Wednesday, August 09, 2006

SOMETHING'S HAPPENING HERE, BUT YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT IT IS, DO YOU, SCOTTY RESTON? The central narrative of Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus seems unimportant once you've finished the book. That's what makes it so damned interesting.

Not that the story of the 1964 Presidential race isn't richly told: in fact, it is so crammed with details -- the pursing of Eisenhower's lips as the Goldwater team commandeers his farm for a commercial; the "single, white-gloved hand" Lady Bird Johnson used to silence hecklers on her Southern tour; the campaign-staff haggling that almost scuttled Reagan's last-minute TV address; Johnson's belly excitedly thumping his 47-by-47-and-a-half-inch podium in the home stretch -- that it could comprise a separate book. You can almost smell the sweat of the cramped jet cabins, feel the sudden panic of blindsided aides, and hear the tidal shifts in the roars and mutters of the big crowds.

But that story doesn't really begin till about halfway through Before the Storm, and even when it's fully launched, the stuff on the margins overwhelms it. The real story is the epochal coalescence of the American Right that launched Goldwater's Presidential race (literally, in Perlstein's telling) and proved too fractious and polarizing to sustain it -- but not to sustain itself.

Perlstein carefully lays the groundwork, starting with Clarence Manion, who channeled his rage at the Commies in Washington into a direct-mail and independent broadcast machine that prefigured the juggernauts that rule our political landscape today, and touching on every conservative coeval from the respectable (Bill Buckley) to the crackpot (Robert Welch) as they were drawn into a common orbit. Goldwater was their lodestar for a while, but his pull turned out to be insufficient -- especially as, in Perlstein's telling, Goldwater was as likely to exert push as pull. It was their exile, their absolute dismissal by the custodians of American "consensus," their sense of being right when everything was wrong, that really brought them together -- and conservative moneymen, sensing a chance in hell to roll back the forces of organized labor and creeping socialism, exponentiated their force. They swept up, sometimes chaotically, hundreds of small, like-minded groups -- Young Republican chapters, Citizens' Committees, anti-Communist and anti-Civil Rights ad-hocs -- to create a force that was strong enough to turn the country. But first they had to learn the badly-needed lessons of national defeat. And what seemed to the political world an end became a beginning.

This broad summary neglects the internecine struggles among that force that Perlstein notes meticulously; they give authority to the book, and difficulty to the reader. (At one point Goldwater asks, "Who the hell is So-and-So?" and I didn't know either, though he had been introduced to me at length.) There are betrayals, noses put out of joint, and grudges -- all on the Goldwater side; Johnson bullied everyone on his side into his own form of consensus. But the path was forged and followed.

Perlstein is apparently a liberal himself -- indeed, he explained in the Boston Review, in a painstaking, discursive style similar to that of Before the Storm, how Democrats might take the lessons of his learning -- but plays sufficiently fairly with the conservative warriors that the Brothers Judd and Bill Buckley, among other rightists, have praised the book.

This is probably good historian's hygiene, but Perlstein clearly admires the early conservatives' nerve, cunning, and persistence, and scoffs openly at the know-it-all liberals who misread them (he even describes Steve Allen as a "particularly smug liberal"). Scotty Reston, Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter -- they were as clueless as Steverino, believing that their universe was too settled to be shaken. Perlstein is more naturally sympathetic to committed outsiders who are told they can't, but do.

He's not the only one. The book was recommended to me by some Lamont backers, whose man has scored a victory in Connecticut tonight. Maybe they think they're onto something similar. Are their Netroots the equivalent of Manion's Robotype machine? More to the point, perhaps: are there liberal versions of the New Deal-hating business moguls that sluiced Barry's way, and can the Iraq fuckup (or any of the current Administration's other fuckups) enrage and animate crowds the way the Civil Rights movement enraged and animated the future custodians of our current consensus? It may be that the "storm" prefigured by the Goldwater campaign only blows one way, and Perlstein will have to settle for providing interest rather than instruction.

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