Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

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It feels like a busy schedule and an unplanned detour into somedownload binge-watching of the West Wing has slowed my reading of Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2009), but I can’t more enthusiastically recommend the book. Perlstein, who also wrote the excellent Nixonland, deploys exhaustive research into incredible detail about the late 1950s and early 1960s to expose the political mindset of reactionary conspiracy that seems to so often emerge in the the United States. In this case, it came in the form of Barry Goldwater and a cadre of young conservatives convinced that General Eisenhower, the man who led the liberation of Europe, was a communist agent.

Where we have the TEA Party and its corporate funders, the sixties witnessed the Young Americans for Freedom and the John Birch Society.

There are so many excellent details in the book that resonate today, but I thought I’d highlight just a few.

It’s hard not to look back at a speech by Nelson Rockefeller’s Perlstein cites—an  effort to turn back the tide of the reactionaries in his party then and wish a voice existed today within the party who might try again. Rockefeller said:

These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror. They have no program for America – no program for the Republican party. They have no solution for our problems of chronic unemployment, of education of agriculture, or racial injustice or strife.

These extremists have no plan and no program to keep the peace and bring freedom to the world.

On the contrary – they spread distrust. They engender suspicion. They encourage disunity. And they operate from the dark shadows of secrecy.

We could also do with this kind of courage from organizations like the American Legion:

Dan Foley, the new National Commander of the American Legion, sat down to write his first editorial for the American Legion’s magazine. He blasted the alarming rise in political extremism: I mean those individuals who would save America by forsaking its free institutions. I mean not just Communists and neo-Fascists who openly assail our system but, more especially, those who, in the conviction that theirs is the only right view, have lost sight of—and faith in—the fundamental processes of self-government. They claim to have the one true answer to every problem. They talk of setting aside the law when the law offends them. They are quick to cry “treason,” slow to admit error, and indifferent to arguments and facts that do not support their beliefs. They are not really leftists or rightists—but simply anarchists.

Perlstein’s book is an absolute must-read.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

6 Comments

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  • Thank you. I’m always looking for something good to read. And back at you, if you get a chance, another good book I’m just finishing up is Boy is the Boat by Dan Brown. It’s just a great read and very historically accurate. I loved it.

    Another great book that I would recommend is Smoke Jumping on the Western Fire Line, Conscientious Objectors during World War II by Mark Matthews, introduction by Sen. George McGovern. I believe that Mark may be married to Gloria Flora, a true Montana heroine.

    I love history.

    And Don, if you do a class on Montana history, one of the absolute best books I’ve read is by a woman author named Margaret Bell, a book entitled When Montana and I Were Young. It is truly a fantastic book. Introduction by Mary Clearman Blew.

    But please do, if you find good books, post them. Also, I believe that Goldwater was evolving. Toward the end of his life, he LOATHED the dumb sumbitches that took over the Republican Party. I don’t think he was a bad guy. More product of the southwestern environment in which he was raised. I believe that he would have evolved into a great environmentalist. He loved that country down there, and was a fearless river runner.

    My next book on my reading list is Unbroken by Hillenbrand about Louie Zamperini. Amazing tale of indomitable spirit.

  • I enjoyed Nixonland and passed it on to my son, born in ’83, who found it fascinating. I was surprised that someone from another era would enjoy a book like that, but Perlstein spins a gripping narrative.

    I think I’ll pass on this one though. Too many others in line. I doubt Goldwater knew the future any more than any of us, and was just caught in a vacuum when LBJ owned every issue and the Republicans had no chance of winning. They phoned that one in.

    LBJ, as I recall, said that Goldwater could not “fart and chew gum.”

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