Acclaimed historian Rick Perlstein chronicles the rise of the conservative movement in the liberal 1960s. At the heart of the story is Barry Goldwater, the renegade Republican from Arizona who loathed federal government, despised liberals, and mocked "peaceful coexistence" with the USSR. Perlstein's narrative shines a light on a whole world of conservatives and their antagonists, including William F. Buckley, Nelson Rockefeller, and Bill Moyers. Vividly written, Before the Storm is an essential book about the 1960s.
Overall, this book is well worth reading, for anyone with an interest in American politics -- present as well as past. It does at times get a bit bogged down in the granular detail of the campaign: that sort of who said what to whom on what phone call is more interesting when you know who most of the characters are, and a lot of the players from 1964 have slipped into the mist. Still, I enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to the next two in the trilogy.
If one could find faults it would be that Perlstein didn't give an in-depth description of the 1952 GOP Convention that conservatives always pointed out as being stolen from them, it was referenced many times but never delved into.
To those wanting to understand our present political landscape, I recommend this book to know how it developed in the past.
What Perlstein doesn't do quite as well is talk about the "American Consensus" that was to shatter in the Sixties. In considering all the social stresses coming to a head as of 1964, one gathers that he regards this notion as being merely an illusion of pundits and academicians who imagined the end of politics. This means his grasp of the context of the time seems a little shallow. This is then mostly a chronicle of fear, not of positive ideals, on either side of the political aisle.
I also wonder a bit whether Perlstein really has a good grasp of military matters, as he only seems prepared to deal with senior military officials as caricatures. Perlstein almost always takes the political figures he's writing about seriously, even if he has little use for their ideology.
At times I found the details of campaigns to be tedious and I would skim a bit, but by and large, this is a very informative and enjoyable book.
The book reads like an ironic thriller, its twists and turns always surprising despite the overall tone of amused disbelief, punctuated by earnest excitement. Perlstein loves his subject and every page includes a great story. The day after I finished Before the Storm, I went out and purchased his next book, Nixonland. I have a feeling I'm going to be crediting these books for keeping me sane and giving me perspective during interesting times.
Instead of being the end of the story for the conservative movement though, Barry Goldwater was a harbinger of things to come. In many ways the Republican party of 2016 is the party of Goldwater. His anti-government, take no prisoner stances have become party dogma. It was the Goldwater campaign that moved the GOP away from it's historical support of civil rights and wrote off the minority vote in favor of disaffected southern Democrats. This was the campaign that repudiated moderate Republicans such as Eisenhower. To truly understand why the Republican party is the way that it currently is, a study of Barry Goldwater and the movement he spurred is crucial.
And the best part is, Perlstein's written two more books so far, so there's plenty more catnip to be had.