Birth of the Right
The 1964 Goldwater campaign and its consequences
Apr 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 30 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
Why is it that young writers of the left seem to find the rise of modern conservatism so interesting these days? Nostalgia for the triumphal liberalism they have never experienced, but have absorbed from "mainstream" histories and older siblings? A desire to show up previous writers and documentary makers who attribute its demise to the rise of the "counterculture" in the 1960s? The unraveling of what pundits once proclaimed the permanent liberal consensus? A hope that by studying how the right advanced from the margins of American politics progressives can learn to do likewise?
Whatever the reason, we're in the middle of a deluge of leftist books about the right. The latest volume is Rick Perlstein's Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Perlstein, who has written for the New York Observer and the Nation, sees in Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 presidential campaign the roots of what later took hold.
He is hardly the first to do so. James L. Sundquist, in Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States (1973), and Kevin Phillips, in The Emerging Republican Majority (1969), neither of whom Perlstein cites, declared that 1964 marked a significant "realigning" -- an election in which a party gains support among groups of voters who traditionally have backed its opposition while losing its long-time supporters.
Goldwater did manage to carry his native Arizona. But otherwise, he lost every state in the Union -- except for five southern states that had voted Democratic in almost every election since Reconstruction. And, save for a defection or two for the sectional sons Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, these states have stayed as solidly Republican -- at both the state and national level -- as they once were Democratic.
Goldwater also signaled the permanent shift of African-American voters from the Republicans to what was once the party of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Nixon had 32 percent of the African-American vote in 1960. Goldwater had 6 percent in 1964. And the pattern has remained the same ever since: Thirty-six years later, George W. Bush received 8 percent. These massive defections resulted from Goldwater's vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, upon advice from future jurists William Rehnquist and Robert Bork that provisions regulating private establishments were unconstitutional. Democrats have been making hay out of that ever since.
In Before the Storm, Perlstein provides a colorful account of the issues and personalities that made Goldwater's campaign so memorable and the enthusiasm of his supporters so intense. Though he lost to Lyndon Johnson by 61 percent to 39 percent, Goldwater bumper stickers in evidence outnumbered those of his opponent by a factor of ten. Whereas Johnson's liberal base later deserted him, Goldwater stayed a hero to most of his. (Those offended by his later support for gays serving openly in the military and "choice" on abortion, allowed for his "errant ways.") Within hours of his defeat by the widest margin in history to that point, his legions took up the cry "Twenty-seven million Americans can't be wrong."
Over the next sixteen years, more and more Americans who had backed Johnson began working against the party he led. Why and how is a story Perlstein does not tell. Nor does he consider how Nixon built future victories out of Goldwater's defeat or how Reagan forged an effective governing coalition. Such undertakings, beyond the scope of this study, would undermine Perlstein's thesis that Goldwater's campaign presaged Reagan's presidency in both form and substance.
But one thing Perlstein does do -- with the benefit of recently released materials, especially tapes of Johnson's conversations -- is cast new light on what Goldwater was up against. His book is a refreshing antidote to Theodore H. White's famous contemporary account, The Making of the President, 1964.
One revelation is how hard Johnson worked to woo big business into his camp, promising favorable rulings, appointments, and access in exchange for cash and votes. Others are the methods he and his minions used to undermine an opponent, who posed as slight a threat to Johnson's victory as McGovern later would to Nixon's. These include bugging telephones and using the FBI and CIA for campaign purposes. The professionally "thoughtful" Bill Moyers, now of PBS, proves to have been "the most ambitious and surely the most ruthless" in Johnson's camp. Perlstein credits Moyers for introducing into presidential campaigns the "full-time espionage, sabotage, mudslinging unit." Just as telling are the accounts of administration plans to escalate hostilities in Vietnam, even while they were decrying Goldwater as "trigger happy."
Readers familiar with how the press covered up the peccadilloes of the "charismatic" Kennedy, will learn how willing they were to do the same for the uncouth Johnson -- at least until he was safely back in the White House. Networks granted the president free time for "non-political" speeches, while reporters ignored his gaffes, drunkenness, and cavalier attention to nuclear codes in his care.
Certainly Goldwater's views accounted for some of this treatment. The rest resulted from the fatal sin he had committed: winning his party's nomination beneath the radar screen of the media. The process took five years and is a tale worth telling.
Perlstein's account would be more compelling were it not so marred by errors of fact that distract informed readers from his well-written narrative. He misidentifies New York attorney Robert Morganthau, has the Democrats take control of the Senate three years after they actually did, and has particular trouble sorting out Roman Catholic cardinals. (It was Cardinal Cushing, not Spellman, who put out a fire on Kennedy's inauguration stand; the Soviet antagonist Cardinal Mindszenty was Hungarian, not Czech.)
Perlstein traces the birth of the modern conservative movement to the fusing of disparate elements in the late 1950s that harbored grievances against the liberal status quo. Among them were southerners of various stripes, young activists galvanized by crusading intellectuals, and industrialists angered over federal regulations, high taxes, and militant unionism. The dean of Notre Dame's law school, Clarence Manion, forged a sizable network out of well-heeled and well-connected isolationists, anti-Communists, and anti-New Dealers. Frustrated over the hold eastern Republicans exerted over presidential nominations, he envisioned a new and viable Conservative party.
Goldwater, however, initially refused to run. He changed his mind in large part because of the dedication and commitment a special group was investing in him. Those were the young admirers of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who showed that conservatism could be both energetic and fun. They honed their political skills in the Young Americans for Freedom (founded in 1960), and, like the antiwar Democrats who came after them, they reasoned they could best advance their agendas through a presidential campaign. The combative and feisty Goldwater was their man.
It fell to political strategist F. Clifton White to weave together this ideology and activism. In an era when parties selected most of their delegates through conventions and caucuses, White and his disciplined troops clinched the nomination for Goldwater while he was polling only 14 percent among Republicans. Perlstein seems to think White did this by stealth, but concedes that "moderates" had determined nominees in a similar manner.
Once in command, Goldwater immediately distanced himself from White and others who had secured him the nomination, closeting himself with cronies from Arizona. Ambling across the country, Goldwater seemed to relish speaking his mind and telling off friendly as well as hostile audiences. Rarely did he tailor his message to his locale. Rather than develop a message, he voiced ideas -- tax cuts, block grants, a volunteer army -- once or twice, then let them drop.
There was one person, however, who seemed to grasp the ways in which Goldwater was missing opportunities, and that was Ronald Reagan. Reagan's stump speech on Goldwater's behalf, "Time for Choosing," proved the brightest spot in a dreary campaign as well as its principal fund-raiser (though Goldwater's palace guard tried to scrub it). Reagan's presence in the campaign has lured Perlstein to conclude that Reagan as president merely picked up where Goldwater left off -- though Reagan himself wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1965 that conservatives needed to change not only their messenger, but also their message.
By the time he was in the arena in his own right, Reagan not only raged against liberal failings, but offered a positive agenda of his own. A former union president, he spoke directly to workers about how high interest and inflation rates were harming them. Eschewing big government, he made his peace with the New Deal, telling how the WPA gave his unemployed, alcoholic father a job. Decrying the evils of Soviet tyranny, he justified defense buildups as a means of preserving peace. He moved tax cuts from the periphery to the apex of his program, showing how they would encourage self-reliance and increase freedom.
Reagan did more than build on the wreckage of Goldwater's defeat, though that's a truth the young writers of the left aren't going to like. He reinvented an existing political movement with the help of new conservatives of many gradations -- including the neoconservatives (who certainly had not supported Goldwater), the religious conservatives (who typically weren't involved in politics), and the economic-growth conservatives (who were barely noticed in 1964). Once Reagan put his conservative coalition together, it proved to have what the old, liberal consensus long assumed would remain its exclusive preserve: support from a majority of the American people.
Alvin S. Felzenberg directs the Mandate for Leadership Program at the Heritage Foundation.