Conservatism as Phoenix
You want to find out why politics has become so dreary? You won't find the answer in Rick Perlstein's book. But what you will find is relief. I've read Before the Storm twice and intend to go on reading it, as my opiate, as long as Bush is in the White House and Gore is in the wings.
Before the Storm is the story of such a fascinating era and Perlstein is such a great storyteller--one of the most enjoyable historians I've read--that I guarantee for a while you will simply forget the dreariness of today's politics. You will be carried away to those exciting days of yore--the 1950s and 1960s--when several large parts of the national psyche became so twisted, so gripped by fear, so almost comically, sometimes viciously, mad that they got behind a senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater--who himself, by the way, was free of all those characteristics--and if fate hadn't intervened, just might have made that right-winging mediocrity what he apparently had little ambition to be: our thirty-seventh President.
But as Perlstein makes clear, fate was greatly aided by some of Goldwater's very unpolitic conduct and by the dummies who got control of his campaign in 1964 and chased off and frustrated all the smarties in his organization. This is a complex story, but the man at its center was simple.
Barry Goldwater. He is pictured on the jacket of this book looking macho grim, dressed in Western frontier gear (the sort wealthy sportsmen like to wear), with a fancy pump shotgun perched on his cocked leg and a saguaro cactus right behind him. What makes the picture unintentionally perfect is that, rather vaguely in the background, as Perlstein is kind enough to point out, is patio furniture.
Goldwater loved for the Eastern press to write about him as a sort of frontiersman, and generally it obliged. Indeed, he did come from a frontier family. Around 1860 his Polish immigrant grandfather, after operating a saloon/brothel in San Francisco, moved to Phoenix, then less than a village, and launched what would become Arizona's most famous mercantile business. Goldwater and his siblings grew up with a nurse, chauffeur and live-in maid. Wealthy in his own right, young Barry married an heiress of the Borg-Warner fortune.
His noblesse was short on oblige. When Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in the 1930s, raising the minimum wage from 25 cents to 40 cents an hour and limiting working hours to forty-four a week, Goldwater made his first public political statement by buying newspaper space to denounce President Roosevelt's program as a sop for "the racketeering practices of ill-organized unions." All his career, he growled that Washington was nothing but a burden on businessmen, and he left the impression that he and his family had made it on their own. Quite the contrary. From the day his grandfather went into business with federal contracts for supplying soldiers and delivering mail, the Goldwaters thrived on government largesse, directly or indirectly. During the Great Depression, their business would have shriveled like lettuce in the Arizona sun if fifty different federal agencies hadn't shoveled $342 million into the wretched little state (which sent back less than $16 million in taxes). Then came World War II, and with its ideal flying weather Phoenix became the center of four huge air bases and countless "service" industries. The Goldwater business boomed.
The war and its aftermath also flooded the state with a political breed Arizona had seen few of until then: Republicans. They elected Goldwater to the US Senate in 1952 by a slim 7,000-vote margin, which he probably owed to the coattails of the man elected President that year, Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower. During Goldwater's first term he was seldom noticed except when he promoted antiunion legislation and insulted the era's most liberal and influential labor leader, Walter Reuther, whom he considered a Communist. He also said nasty things about Eisenhower's budgets, in which Goldwater detected "the siren song of socialism" and "government by bribe." For a junior Republican senator to say such things about the ever-popular Ike, the Big Daddy of "Modern Republicanism," was so newsworthy, Perlstein tells us, that "the dashing Arizona senator's name began cropping up in the press like dandelions."
In the off-year elections of 1958, the Republicans were slaughtered. In Congress, it was "the worst defeat ever for a party occupying the White House." The exceptions were in Arizona. Goldwater, though seen as the underdog, won. So once again the Eastern press, always eager to create myths from Wild West material, seized upon his victory to gush about "the tall, bronzed, lean-jawed, silver-haired man of 49." That gush was courtesy of Time magazine. The Saturday Evening Post gave five pages to "The Glittering Mr. Goldwater." (Ah, the fickle press! Six years later, the Post called for the "crushing defeat" of Goldwater's presidential effort because he was "a wild man, a stray, an unprincipled and ruthless political jujitsu artist." Actually, the "glittering" Goldwater of '58 was pretty much the same man as the "stray" of '64. One way or another, he usually brought out the press's hyper side.)
But with Democrats on a roll and New Dealism somewhat diminished but still firmly in place, Goldwater and his brand of conservatism were not taken very seriously, except by the very unhappy, forlorn folks on the far right, where there was a significant encampment of Democrats, especially in Dixie, as well as the Ike-is-a-traitor Republicans. But since the national Democratic Party at the time was, as Perlstein says, "now pulled unmistakably in the direction of the eggheads and the do-gooders: left," the only hope for a new far-right leader was among Republicans. And so they followed the star to the Arizona manger and anointed Goldwater as their savior.
Let us pause for a moment to recall that in those days, the "far right" developed from an anti-Communist frenzy. At the end of World War II, many of our leaders saw our recent ally the Soviet Union as a greater threat than Nazi Germany had been. Our policy-makers supported the continued use of Nazi bureaucrats in defeated Germany. And it was commonplace for the US Army and the CIA to recruit Nazi arms experts and spies, among whom were numerous war criminals, and use them both in this country and abroad.
Tens of thousands of Eastern European refugees--often sponsored by conservative religious and ethnic organizations, and by the CIA under special immigration programs--came to this country in that period. An estimated 10,000 were Nazi war criminals, but most were simply people who adamantly opposed peace with the Soviet Union or anything that smacked of "socialism." Joining with the sizable population of native right-thinkers, they helped create a hate-the-commie spirit in America--which often boiled down to hatred of political liberals, and even moderates. George Kennan, a top State Department official in those days, said, "These recent refugees were by no means without political influence in Washington. Connected as they were with the compact voting blocs situated in the big cities, they were able to bring direct influence to bear on individual Congressional figures. They appealed successfully at times to religious feelings, and even more importantly to the prevailing anti-Communist hysteria."
Hysteria was the word for it. Perlstein writes that Senator Tom Kuchel told his colleagues that
10 percent of the letters coming into his office--six thousand a month--were "fright mail," mostly centering on two astonishing, and astonishingly widespread, rumors: that Chinese commandos were training in Mexico for an invasion of the United States through San Diego, and that 100,000 UN troops--16,000 of them "African Negro troops, who are cannibals" [sic]--were secretly rehearsing in the Georgia swamps under the command of a Russian colonel for a UN martial-law takeover of the United States.
Crazy? Of course. But as Perlstein points out, American citizens were expected to make sense of the world around them but were denied, because of cold war secrecy, the information they needed.
Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican, was of course the most adept exploiter of this scariness, but Ronald Reagan was no piker at it. About the time Goldwater's star was in its ascendancy, Reagan was a professional pitchman for General Electric; he went around warning, "We have ten years. Not ten years to make up our mind, but ten years to win or lose--by 1970 the world will be all slave or all free." But prominent Democrats who were liberal-to-moderate in most ways also stoked the hysteria. President Truman launched a "loyalty" program to investigate 4 million federal workers; a few hundred were dismissed as "security risks." His Attorney General, J. Howard McGrath, warned that Communists might not be under America's bed but "they are everywhere...in factories, butcher shops, street corners, in private businesses." Not even McCarthy had the gall to propose building camps in time of war to hold US citizens "suspected" of being Communist sympathizers, but Senator Hubert Humphrey, the liberal from Minnesota, did. And Robert Kennedy, who had been a friend of McCarthy's in the latter's heyday, on becoming Attorney General helped keep the fear rolling across America by announcing (without specifics, of course), "Communist espionage here in this country is more active than it has ever been."
"Since McCarthy's day," writes Perlstein,
liberals had been wondering why apparently intelligent people could believe that the wrong kind of politics in the United States would inexorably hasten its takeover by the USSR.... The cognoscenti neglected the simplest answer: people were afraid of internal Communist takeover because the government had been telling them to be afraid--at least since 1947.... It shouldn't have been surprising that the John Birch Society was able to win a membership in the tens of thousands in an officially encouraged atmosphere of fear and suspicion.
In a moment we'll come back to the mystically crackpot John Birch Society, but right now let me introduce, with Perlstein's guidance, a few of the men who created the JBS and similar organizations, and who were effective in raising Goldwater to the level of a presidential contender in the public's mind.
Clarence Manion was the first to suggest, in 1959, that a drive be started to draft Goldwater for the Republican presidential nomination. Manion was an ugly man but a mesmerizing speaker. His bald dome extended into a forehead, Perlstein tells us, that "seemed to get bigger each year, as if to make room for yet one more set of facts and figures on the Communist conspiracy, forcing the droopy ears, doughy cheeks, protruding lower lip, and picket-fence teeth to crowd ever more tightly at the bottom of his face," and "his eyelids were raccooned, as ever, from too much work and too little sleep. But his eyes sparkled. He looked almost beatific."
And why not? A practicing Catholic, he tried all his life to do the Lord's work, both as dean of the law school at Notre Dame and as a political activist, popular radio announcer, lecturer and writer. He began as a loyal Democrat but was disillusioned by what he considered the duplicity of the Democratic Presidents who took us into the "entangling alliances" of two world wars. Back when he was a supporter of the New Deal, Manion believed that "guaranteeing a decent standard of living to all Americans was government's sacred duty," but as a constitutional scholar drifting rightward he came to the conclusion that in trying to do good, the federal government had assumed tyrannical powers. Manion became one of the nation's most influential isolationists.
Equally important and more flamboyant was Robert Harold Winborne Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, which in its day was the liberals' favorite symbol of far-right insanity. The JBS was perhaps best-known for the billboards that went up all over the country urging the impeachment of that well-known Communist, Chief Justice Earl Warren. "By April of 1961," writes Perlstein, "you had to have been living in a cave not to know about Robert Welch and his John Birch Society. The daily barrage of reports left Americans baffled and scared at this freakish power suddenly revealed in their midst. It also left some eager to learn where they could sign up."
Welch was a genius who entered college at the age of 12. An omnivorous reader, by the time he was 50 he had taught himself that the Communist conspiracy, which had gobbled up Western Europe, was gaining ground here; that our State Department had deliberately surrendered China to the Communists; that Eisenhower had "consciously served the Communist conspiracy" all his life; that "civil rights" was just part of the Communists' larger diabolical plan, which included "elites surrendering American sovereignty to the UN; foreign aid rotting our balance of payments; skyrocketing taxes, unbalanced budgets, inflation. There was only one way to explain it: our labor unions, churches, schools, the government--all had been infiltrated" by Communists. These and similar discoveries were delivered to the public in commercially published tracts that "[flew] off the shelves."
The John Birch Society itself was founded in December 1958 at an Indianapolis lecture delivered by Welch to eleven wealthy men, three of them past presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers. It lasted two straight days, with breaks only for "lunch, coffee, and dinner." Identical meetings were held in a dozen other cities. By 1962, Welch was raising over a million dollars a year--big bucks in those days--and membership was estimated to be as high as 100,000. Because the press usually described the organization as extremely weird, not many politicians admitted membership, but a few Congressmen did. Ike's own Secretary of Agriculture, the Mormon elder Ezra Taft Benson, was a member. Not long after giving the benediction at Kennedy's inauguration, Richard Cardinal Cushing declared his admiration for Welch. Denison Kitchel, who later became Barry Goldwater's campaign director, was a member. As for Goldwater, he was characteristically loose about it, saying "a lot of people in my home town have been attracted to the society, and I am impressed by the type of people in it. They are the kind we need in politics."
Robert Welch was far from being the only crazy who rallied behind Goldwater. Others included the Texas billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt, justifiably designated by Perlstein as a "lunatic," whose Life Line broadcasts over 300 radio stations promoted such unique ideas as a cashocracy--the more money you had, the more votes you should get.
But the movement was supported not so much by lunatic billionaires as by tough millionaires, guys like Roger Milliken, one of the wealthiest men in the South, who was willing to put his millions where Barry Goldwater's mouth was (and willing to lose millions on principle: "In 1956, when workers at his Darlington [textile] factory organized to form a union, Milliken shut it down permanently rather than negotiate").
We have had more lackadaisical aspirants than Goldwater for our highest political office. William McKinley is remembered for his stroll for the presidency in 1896, when he campaigned primarily from his front porch in Canton, Ohio. Goldwater was one of the most indifferent of modern times, though, and the reason for his indifference, as explained by Perlstein, is to me his most appealing quality:
He liked his freedom: flying himself to speeches, maybe dropping in at an Air Force base somewhere and begging a turn at the controls of the latest model, overflying Navajo country, poking around on his ham rig, listening to Dixieland jazz records full blast and then fussing with his trombone, or cranking up the air-conditioning full blast, building a roaring fire in his library, and settling in with a good Western....
He had no inflated judgment of his abilities. "Doggone it," he told the Chicago Tribune, "I'm not even sure that I've got the brains to be the President of the United States." He was, we are told, "horrified" when first urged to run, and for a very long time it looked like he would never show the slightest enthusiasm for the idea.
Meanwhile, without his knowledge, a new conservative machine was being put together to take over the Republican Party for the purpose of nominating him. For readers who are addicts of political maneuvering, or for readers who want a crash course in how it is done, Perlstein supplies one of the most fascinating accounts in the career of one Frederick Clifton White, the Machiavelli of grassroots organizing and a great master of "the black arts of convention trickery."
On October 8, 1961, he secretly called together twenty-two men to explain how they could seize control of the party and nominate Goldwater.
"When White explained that a convention could be won without the Northeast," writes Perlstein,
they understood that what he was describing was a revolution. No one had ever convincingly claimed that a Republican presidential candidate could be nominated without winning New York. He said 637 of the 655 delegates needed to win the nomination were likely already in the bag. Many Republican organizations across the country, he explained, withered from eight slack years under Eisenhower, enervated by the agonizing 1960 Nixon loss, weren't really organizations at all. If five people showed up for precinct meetings, it took only six conservatives to take the precinct over. Enough precincts and you had a county. Then a congressional district. If you got enough congressional districts, then you had a state. With just the people in this room and a network of loyal friends, they could have the Republican Party, as easy as pushing on an open door.... A single small organization, from a distance and with minimal resources, working in stealth, could take on an entire party. They didn't need the big fish, the governors, senators, mayors. They didn't need the little fish, the individual voters. They just needed enough middling fish.
That's the way it turned out. And the smoothness and stealth with which it was done left Eastern Republican establishment candidates--men like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton and Henry Cabot Lodge--thinking they actually had a chance for the nomination, believing the meaningless public opinion polls that showed their popularity, spending zillions of dollars going after delegates White had lured into Goldwater's camp and who were fanatically loyal to it. The wildest spender and most impossible candidate was Rockefeller. His chances died when he divorced and later remarried in mid-campaign. That was a different era. "It was a time, according to Betty Friedan, when it was easier to find an abortionist than a minister willing to marry a divorcé." Catholic cardinals and influential Protestant ministers sometimes refused to appear on the stage with Rockefeller, or urged him to quit the race because of his divorce.
Perlstein's description of how these establishment white mice raced around the maze looking for an opening that didn't exist is surely one of the best farcical stories of modern politics. And part of the joke was the way the big Eastern press and its pundits kept predicting that Rockefeller or Scranton or Lodge would surely win the nomination. The Washington Post and New York Times, the Wall Street lawyers and the big Eastern bankers, were rooting for anyone but Goldwater. Vice President Humphrey predicted that "the big money in the East there, you know, will move in, as they've done before," and squash Goldwater at the convention. Lyndon Johnson, who had "seen 'em do it" before, agreed.
They didn't have a chance.
But neither did Goldwater. The convention was his last hurrah. If nothing else destroyed him, President Kennedy's assassination would have. When Richard Nixon heard about the shooting in Dallas, he called J. Edgar Hoover: "What happened, was it one of the right-wing nuts?" It was the question asked everywhere. And why not? After all, Dallas was--next to Orange County, California--perhaps the nation's main gathering place for nuts. On the morning of the day Kennedy was shot, a full-page newspaper ad and radio programs, both paid for by H.L. Hunt, warned Dallas residents that the President coming to their town was a Communist collaborator and that his next move would be to revoke the right to bear arms, thereby depriving residents of "weapons with which to rise up against their oppressors."
Whether he liked it or not, Goldwater was branded as the candidate of nuts like that. A Gallup poll showed his approval rating dropping sixteen points.
The second blow from the assassination was that now Goldwater's opponent would be Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who, despite his having betrayed Southern racists by pushing new civil rights laws, was still popular enough in that region to loosen the stranglehold Goldwater had on it when his opponent was Kennedy. (As it turned out, though, Goldwater did win the five meanest Dixie states, and Mississippi with 87 percent of the vote.)
What decent politician, you may reasonably ask, would even want to win some parts of Dixie? Since this is a social as well as a political history, Perlstein will vividly remind you of just how rotten parts of America could be in those days: Birmingham, where black protesters were put seventy-five at a time into cells built for eight; Mississippi, where a jury acquitted Byron de la Beckwith of shooting Medgar Evers, though the defendant's fingerprints were on the murder weapon; Mississippi again, where three Klansmen admitted four bombings but were released on suspended sentences. The judge ruled they had been "unduly provoked" by "unhygienic" outsiders of "low morality."
Aside from the assassination, the primary reasons for the hopelessness of Goldwater's campaign were two: (1) the positions he took, and the kind of people who liked him; (2) the stupidity of the Arizona Mafia, of which he was the don.
Regarding the first reason, a Louis Harris poll showed that voters disagreed with Goldwater on eight out of ten issues. Goldwater opposed federal civil rights legislation, and this gave a lot of people the wrong idea. George Wallace (who received 43 percent of the Democratic vote in the Maryland primary that year) offered himself as a running mate, but Goldwater, who opposed forced segregation as much as forced integration, "thought Wallace was a racist thug." During the Birmingham riots, Goldwater said, "If I were a Negro I don't think I would be very patient either."
His remarks about military matters kept building up and falling over on him. For years, Goldwater had been growling, "To our undying shame, there are those among us who would prefer to crawl on their bellies rather than to face the possibility of an atomic war." He told a convention of the Military Order of the World Wars in October 1963, "I say fear the civilians. They're taking over." During test-ban hearings, "he boasted that America's missiles were accurate enough 'to lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin' (if they could be counted on to get into the air first)." He said battlefield nuclear weapons were nothing to get hysterical about; they were just like "a bullet or any other weapon." Eisenhower and Rockefeller had said the very same thing without attracting criticism, but that last point was the sort that Goldwater's opponents--and especially the press, which generally blanched at the thought of him in the White House--could interpret as showing he was a violent extremist, perfectly willing to blow up the world.
Although events would show that Johnson was the man to worry about right then, White House propagandists--and Perlstein says this was especially true of Bill Moyers, "surely the most ruthless...of LBJ's inner circle"--developed the image of Goldwater as The Nuclear Madman with great effectiveness. The press also grossly exaggerated the threat embedded in Goldwater's most famous remark, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" (which Perlstein correctly points out was no different in tone from some of President Kennedy's most admired rhetoric). The Washington Post, for example, wailed, "If a party so committed were to gain public office in this country, there would be nothing left for us to do but pray."
Goldwater had cause to complain about the press favoritism shown Johnson, whose campaign trail was marked by occasional drunkenness and interviews riddled with contradictions, incoherence and obvious lies. Attending reporters wrote nothing about such lapses. On one campaign flight, "in order to squeeze as many VIPs into his plane as possible, he booted onto an accompanying plane the military aide who kept the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist that contained the codes to launch a nuclear strike. That plane nearly ended up crashing. Reporters looked the other way."
If, in a coffin that was already so full of nails, a final nail could be identified, it would be the one driven in by Goldwater himself. For his vice presidential candidate he picked William Miller, an invisible congressman best known for accusing the Kennedy White House of immorality because guests had danced the twist in the ballroom. For his campaign, Goldwater rejected guidance from men who were experts at organizing, propagandizing and raising money. Remember Frederick Clifton White, the genius who had put together the Draft Goldwater drive and stacked the convention so brilliantly? Goldwater didn't trust him, and gave him only a rinky-dink role in the campaign.
Instead, he surrounded himself with what was known as the Arizona Mafia, old friends, most of whom were political ignoramuses. "None had a day's experience in national elections," says Perlstein. Most ignorant of all was Denison Kitchel, Goldwater's best friend. Kitchel had married the daughter of an Arizona copper baron and became a lawyer for Phelps Dodge, one of the most brutally antiunion mining companies in the world. Goldwater made him his campaign chairman. He was hopeless.
"Who's Arthur Summerfield?" Kitchel asked when advised to consult the former Republican National Committee chair; "What line of work are you in?" he queried an uncommitted Republican senator.
[He was] hard of hearing--in a field where the most important work was done in whispers!
Old friend Richard Kleindienst, on being named director of field operations, asked, "And what am I supposed to do?"
Kitchel and Goldwater "didn't bother to attend the Sunday strategy meetings. They made strategy at 33,000 feet. The campaign plane was their playhouse," where they and other members of the Arizona Mafia "swapped ribald jokes, told hunting stories, yapped on the airborne ham radio."
Goldwater sometimes seemed to have taken leave of his senses. He went tooling around to "places so irrelevant to the outcome of the election that it was as if the plane were flying itself." And when he landed at places critically important to the outcome, he was sometimes almost comically offensive. In Knoxville, he advocated selling the Tennessee Valley Authority. In Memphis and Raleigh he derided cotton subsidies. In Fort Worth, he criticized a military aircraft project being built in--Fort Worth. In West Virginia, "the land of the tar-paper shack, the gap-toothed smile, and the open sewer," he called the War on Poverty "a war on your pocketbooks." As he left that rally, he was jeered by lines of workmen.
Did that sort of reception bother Goldwater and his courtiers? Not at all. "That Goldwater alienated audiences was taken by his inner circle as evidence he was doing something right--telling them things they needed, but didn't want, to hear."
When a campaign worker outside the Mafia tried to inject more rationality into the drive, Goldwater told him, "I want you to stop it. It's too late. You go back and tell your crowd that I'm going to lose this election. I'm probably going to lose it real big. But I'm going to lose it my way."
And so he did. He won only six states--one of them, his home state, by half a percentage point.
But other things were happening in 1964 that the press failed to put into the equation that would determine future events. Nixon gave 156 speeches in thirty-six states for the GOP ticket that year, gathering chits for "his new master plan." Reagan brought life to many a dying rally, where he would give a masterful introduction to Goldwater, stealing the show so completely that some in the audience went away uncertain as to which one was the candidate. In the final days of the campaign, Reagan was on television constantly with replays of what came to be known as The Speech ("You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.... We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness"). It was a stunning, melodramatic debut.
But Dick and Ronnie did not appear in the pundits' crystal ball. Instead, most insisted on seeing the outcome of the 1964 election as the right wing's burial. The New York Times's Scotty Reston wrote that Goldwater's conservatism "has wrecked his party for a long time to come." Also at the Times, Tom Wicker wrote that conservatives "cannot win in this era of American history." The Los Angeles Times interpreted the election outcome to mean that if Republicans continued to hew to the conservative line, "they will remain a minority party indefinitely." The Washington Post saw the conservative victory in Dixie as just a "one-shot affair."
With understandable relish, Perlstein allows the pundit chorus to end on this note:
The nation's leading students of American political behavior, Nelson Polsby and Aaron Wildavsky, speculated that if the Republicans nominated a conservative again he would lose so badly "we can expect an end to a competitive two-party system." Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it most succinctly of all.... "The election results of 1964," he reflected, "seemed to demonstrate Thomas Dewey's prediction about what would happen if the parties were realigned on an ideological basis: 'The Democrats would win every election and the Republicans would lose every election.'"
To which Perlstein adds, "At that there seemed nothing more to say. It was time to close the book."
And so he does.