Digging for Goldwater


When Rick Perlstein sat down to tell the secret history of modern conservatism in the early 1960s, he mastered the politics, the ideologies, the personalities; then he absorbed everything else. Before the Storm is one of the most stylish, riveting achievements in narrative history to appear in years, because it misses nothing. Perlstein argues that failed 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater stood at the center of an antiregulation, antitax, and antigovernment crusade that recast electoral politics up to the present day. But he’s also accumulated an uncanny level of personal detail, making this historical drama read more like a novel.

Perlstein shows us that the cataclysms of the 1960s could always be read in two ways. Atom bombs led some Americans to favor disarmament with the USSR, while others preferred confrontation. Civil rights protests inspired hopeful progressives across the nation, while others took heart from the Massive Resistance of Southern whites. George Wallace pulled in audiences that considered Martin Luther King a troublemaker. Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization, far outpaced the likes of Students for a Democratic Society. In the midst of it all, Barry Goldwater, the daredevil senator from Arizona, became the anti-JFK. Swooping down in his private plane, tanned and fearless, he asked not what your country could do for you, but how you could get out from under your country. As early as his bestselling Conscience of a Conservative, he cast radical right-wing individualism as heroic commitment.

Perlstein’s narrative deals with the grassroots politicking that made the senator a standard-bearer almost against his will. A clandestine takeover of local precincts, performed without Goldwater’s knowledge, earned him a presidential nomination. Infighting and accident then led him to run the most inept presidential campaign of modern times. If the second half of the book turns into a sort of The Making of the President 1964, losing the earlier thread of argument, the sheer comedy and tragedy of it are too good to ignore. Daring, virtuosic writing, and encyclopedic mastery make the book’s title and its Goldwater focus inadequate to all Perlstein accomplishes. This is an exciting volume, an outstanding debut. It goes beyond conservatism. It ups the ante on what popular history can, and should, do.