Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus By Rick Perlstein, Hill and Wang, 671 pages, $30
“America would remember the sixties as a decade of the Left,” writes Rick Perlstein, in his fascinating and revisionist account of how the 1964 presidential campaign marked a new course of American political life. Really it was the “decade when the polarization began.”
The polarization concerned the role of government. In his 1964 campaign against Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Baines Johnson articulated the postwar liberal consensus: “Government is not an enemy of the people. It is the people.” Goldwater championed individual rights and liberties, and called the government “a Leviathan, a vast national authority out of touch with the people, and out of control.” LBJ won the election by a huge margin, but over the long run, according to Perlstein, Goldwater’s vision has triumphed.
Among the book’s major contributions is tracing the origin of the Goldwater movement to Clarence Manion, former dean of the Notre Dame Law School. Manion, a man of the anti-Roosevelt Old Right, was displeased to see Eisenhower carrying on the New Deal rather than repudiating it. This inspired much work, including his effort to draft Barry Goldwater for president.
The man and the movement needed a manifesto, and it was Manion who set out to create one. He decided on William Buckley’s brother-in-law, Brent Bozell, as ghostwriter, and in six weeks, Bozell finished Conscience of a Conservative. Rather than deal with a left-wing New York publisher, Manion contracted directly with a printer. The book debuted at number 14 on the New York Times bestseller list, and by November 1960, had sold 500,000 copies.
“I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size,” the book proclaimed. “I do not undertake to promote welfare for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”
Yet Goldwater also proposed to expand the state. His book urged the U.S. government to summon the will and the means to take the initiative against the Russians. Later, in the sort of rhetoric that would lead to his defeat, he was to advocate atom-bombing North Vietnam — a far cry from the limited government theory that had set his movement in motion.
Besides giving Manion his rightful place, the book also credits William J. Baroody, Sr. of the American Enterprise Institute with being the chief intellectual entrepreneur of the Goldwater campaign. Discussing the increasing influence of AEI, Perlstein says that “ideas once enforced at union-busting manufacturies by goonsquad and court injunction now received scientific demonstration by economists with Austrian names.”
More surprising is the role that William Buckley played. Buckley had been skeptical about Goldwater since 1959, and had even pooh-poohed the idea of Conscience of a Conservative. He early on said, “I don’t want to be identified with a total political failure,” and wrote a series of hostile newspaper columns. Late in the campaign, Buckley told Richard Clurman, chief correspondent of Time, that if Goldwater were elected, “That might be a serious problem.” Later, speaking to a shocked and silent Young Americans for Freedom convention, he dismissed the campaign: “We do not believe in the Platonic affirmation of our own little purities.”
But the campaign was most hobbled by Goldwater’s support of war, precisely the part of his platform Buckley most approved of. He promised to end the draft as soon as possible, but it was not enough. The famous daisy/atom bomb TV commercial wounded Goldwater, and Americans came to fear he would start a nuclear conflict. So, on election day, the (apparent) peace candidate won.
The entire drama — the draft movement, the nomination struggle, Nelson Rockefeller, the hopelessly biased media — is chronicled in these pages. The smears are especially bracing to recount. We are reminded of Walter Cronkite’s and Daniel Schorr’s on-air claim that Goldwater was going to Hitler’s former vacation home in Bavaria to meet neo-Nazis. Norman Mailer, covering the convention for Esquire, said the resounding cheers reminded him of Sieg Heils. Pornographer Ralph Ginzberg set up Fact magazine to recruit psychiatrists who would call Goldwater crazy. A Methodist magazine referred to its issue on Goldwaterism as a “continuation of its response to the threat of Hitler.”
Though “our own little purities” only won 27 million votes, Americans did not forget the call for freedom from federal power. And many of the astounding 3.9 million Goldwater volunteers remained active in politics. Indeed, with the end of the Cold War making possible the end of warfare ideology on the right, the domestic heart of Goldwaterism is making progress once again.
These days, hardly anyone outside academia believes that the more that government manages social and economic life, the better off we will be. To a great extent, we are still in the midst of the anti-New Deal revolution, and far closer today to seeing its potential fulfilled than we were in 1964.