Political historian Rick Perlstein has a lovely sense of irony. In the last volume of his trilogy about conservative politics in America (The Invisible Bridge) he ends the book by recalling nearly everyone’s belief at the time that after the 1976 election Reagan was too old for politics. In Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, (the trilogy’s first volume) he closes the book by referring to how after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater (above) pundits pronounced that conservative politics was dead, that public opinion had shifted permanently left, and that the Republicans would wander the wilderness for years. Then along came Nixon. And Reagan. These things are never set in stone. And yet Perlstein’s point is that conservatism has slowly been entrenched in American politics, despite the nation’s supposed moral decay, and that it is the failures of conservative campaigning, particularly in 1964, that actually sowed the seeds for later success.
Before the Storm (and subsequent books) is something of a postmodern history stylistically. It is funny. Goldwater is an unintentionally hilarious character, with his scowls, political faux pas and hapless campaign team. And Perlstein not only combs the official records, but refers to campaign buttons, ads, TV spots and the like, which most highbrow histories of American politics avoid, but which, of course, are important for understanding how the politics of the time affected the populace of the time.