Not every presidential election is worth a book more than a quarter-century after the last ballot has been counted. The 1964 race was different, though, and author Rick Perlstein knows exactly why. That year, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Democrat, trounced his opponent, Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona, in a blowout of historic proportions. The conservative wing of the GOP, which had toiled for so long as the minority partner in a coalition dominated by more liberal brethren, finally had risen to power and nominated one of its own, only to see him crash in terrible splendor. It looked like a death, but it was really a birth: a harrowing introduction to politics that would serve conservatives well in the years ahead as they went on to great success. Conservatives learned a lot in 1964:
It was learning how to act: how letters got written, how doors got knocked on, how co-workers could be won over on the coffee break, how to print a bumper sticker and how to pry one off with a razor blade; how to put together a network whose force exceeded the sum of its parts by orders of magnitude; how to talk to a reporter, how to picket, and how, if need be, to infiltrate--how to make the anger boiling inside you ennobling, productive, powerful, instead of embittering.
These were practical lessons that anybody in politics must pick up. For conservatives, the rough indoctrination came in 1964, and Perlstein (who is not a conservative) tells their story in detail and with panache. Before the Storm
is not a history of conservative ideas (for that, read The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America
, by George Nash), but a chronicle of how these ideas began to matter in politics. The victory of Ronald Reagan in 1980--to say nothing of Newt Gingrich in 1994 and George W. Bush in 2000--might not have been possible without the glorious failure of Barry Goldwater in 1964. As Perlstein writes, "You lost in 1964. But something remained
after 1964: a movement. An army
. An army that could lose a battle, suck it up, regroup, then live to fight a thousand battles more." --John J. Miller
From Publishers Weekly
In the 1964 presidential campaign, LBJ ate Barry Goldwater for lunch and thereby, according to the pundits, stuck a fork in the heart of American conservatism. But Goldwater's politics were vindicated, Perlstein argues, by subsequent elections, especially Reagan's in 1980, and his tenets are championed today on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps. What's more important about Perlstein's argument is its subtext. By casting the senator as the long-term winner, Perlstein's chronicle vindicates what appears to have been Goldwater's magnificently ham-handed campaign. Conservative readers will cringe at the missed opportunities and wrongheaded tactics; the scattered and mismanaged themes, including Goldwater's crippling clarion call for extremism; the extremists who embraced him; and the backroom machinations and supporters that in many ways created Goldwater. Certainly they'll see Nixon and Reagan in an unlikely light: using the deck of the sinking ship Goldwater as a platform for their own careers. Liberal readers, on the other hand, will approach the pinnacle of schadenfreude. And they'll either be peeved or amused by Perlstein's unabashed partisanship, perhaps best shown in his observation that LBJ's deputy Bill Moyers pioneered dirty campaign tactics: "the full-time-espionage, sabotage, and mudslinging unit." Aptly casting conservativism as the triumphant underdog, Perlstein observes that "in 1995 Bill Clinton paid Reagan tribute by adopting many of his political positions. Which had also been Barry Goldwater's positions. Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers." With Republicans again in the ascendancy, this account of their fall and subsequent rise should interest readers of all political stripes. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.