism was “a theater of morality, of absolutes,” Mr. Perlstein gives us the real world of politics, in which idealism and ideology are not merely polysyllabic synonyms for good and evil. Writing with the authority of an academic historian and the dash of a journalist, Mr. Perlstein manages to break free of the partisan idées reçues and doctrinal laziness that typify so much writing on recent history. There is something independent, un-bought-out and, in the best sense, radical about this book.
Christopher Caldwell is senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Press.