- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 27, 2001

If you weren't around in the early 1960s, but you read Rick Perlstein's book, "Before the Storm," today you might think the nation spent the years between l959 and l965 going to hell in a handbasket.

If you were around you'll remember that despite turmoil that included race riots, the assassination of President Kennedy and the drift into war in Vietnam, things weren't quite that bad. Mr. Perlstein just makes it look that way by crowding all that went wrong into a few hundred pages while finding little room for what went right.

In those same pages he writes really what he came to write about, which is the rise and defeat of Barry Goldwater as a presidential candidate and the defeat (temporarily) at the same time of conservatism as a political movement. Because Mr. Perlstein writes with a flare, the result is a book that borders on exciting if you are at all interested in the politics of that era and in the political figures who dominated a brief period of the nation's history.

Mr. Perlstein writes for the Nation and his liberal bias creeps in from time to time. Likewise he occasionally makes assumptions that aren't necessarily so. But in neither case do his personal views rise to the point where they seriously interfere with the narrative. As a political reporter in those days I covered much of what Mr. Perlstein writes about and also missed much of it. No one reporter could have covered it all. Events and episodes that Mr. Perlstein, with the advantage of 40 years of hindsight, views as important seemed less so at the time. For example, the distribution of literally millions of copies of such books as Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative," and Phyllis Schlafly's "A Choice Not an Echo" did not seem then to have the impact Mr. Perlstein attributes to them today.

But Mr. Perlstein gives us a good look at the big political picture of the time. He describes Goldwater's initial reluctance to run for president and his recognition at the end that he was doomed to defeat. We get a good look at Lyndon Johnson and his determination not just to win but to win by a landslide and how he did it by painting Goldwater as a man who would lead the nation into nuclear war.

The problem with writing a book like "Before the Storm'' is that too many important characters and too many important events have to be given short shrift. Mr. Perlstein lets us know Goldwater and Johnson, especially Goldwater, fairly well - Goldwater in his rise from Phoenix department store owner to United States senator to the leader, almost inadvertently, of the conservative movement.

But a reader who was not on the scene at the time will want to know more about the men around Goldwater, men such as F. Clifton White, who more than anyone else was responsible for Goldwater's nomination and who was rewarded by the candidate with being shunted to one side to make room for one of Goldwater's Arizona Mafia members, Dean Burch, as Republican national chairmen.

Goldwater, Mr. Perlstein tells us, trusted no one who was not from Arizona, with maybe the exception of the campaign's totally unpolitical gray eminence, William Baroody, who along with Goldwater's friend and campaign manager, Denison Kitchel, led the candidate to one of the great political defeats in American history. Mr. Perlstein does a good job of describing how Goldwater won the nomination despite the opposition of the entire moderate leadership of the Republican Party including Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, Charles Percy and Henry Cabot Lodge. Indeed the only member of the upper echelon of the Republican establishment to campaign for Goldwater was Richard Nixon, who four years later, with the backing of Goldwater, Strom Thurmond and other conservatives, was rewarded for his loyalty with his party's nomination.

Despite his thoroughness Mr. Perlstein misses a few bits and pieces of that campaign. For instance, he fails to mention the Democrats' famed dirty trickster, Dick Tuck who, among other capers, sent a helicopter low over an outdoor Goldwater rally one night carrying a lighted sign that said, "In your guts you know he's nuts," a takeoff on the Goldwater slogan, "In your heart you know he's right."

Conservatives will like it that in his preface and again at the end Mr. Perlstein uses their own words to stick it not so gently to those nationally known political pundits who saw in Goldwater's defeat the end of conservatism as a force in the Republican Party and in the nation.

They could not or did not foresee the rise of a conservative leader who would come after Goldwater to succeed where Goldwater failed. That leader, of course, was Ronald Reagan, whose speech, "A Time for Choosing," on behalf of Goldwater failed to turn the tide that year but was the single most important event in his rise to the presidency 16 years later.

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Ronald Reagan.

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