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  May 3, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

The Unlikely Triumph of Barry Goldwater

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and The Unmaking of the American Consensus
by Rick Perlstein
671 pages, $30 (hardcover)
published by Hill & Wang

Aside from a few pungent utterances, Barry Goldwater is mostly remembered for being one of the greatest losers in US election history. Though he occupies a cherished spot in the pantheon of conservative heroes, he was crushed by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 general election after a campaign marked by bombast on both sides. But what if Goldwater merely lost the battle and won the war? This is the daring thesis of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and The Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill & Wang), Rick Perlstein's new account of the Goldwater campaign and its place in modern American political history. Goldwater's "defeat," Perlstein argues, was merely a triumph deferred. With the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in the eighties, Goldwater's once radical ideas became everyday political currency. Praised by reviewers on both the right and the left, Before the Storm is surely one of the most warmly received non fiction books of the spring season.

William Rusher led the cheers in National Review, the magazine he helped found with William Buckley in 1955, and which helped open the way to Goldwater-style conservatism. He praised the book as "comprehensively researched, well written, and basically fair. Although focused on Goldwater, this is no mere biography; it is a comprehensive account of the growth of the conservative movement from its origins to Goldwater's crushing defeat in November 1964. Perlstein makes no bones about being personally liberal, but he is honest enough to admit that the founders of the conservative movement 'set the spark that lit the fire that consumed an entire ideological universe.'" Alvin Fetzenberg of The Weekly Standard was also enthusiastic: "In Before the Storm, Perlstein provides a colorful account of the issues and personalities that made Goldwater's campaign so memorable and the enthusiasm of his supporters so intenseŠHis book is a refreshing antidote to Theodore H. White's famous contemporary account, The Making of the President, 1964."

The Weekly Standard's editor, William Kristol, who reviewed the book for The New York Times Book Review, had kind words as well: "Combining prodigious research with journalistic flair, Rick Perlstein has produced a detailed and dramatic narrative of the rise of the modern right, a history of the conservative movement's Goldwater years, from 1960 through 1964. In Before the Storm, he tells of how a small group of right-wing wannabe conspirators managed to speak to the neglected sentiments of millions of Americans, capture one of the two major political parties and promptly lead it to a crushing defeat -- thus laying the groundwork for improbable victory 16 years later. It's an amazing story, and Perlstein, a man of the left, does it justice. The characters are vividly (and mostly sympathetically) portrayed. Ancient and obscure controversies are brought to life, commanding one's interest and attention."

But the book has also been received well outside the conservative press. Mark Greif of the Village Voice was perhaps the most enthusiastic of Perlstein's reviewers, calling the book "one of the most stylish, riveting achievements in narrative history to appear in recent years, because it misses nothing." Marked by "daring, virtuoisic writing, and encyclopedic mastery," Before the Storm "is an exciting volume, an outstanding debut. It goes beyond conservatism. It ups the ante on what popular history can, and should, do." And The New Yorker's Louis Menand summed up Perlstien's achievment this way: "That Perlstein is committed to giving Goldwater and the Goldwaterites their due despite a distaste for their views lends his narrative a certain zest. [The book] is smart and lively, and the description is delightfully thick. No one would call the narrative streamlined, and the book is badly in need of an epilogue; but the author has a good time with his story, and so does the reader."

However, one former reporter dissented from Persltein's argument. Writing in The New York Review of Books, columnist Russell Baker argues that there is still indeed an American consensus, and that contrary to Persltein's claims about Goldwater-style radicalism, "something a bit less cosmic has happened" in American political culture since the Goldwater moment.

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
William Rusher, The National Review
Alvin Fetzenberg, The Weekly Standard
William Kristol, The New York Times Book Review
Mark Greif, Village Voice
Russell Baker, The New York Review of Books
Louis Menand, The New Yorker

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