Dissent Magazine: Standard-Bearer of the Right: No political movement in America these last twenty-five years has rivaled conservatism in appeal or influence. Everywhere one looks, conservative outlooks dominate public opinion: the market is celebrated as the most effective and just distributor of society’s resources; government expenditures of any sort, other than for national defense, are condemned as ineffective or harmful to the Gross National Product; morality and social discipline are regarded as the only legitimate touchstones of social policy.
Despite conservatism’s influence, historians of the twentieth-century United States have had a hard time giving this political movement its due. Libraries are choked with books on the history of liberalism and the left while the shelves on the history of conservatism are spare. In part this imbalance reflects historians’ natural tendency to neglect the recent past and to focus instead on the more distant past, the first half of the twentieth century, when liberalism, in the form of Progressivism and the New Deal, really was the most important American political movement. This imbalance, however, also reflects the composition of liberal arts faculties at most colleges and universities, where liberals and leftists are abundant and conservatives are in short supply. Conservative intellectuals, by and large, have disdained the academic career path, preferring instead the work offered them outside universities in well-heeled conservative think tanks, where they tend to devote themselves to political philosophy and public policy rather than history.
The mere fact that Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm devotes 516 pages to six years of the conservative movement (1958-1964) is itself a statement about this movement’s importance. Perlstein has chosen his period well, for these were the years in which Republican conservatives embraced the enigmatic Barry Goldwater as their tribune, used him to take back the Republican Party from its moderate, Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller wing, and challenged the dominant liberal creed of managed capitalism, racial integration, activist government, and a vigorous but restrained anticommunism. And although conservative Republicans suffered a humiliating defeat in 1964, the principles they had embraced and the organization they had built endured, soon to bring them local, state, and then national victories. Perlstein tells this story with energy and insight, and in lively prose.
Perlstein’s book is not entirely successful, for he has two big ambitions that do not always mesh. He wants to recover a lost world of conservative Republicanism—the individuals first responsible for reinvigorating conservatism, the methods they used to spread their ideas, the issues and events that fueled their movement, and the internal fights that periodically threatened to lay them low. I found this part of the book to be fascinating, and so should plenty of Dissent readers, especially the veterans of leftist in-fighting who will be taken by Perlstein’s portrait of a political community parallel to their own, populated, like the left, with talented and energetic true believers skilled at political intrigue and maneuvering and bent on revolution. Perlstein’s other ambition is to write a comprehensive history of 1960s politics in the grand narrative style of a Theodore White. Perlstein’s motivation here is admirable, in that he’s trying to point us to a history of the 1960s that is about both the left and the right, the Democrats and the Republicans. Thus, significant parts of the book are devoted to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and to a chronicle of the 1964 election—the primaries, the conventions, the presidential campaign. While these sections on high politics are well told, interpretively they don’t offer a story different enough from existing accounts, such as White’s The Making of the President, 1964, to justify the space devoted to them.
IN PERLSTEIN'S telling, two groups, roughly defined by generation, brought conservatism to life in the late 1950s. The first was a group of mostly self-made men born in the last years of the nineteenth century. Several, such as Clarence Manion, an Indiana native and law professor at the University of Notre Dame, started out in liberal circles in the Progressive-New Deal era but experienced a betrayal that transformed them politically and psychologically. Others in this group were small- to mid-sized businessmen and manufacturers who, in the 1940s and 1950s, were drawn to conservatism by their negative experience with the New Deal state. For them, the most visible manifestations of this state were the government-empowered unions that appeared at their workplaces and dared to tell them how to manage their enterprises. Toilet manufacturer Herbert V. Kohler of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, was an example of this kind; another was Robert Welch, a Massachusetts candy manufacturer who founded the John Birch Society in 1958; a third was Walter Knott, an Orange County restauranteur who made a fortune cultivating and selling “boysenberries,” and turning Knott’s Berry Farm into the region’s second largest amusement park. It seems plausible to suggest, though Perlstein himself does not, that these businessmen lacked the influence on state policy that went to the General Motors-sized firms, so that they felt the heel of the state far more than its embrace. These men used their money to fund political campaigns, to purchase radio and television time, and to subsidize the costs of publishing conservative books and journals.
Ideologically, these conservatives can be described best as unilateralists: no one was going to tell them how to run their businesses (in relationship to workers), how to dispose of their wealth (in relationship to government taxes), whom to serve in their hotels and restaurants (in relationship to race), just as no one was going to tell America how to behave in the world, certainly not the Soviet Union, or some Southeast Asian band of guerrillas, or the United Nations. They saw themselves as individualists cut from the best American grain. Their individualism was so strong that it allowed them to ignore the profound interdependencies that governed their own lives. The westerners in their ranks, for example, seemed oblivious to the fact that their West would never have existed but for a large federal government pouring billions into western development. Many of them drew a straight line from unions to big government to collectivism to communism and the Soviet Union. They really believed that Walter Reuther and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were communists intent on destroying the United States and the freedom for which it stood.
Young, college-educated men (and an occasional woman) born in the 1920s and 1930s who had found their way to conservatism in the 1940s and 1950s made up the second pioneering group of conservatives. Some gathered around William F. Buckley and William Rusher at the National Review, founded in 1955, while others swarmed into Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), already twenty-four thousand strong in 1961 when Students for a Democratic Society was still only a glimmer in Tom Hayden’s eye. They had had no firsthand encounters with unions or union leaders similar to those of the older group of conservative pioneers, but they had grown up surrounded by a New Deal Order of big government, bureaucracies, and extensive regulation of private activities that they did not like. Perlstein does not tell us enough about the ideas that motivated these young people—what they were reading about and talking about in universities in the 1940s and 1950s—but we can surmise that Friedrich A. Hayek’s writings were high on their list as well as those by thinkers who criticized all sorts of collective regimes, ranging from the totalitarian to the social democratic, that allegedly suffocated individuality and strangled the human spirit.
In this sense, these young conservatives were animated by impulses similar to those that would soon energize a New Left, an affinity Perlstein shrewdly recognizes. Youth on both the left and right were rebelling against large institutions that seemed to want to program their lives and over which they had little or no control. Perlstein writes about one young Birchite whose “conversion to conservative politics came in a flash, when he realized that ‘the man in the gray flannel suit was a devil in disguise.’” Many radicals, right and left, seem to have been influenced as well by existential patterns of thought, an influence discernible in their impatience with compromise, containment, and negotiation, and in their desire to live fully, authentically, even impulsively without external restraint. Sometimes this meant breaking away from political party organizations for the sake of standing up for the principle they held dear or of supporting the candidates that truly deserved their support. Other times this entailed taking on risks that most Americans found unacceptable. For the left, this came to mean putting one’s “body on the line” through Freedom Rides, sit-ins at southern restaurants, and voting registration drives in Klan-dominated southern towns. For some among the youthful right, this engendered a rejection of a foreign policy that, in the hands of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, appeared to them characterized by vacillation, uncertainty, and compromise. If the Soviets were as evil as Americans had been led to believe, then they had to be attacked and defeated, even if that meant using tactical nuclear missiles and risking a widespread nuclear war that might kill millions.
In his 1960 manifesto, Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater castigated the “craven fear of death” that had entered American consciousness. Such a stance, he argued, “repudiates everything that is courageous and honorable and dignified in the human being.” Americans, instead, must be willing to embrace death and to declare to the world that “we would rather die than lose our freedom.” It took the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the assassination of JFK in 1963 to awaken Americans to the dangers of such death talk. Enough of it survived into the election year of 1964 to be used by the Democrats with devastating effectiveness against Goldwater, which is why Republican strategists banished it from their public discourse shortly thereafter.
PERLSTEIN IS more interested in the practice than the thought of politics, and thus he is drawn to political operatives far more than to political intellectuals. William Buckley is actually quite peripheral to his story. At its center is a little known “country boy from upstate New York,” Frederick Clifton White, whom Perlstein credits both with building an extraordinary political machine that made the conservative right invincible within the Republican Party and with inventing the “southern strategy” that would ultimately bring the right national power. White, in Perlstein’s telling, was not much of an ideologue and, but for a nasty encounter with New York State communists in the late 1940s, might have ended up working for Nelson Rockefeller, Kennedy, or Lyndon Johnson. But that encounter, in which communists denied White the state chairmanship of the left-leaning American Veterans’ Committee (AVC) by spreading false rumors that White was having an affair with his secretary, triggered in White a deep antipathy toward the left. On the advice of veteran New York City unionist and anticommunist Gus Tyler, White paused long enough on his rightward journey to study the techniques that the communists had used against him. Soon, he was organizing his AVC chapter into cells of ten members, each cell ruled with an iron fist by a leader pledged to carry out White’s wishes. White also learned from the communists how to manipulate parliamentary procedure to his advantage. He mastered the innumerable regulations that determined the selection of delegates to Democratic and Republican conventions in all the states and the arcane codes that governed elections in every municipality and county in the country. White was a brilliant organizer, or became one once he learned the art of Leninism.
After White conquered the AVC, his “syndicate” took over the Young Republican National Federation. Because of moderate Republicanism’s strength in New York, White decided to ignore the Empire State and to build his control of the Young Republicans from a coalition of conservative members in the West, Midwest, and South. Once this strategy succeeded, White and his cronies began to think that a similar strategy might work in the Republican National Convention. It was a radical idea, for conventional wisdom held that no Republican candidate could get the nomination without the support of New York, still home to the GOP’s largest delegation. White and others would prove that wisdom wrong and, in the process, pave the way for a conservative takeover of the GOP. Already in 1961 they were laying down plans for a move in 1964. And they already knew, too, whom they wanted to lead the charge—Barry Goldwater, senator from Arizona.
GOLDWATER WAS attractive both to the older businessmen who funded the New Right and the young turks who filled its YAF ranks. He was himself a middle-aged businessman, the scion of one of Arizona’s leading mercantile families, who, before entering politics in 1949, ran the family’s department stores. He liked to think of himself, as did Kohler and Knott, as a beneficent employer, paying his employees more money than he had to, giving them health and retirement benefits, and setting up a farm for employee recreation. But, like other conservative businessmen, he was a unilateralist to the core and loathed the New Deal and labor unions for limiting his managerial autonomy.
Goldwater’s appeal to the young conservatives lay less in his approach to business and more in his take-charge style, his willingness to speak his mind even when it was impolitic to do so, and in his dreamy quest to free the human soul from the routine, the mundane, and the bureaucratic. He was a vigorous man, in the manner of Kennedy (or at least in the manner that Kennedy projected), who flew his own plane, zipped around Washington in his two-seat Thunderbird (“the dashboard built to look like a jet cockpit”), and shot the Colorado River rapids in a plywood boat. Time magazine lionized him in 1958 as the “tall, bronzed, lean-jawed, silver-haired man.” Youthful supporters loved his determination to defend deep-felt principles, such as his refusal to compromise with Soviet evil for the sake of peaceful coexistence, and were sent into delirium by his declaration that “extremism in the name of liberty is no vice.”
Goldwater’s dreaminess is more elusive. Occasionally, Goldwater talked about his desire to “restore inner meaning to every man’s life in a time too often rushed, too often obsessed by petty needs and material greeds.” More commonly, Goldwater expressed these sentiments in actions rather than words. Much to his handlers’ dismay, he refused to be programmed to say the same thing at every campaign stop. At crucial moments, he appeared distracted, interrupting an important political engagement to talk with his HAM radio buddies and fleeing a boring planning session at the 1964 Republican National Convention to buzz San Francisco’s Cow Palace in a rented airplane. Long fascinated with Indian folklore, he gave Navajo names to his desert house in Arizona and his 1964 campaign plane, sported a tattoo from an Arizona tribe on his left hand, and conversed in Navajo with Arizona friends.
Was Goldwater simply a restless aristocrat, a man accustomed since boyhood to having every wish indulged by wealthy parents and finding nothing really satisfying or fulfilling? Or did his inner self have Allen Ginsburg or Carlos Castaneda type tendencies that compelled him to rage against Moloch and seek spirituality in the world of Indian lore? Even if the answers to these questions are not clear, Goldwater emerges from Perlstein’s pages as an intriguing and complex figure. The qualities that made him charming and interesting as an individual weakened him as a presidential candidate and ensured that he would be a transitional figure: one who played a critical role in bringing together different constituencies of the New Right and gaining for this movement national attention, but one, too, who did not possess the skills to survive, let alone flourish, in the national arena. But, then, Ronald Reagan was already waiting in the wings.
The White-Goldwater insurrection in the Republican Party would have amounted to little in the end had it not been for the upheaval in race relations that Brown v. Board of Education had unleashed in 1954. White southerners began leaving the party, their rate of exit accelerating in 1964 as a result of the Democrats’ passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1960, significant groups within the Republican Party still prided themselves on being the party of Lincoln. By 1964, the party had all but severed itself from Lincoln’s legacy, embracing the Dixiecrat creed of states’ rights and Jim Crow instead.
This did not mean that all conservatives had begun to define themselves in terms of maintaining white supremacy. Many on the right continued to locate the principal evil in the world not in terms of the drive for racial equality but in terms of communism, unions, and collectivist ideologies (including American liberalism). Some who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 declared that they didn’t want to keep blacks down; rather, they just did not want some big government in Washington telling ordinary white people in small southern towns whom they had to employ, whom they had to serve in restaurants, and who was going to sit next to their kids at school. But even if we grant legitimacy to such a stance (which is hard to do), it is still sobering to observe how unmoved most conservatives were by the evil that racial prejudice had unleashed in America and Europe.
As conservatives surveyed the twentieth century, they saw only one world-shattering event, and that was the Bolshevik Revolution. The century’s other world-shattering event, Hitler’s rise to power and the destruction of European Jewry that accompanied it, didn’t seem to register in their consciousness at all. Were I (or anyone else) to write a book about liberalism and the left to parallel Perlstein’s for the years 1958-1964, significant parts of it would have to be devoted to how a reckoning with Nazism and the racial genocide that it had unleashed impelled American progressives to mobilize against religious prejudice and racism in the United States. Yet, almost nowhere in Perlstein’s more than six hundred well-researched pages do we encounter a conservative visibly upset about Nazi atrocities or determined to do something about American racial injustice. These issues simply did not move the right, which may explain why the cast of conservative hundreds that marches across Perlstein’s pages includes, by my count, one black and three-and-a-half Jews (more on the half-Jew in a moment).
Historically, of course, the American right had included a strongly anti-Semitic constituency that, as recently as the 1930s and 1940s and under the leadership of such men as Father Coughlin and Gerald L. K. Smith, blamed America’s ills on the Jews or on the “Judeo-Bolsheviks” who sprang from their ranks. William Buckley did seek to deny these Jew-hating conservatives a voice in the New Right that he was attempting to assemble in the pages of the National Review. Even so, his journal never committed itself in the 1950s or early 1960s to a searching examination of the evil wrought by anti-Semitism in Europe or racial hatred in the United States nor to an exploration of the roots of these ideologies. And, to many on the right, it remained tempting to excuse Nazism as a lamentable but understandable response to the greater evil posed by bolshevism and to blame America’s racial troubles on the destructive agitation of American, especially Jewish and black, communists.
THE HALF-JEW in the New Right was Goldwater himself. In a strict sense, he was not a Jew at all, for his father had converted to Episcopalianism and married a Protestant woman. But Goldwater’s role model had always been his Uncle Morris, founder of Arizona’s Democratic Party and longtime mayor of Prescott, who had never relinquished his Jewish identity. Goldwater considered himself half Jewish, which may explain why he, in contrast to most of his conservative buddies, was easily angered by anti-Semitic and anti-black prejudice. He successfully fought to end racial discrimination in the Phoenix public schools and the Arizona National Guard. He forced the Phoenix Country Club to accept his friend Harry Rosenzweig as a member at a time (1949) when it did not accept Jews. He wanted to eliminate racial prejudice and racial segregation from American society, the South included, though he believed that ending apartheid through federal government intervention was the wrong way to do it. He did vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but with considerable anguish. When he rose in the Senate Chamber to defend his vote, Goldwater read a speech “rapidly, tonelessly, head down,” conveying shame or regret about what he was doing.
Goldwater, however, was not enough a man of principle to refuse to lead the racist coalition mobilizing around his candidacy. In 1964, he did not renounce the support of George Wallace and other white supremacists whom Goldwater had despised. And, during the last weeks of the 1964 campaign, Goldwater moved further to the right, giving a televised speech on civil rights in which he effectively repudiated his earlier commitment to integration. In order for America to remain free, Goldwater now argued, those who wanted to preserve their segregationist, white supremacist way of life had to be guaranteed the right to do so. A key adviser (and speech writer) on this matter was William Rehnquist, then a young Arizona attorney. Rehnquist had never had a soft spot for integration: when Goldwater had supported antidiscrimination ordinances in Phoenix, Rehnquist had opposed him. But now Goldwater was ready to follow Rehnquist’s lead. So were large swaths of the American electorate. Indeed, Perlstein suggests that Goldwater would have won considerably more votes in 1964 had he been willing to push the race issue to the limit. This lesson would not be lost on Goldwater’s successors.
Perlstein is critical of conservative opposition to the civil rights bill, but in an understated way. He has made a special effort to keep his own political views, which seem to lie left-of-center, far away from his history of conservatism. Indeed, Perlstein is admirably objective, and this has helped him to write a scrupulously fair-minded book that should appeal to the right as much as to the left. That is an impressive accomplishment. Nevertheless, it is also true that some chroniclers of conservatism’s past need to hold these earlier generations of activists accountable for their misdeeds. Imagine what America would look like today if Rehnquist, Wallace, and their allies had won in 1964 and gotten the Civil Rights Act defeated or overturned. For conservatives themselves to explore this matter in an honest way, they probably have to be challenged to do so by a free-thinking member of their own movement. That African-Americans now hold prominent positions in a conservative Republican administration suggests that we are getting closer to the day when that might happen. I look forward to such a development, although I suspect that the current chief justice will not be making his own amends anytime soon.