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(Today we’ll be discussing  Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein.  We’ll be reading Part 2 for the following week when Rick himself will be joining us — JH)

I grew up in a very rightwing household. My father was born in 1922 and has never voted for a Democrat, including Roosevelt in 1944 at the height of WWII. I recently came across a letter from my mother to her parents in 1960 in which she lamented about "that Mr Kennedy" stealing the election. Although we lived in many places, they were California Republicans — the home of both Nixon and Reagan. (Both of those presidents used the Southern Strategy to get elected, but they weren’t of the southern hierarchy that makes up the GOP today.) This was arch-conservatism of the old school.

Of all the politicians my Dad admired over the years (and there were actually precious few — he’s got a good radar for phonies) there was only one he truly respected: Barry Goldwater. This was his kind of guy — a straight talker, completely open about his beliefs, unsanctimonious, a man’s man without unnecessary polish or attitude. And he was as conservative as they came, just like my dad — an anti-communist to the core, a strong believer in the use of military power and a fundamental belief in self-reliance (even if he, like my father, fudged the details.) These were people who never signed on to the New Deal and at the time Goldwater ran for president, there were very few liberal establishment types who believed such people even existed.

My parents were members of the Goldwater cult of 1964 — and they gave me a taste of what it was like to be in the political minority as as a child when my third grade teacher had an election day event and the folks sent me to school festooned in Goldwater buttons in the year that Lyndon Johnson won in a landslide. There was only one other Goldwater kid in my class, the rest were dressed in Johnson gear (including cool cowboy hats) and there we were in our lonely little GOP corner feeling like our families must be from Mars. Perhaps that’s why I became a Democrat at a very early age. ( Perhaps it’s also why I love this book.) 

There were, in fact, many people in this country who were energized and radicalized by Barry Goldwater’s quixotic campaign, and more importantly his message, and what happened in that year set the table for the conservative revolution and the Republican political dominance of the next 40 years. His followers loved him and his message formed the heart of modern conservatism — at least until its devil’s pact with the rightwing Christianists took over. (And, of course, Goldwater conservatism was almost totally full of shit too, in its own way.) It’s important for progressives to understand how and why they did it — and even more importantly, to understand the way they were perceived at the time by the powers that be and how they coped with that perception.

Perlstein’s book about that campaign and the forces that created it reads like a dream, bringing you into that period as if it were yesterday. The corniness of the 60′s isn’t something people remember so much now that the era has turned into a haze of nostalgic pot smoke. But there was always this other side — an earnest, peppy atmosphere in the midst of cold war paranoia that Goldwater and his followers inhabited. Perlstein has a genuine insight into this time and these people, and an affectionate respect too, which you cannot help but feel as well when you see the kewl kidz and the big money boyz and the movers and shakers of their day treat them like fools and children.

In the book, Goldwater himself is revealed to be what Joe Klein and David Broder today would like to call "authentic" and that "authenticity" (some would call it bullheadedness) led to one of the most wildly mismanaged and often hilarious campaigns in history. He did it his way and lost in a historic landslide. But in the beginning, before that awful day in November 1963, as Goldwater was showing himself to be the up and comer against establishment candidates Rockefeller or Scranton, the political establishment struggled to figure out how to deal with phenomenon of wildly cheering young crowds who were following Goldwater everywhere he went:

Perlstein explains:

As early as his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann had come to believe that the world was so complex that political decisions would best be left to a specialized class of experts. Three years later the Scopes "monkey trial" confirmed his conviction that a public uninstructed to expert opinion would succumb to the tyranny of the majority — the very worst tyranny of all. Ideologically, the columnist vacillated from decade to decade, sometimes coming out liberal in foreign affairs and conservative in domestic, sometimes vice versa. But always, always, his thinking betrayed a constant: that he and his fellow pundits —- Hindi for "wise men," a title first given to him by an admiring Henry Luce —- were the nation’s best defense against the terror of the mob.

[....]

That was the subject of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All The Kings Men (1946): the story of a rootless man (named Burden) who heals his alienation by filing himself with devotion for a charismatic strongman modeled after Louisiana governor Huey Long, then frees himself over the course of the story from what he increasingly realizes in an existential horror. Warren had Burden exclaim, "There is nothing like the roar of the crowd when it swells up, all of a sudden at the same time, out of the thing which is in every man in the crowd but is not himself."

[...]

The American two-party system, it was thought, was a sublime bulwark against just such dangers. "each party is like some huge bazaar," wrote the sociologist Daniel Bell, "with hundreds of hucksters clamoring for attention." To win party leadership, the successful huckster must be bargainer, splitting most issues down the middle — and as long as that was the case, extremists like Huey Long could never be more than a single yelping voice among the teeming throng. So it was that Walter Lippmann wrote in August that Goldwater’s candidacy "strikes at the heart of the American party system." So it was that faced with the spectacle of a stadium of youth chanting Barry Goldwater’s name, Lippman had but two choices: predict Goldwater’s imminent movement to the ideological center, or brand him a fascist in the making.

…he chose to retreat into the cocoon of theory rather than record the evidence of his own senses: Goldwater, he reported, was becoming a moderate. "It is interesting to watch him, and comforting to think that the system is working so well." Lemminglike, others rushed to confirm the master. Pay attention to a "fascinating political biological process," The New Republic’s columnist TRB instructed readers, "like watching a polliwog turn into a frog."

The journalists didn’t consider Goldwater’s test-ban vote, or his correction in the congressional record to revise a passage giving the mistaken impression that he had denounced tjhe radical right, or, indeed, the day after Lippman’s pronunciamiento, a major speech Goldwater made on the Senate floor reaffirming his conviction that "profits are the surest sign of responsible behavior" — or that he was only becoming more popular in the event… Like Lippman, many liberals simply denied facts that seemed too unlikely to countenance. At a party celebrating the opening of a press liaison office in D.C., the AP’s top political analyst, James Marley, sniffed disdainfully over his cocktail that he polls showing Goldwater’s overwhelming popularity over Rockefeller simply couldn’t be true. (p 233, 234)

Plus ca change, eh? The Adam Nagourneys and Joe Kleins and David Broders of their day just refused to believe what they saw with their own eyes — a grassroots movement made up of real, live ordinary citizens throwing all their energies into politics and following a man who by all accounts stood against what the mandarins called the political mainstream. The establishment refused to acknowledge the rise of the right. Indeed, many people still fail to see that the energy of the 60′s was not a one sided "make love not war" anti-establishment movement. This was happening too — and I would submit that its influence has been no less earth shaking than the New Left scaring the hell out of the straights in 1968. It’s all part of the same political sweep that began with this odd duck of a candidate who refused to play by the rules and ended up making political history.

BTW: Is everyone aware that James Carville has just produced a remake of "All The King’s Men?"