Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Taken by "Storm"

I've finally gotten around to reading a book that's been much-discussed in the blogosphere: Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm, an account of the Goldwater campaign of 1964. I'm doing a review of the book for Blueprint magazine (in tandem with Craig Shirley's recent history of the 1976 Reagan campaign), but wanted to offer a couple of observations that are largely outside the ambit of the review.

First of all, Perlstein is a truly gifted writer and historian. I didn't read the book when it first came out, exercising the kind of literary triage that old folks like me implicitly apply. I know a fair amount about the 1964 campaign, and the roots of the conservative movement; there are many avenues of political history that I've never trod at all. So I'm more likely to pick up a book about Martin Van Buren than about Barry Goldwater, and I initially assumed the enthusiasm for Perlstein's book among Kid Bloggers represented an exposure to an episode of history as alien to them as the 1836 campaign is alien to me.

But man, this guy can really write. To cite just one example, he takes an obscure moment of Republican political history, the Fifth Avenue Compact of 1960 in which Nelson Rockefeller imposed his will on GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and turns it into a stunning metaphor for every cultural cleavage in the GOP from Tom Dewey to Tom DeLay. I'd pay full list price for the book just to read that brief section.

The second thing that surprised me about Before the Storm is that Perlstein does not make the argument that his book has often been used to advance: that the Goldwater campaign, and the conservative movement it brought to visible prominence, is some sort of template for the contemporary Left.

Certainly Perlstein is a Man of the Left; he is a contributor to The Nation. Moreover, in the book's Preface, he fully embraces the Nation-esque view that most recent political history, in the Democratic as well as the Republican Party, represents the triumph of the conservative movement. Obviously, the book was published in 2001, well before the Dean/Netroots insurgency that is now beginning to style itself after the conservative movement. But I'm sure Perlstein understands the seductive power of the Goldwater analogy for Deaniac activists who must struggle with the electoral rejection of their flawed-but-inspiring candidate, who, like Moses, has shown the way to a Promised Land he can never enter.

Maybe Perlstein has written about this analogy somewhere, or may write about it in the future, but one of his book's virtues is that he does not generally impose any revisionist view on the story he tells so well. You get the sense as he writes that he's still absorbing the story himself, and expects the reader to do likewise. That's the last of many reasons why I recommend Before the Storm to anybody interested in American politics or history.
-- Posted at 7:31 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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