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Conservatism as Phoenix | The Nation

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Conservatism as Phoenix

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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.

Robert Sherrill, who worked as a reporter in Washington during much of the Goldwater era, came to enjoy the Senator's sneer.

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Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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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."

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