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BEFORE THE STORM: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

BEFORE THE STORM: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus By Rick Relstein Hill & Wang, $25.00

RICK PERLSTEIN HAS ADDED A provocative subtitle to his fascinating new book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. But its suggestion that Barry Goldwater did the unmaking is at least partially misleading.

The liberal consensus that originated with the New Deal and dominated American politics for the next 30 years (including Dwight Eisenhower's two terms) was broken--shattered, in fact--by the Republican party's nomination of Goldwater for president in 1964. ("AUH20" bumper stickers called him.) The evidence of Perlstein's book, however, is that Goldwater himself was less the cause of the demolition than the nascent black movement and the Civil Rights legislation that captured America's attention in the '60s, brought George Wallace out of the woodwork, converted the old "Solid South" into a Republican stronghold, and did more than anything else to turn the nation rightward, ultimately to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

The amiable and courageous (if irascible) Goldwater, of course, was a principal player. He was challenging the liberal consensus and preaching a brand of conservatism that was, at the time, about as popular as damning motherhood. In 1960, he roused much of the GOP from its Eisenhower-induced me-tooism; in 1964, though not a segregationist, Goldwater caught the anti-black tide by voting against the great Civil Rights act originated by John F. Kennedy and passed by the blandishments of Lyndon Johnson; and he never retreated from that or such other unpolitic notions as selling the Tennessee Valley Authority.

For his iconoclasm, Goldwater became in those years (roughly 1957-1964) a godlike hero to the right, which was growing exponentially, at a time when few Americans knew it existed beyond the John Birch Society and, say, Clarence Manion's radio talks. Ironically, owing to his integrity and his relative political restraint, Goldwater--along with William F. Buckley's National Review--became a sort of conservative's conservative and an alternative to the likes of the wild-eyed Birchers, Billy James Hargis, Kent Courtney, J. Evetts Haley et al. Even in Perlstein's telling, however, he seems more of a symbol than a root cause.

The major author of the Goldwater revolution--not too strong a word--was not Goldwater himself, however; it was a man little known to the public, to whom Perlstein gives ample due--F. Clifton White, a Dewey-trained behind-the-scenes political operator who made the 1964 nomination a reality through his brilliantly organized Draft Goldwater movement. Politics being what it often is, White then was summarily "dumped" by the "Arizona Mafia," a gaggle of Goldwater cronies who proceeded--as Perlstein also makes clear--to mangle the Goldwater presidential campaign.

Here too is a cavil at the suggestion that it was Goldwater who broke the consensus--because, in fact, LBJ was elected in 1964 with 61 percent of the vote (then the greatest presidential landslide in history), carrying 44 states and huge majorities in both houses of Congress. It's true that the Democrats profited from national grief over the Kennedy murder in 1963; that Americans did not want a third President in just over a year; that the Goldwater post-convention campaign was a disaster (on a Republican billboard proclaiming, "In your heart, you know he's right," the Democrats affixed a sticker: "Yes, far right"); and that Johnson was an incumbent supported by a superlative ad campaign that made his opponent appear to be a mad nuclear bomber. Still, where was that great hidden majority of conservatives (`forgotten Americans," Goldwater called them long before Richard Nixon revived the term) who were just waiting to cast their votes for "a real conservative" as soon as inilquetoast Republicans got out of the way?

I put that exact question to Clif White, an auteur of the hidden-majority theory, after it had failed to vindicate itself in the 1964 New Hampshire primary (won by Henry Cabot Lodge, a classic me-too moderate). White just looked at me sadly and shook his head. He went on to create Goldwater's nominating majority, not owing to a popular uprising of hidden conservatives, but mostly by skillfully and ruthlessly infiltrating, organizing and capturing delegations from the non-primary states. AUH20 did win the climactic California primary over Nelson Rockefeller, not least because in the preceding weekend a baby had been born to Rockefeller's second wife, rekindling what was then the scandal of their divorces.

Meanwhile, the nation was in turmoil and facing an incipient "backlash" at the prospect of blacks moving into formerly white schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and politics--not just in the sinful South but everywhere. Causes and effects are hard to identify, of course, when so many seem plausible. But Perlsteins accounts of black demonstrations and demands, and of white reaction, together with the fact that racial unrest continued long after Barry Goldwater's moment in the spotlight, should leave little doubt in any reader's mind that it was the "movement" and the nation's fearful and antagonistic response--not a particular political figure or campaign, however symbolic--that really broke the liberal consensus.

Even noting these exceptions to Perlstein's thesis, Before the Storm is a compulsively readable book--at least for those of us who lived through the events he has painstakingly researched. Maybe "slept through" would be more accurate, because Peristein's thorough exploration of the recent past discloses much that, at the time, we in the "mainstream" (Rockefeller's word) press either did not know or did not credit.

Actually, though, Perlstein is rather even-handed; he's far more critical, for instance, of the Arizona Mafia--particularly Dennison Kitchell and Dean Burch--than he is of any opponent or mainstream misjudgment of the Goldwater/conservative phenomena. His own political views (other than his admiration for Clif White, his liking for a man he occasionally calls "Doctor Strangewater," and his contempt for the '50s-'60s consensus) seem to lurch from middle to right and back again.

He obviously does not share such Birch Society convictions as the idea that Eisenhower was a Communist, but he takes it easy on the Society's founder, Robert Welch, and has high praise for Phyllis Schlafly and Dean Manion. For Ike, William Scranton, and the floundering, too little-too late "stop Goldwater" movement of 1964, he has minimal respect. He constantly derides Richard Nixon, but grudgingly concedes that Tricky Dick, in fateful contrast to Nelson Rockefeller (for whom he has no redeeming word), finally worked hard for Goldwater's election. LBJ's occasional strong-arm political methods are roundly condemned, though Clif White's--presented in graphic detail--are regarded as clever politics. On LBJ himself, Perlstein is scathing. Even his hero Goldwater is often depicted with his foot in his mouth--and not always owing to integrity or principle.

A relevant criticism is that Before the Storm may tell you somewhat more than you want to know about those obscure conservative figures, rallies, and triumphs of nearly a half-century ago (the 1963 national Young Republican convention in San Francisco, for example). But looking back on these memorable times--the civil rights movement, the Goldwater and LBJ dramas, a fraying national consensus, all converging in the Sixties--one can only regret how much he or she didn't know, or misunderstood.

Perlstein has much fun quoting Walter Lippmann and James Reston (and once Tom Wicker) in mistaken judgments, of which we all made plenty. In self-defense, I note only that, as Perlstein himself insists, there was a consensus--powerful, too, and not just in the press--and that Goldwater and his idolaters did seem on its fringes. Much of their activity took place, if not in secrecy, at least in such out-of-the-way venues as the state assemblies of Young Americans for Freedom. Hindsight is a great aid to derision.

This book constitutes, nevertheless, a worthwhile warning: not only do journalists inevitably know less than they think they do (just as most know more than they report), but they're liable to go wrong if they think that any era, any "consensus," however dominant, is fixed, immutable, forever. Too many of us made that mistake in the '50s and '60s, and some may be making it today--even Rick Perlstein, who concludes the prologue to Before the Storm by stating that the nation now has entered a conservative epoch as "surely as the time between the New Deal and the Great Society was a liberal one" Which raises the question of whether some new Clif White, or some before-his-time Goldwater, may be readying himself to challenge a new consensus.

TOM WICKER is a former columnist for The New York Times.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Wicker, Tom
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 2001
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