Friday, April 06, 2007

Barry Goldwater is Messin' With My Head

I’ve been having trouble sleeping this week. I have been absorbed in Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, his riveting (okay, a bit overlong) account of the 1964 Presidential Campaign—more precisely of the conservative groundswell that culminated in the nomination of Barry Goldwater. It’s triggering lots of long-forgotten memories and stimulating new insights about stuff I never understood in the first place. In the end, I realize I never knew that much about Goldwater in the first place, and I had pretty much forgotten (among others) Nelson Rockefeller, foremost in a long line of paladins sent forth to save the Eastern Establishment—poor Nelson, who never realized that if you are a billionaire, nobody tells you that your shoes squeak.

Perlstein does some of his best stuff with his vignettes of so many now-forgotten figures who did so much to shape the Goldwater phenomenon. Who now remembers (for example) Clarence Manion, the sidewalk contractor’s son, who made himself a one-man conservative agenda-setter and king-maker (his first choice was not Goldwater, but Orval Faubus—and, come to think of it, who remembers Faubus?). Or Steven Shadegg, the one-man political machine, who put Goldwater into the Senate? Or Clif (one “f”) White, who organized the base and virtually single-handed gave Goldwater the nomination—only to be shunted aside by the candidate himself in favor of the homeboys from Arizona? None of them--Manion, nor Shadegg, nor White--has so much as a Wiki entry today.

This shunting-aside calls attention to one of the notable defects in Goldwater’s character—his crashingly poor judgment in people. It was Goldwater himself who dismissed White and Shadegg in favor of, say, Denison Kitchel , who seemed unable to do anything right, and Dean Burch, who didn’t seem to do much of anything at all. It was Goldwater personally who froze out all the counsels of prudence and good politics as he and a small core of true believers crafted the fatal “acceptance speech” that did so much to seal his fate.

Perlstein’s dominant motif is the blindsiding and ultimate disintegration of the “center-left consensus” that was supposed to have carried us beyond ideology. This is good, but it might gain from some historical perspective—I think pretty much the same sort of rebellion carried Napoleon III into power in 1851, and Kerensky out in 1917. The story also adds perspective to the accounts of the procession of boring, tin-eared candidates who have disappointed the Democrats so often in recent years.

I have to admit that I had pretty much forgotten—mercifully, I guess—the wave raw, angry energy that swept through American politics in the early 60s, culminating in the horrific Republican nominating convention at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1964. Most Americans think we live in parlous political times today. I would agree, but I must say that is sobering to reflect that our situation is not really unique. We’ve been here before.

Or in some sense, perhaps, we have been here all along. Most Americans have pretty clearly turned their back on The Incumbent President, but he still clings to his bedrock 33 percent in the polls. How does he do it? I don’t have any glib answer (though I will try to post some tentative thoughts later on). However he does it, we might as well recall that Goldwater never fell any lower—and that his bedrock was, if anything, more angry and assertive than Bush’s base today.

It’s tantalizing to try to compare Goldwater and the Incumbent. I’m not sure it teaches all that much. Goldwater seems to have been, in private matters, a decent and civilized man (he and Rockefeller shared a dislike for Richard Nixon)—The Incumbent has his advocates but on the whole, he seems more given to contention and swagger. There’s plenty of evidence that Goldwater never really wanted to be president—he seems most to have enjoyed flying planes and noodling around with his ham radio. His real skill was serving up to raw meat to the faithful on the rubber chicken circuit—though his campaign speeches were often tedious and off-putting (as a communicator, he wasn’t a patch on Ronald Reagan). The Incumbent appears to have been equally lacking in ambition until someone else put him up to it.

Goldwater and The Incumbent do seem to share some other noteworthy qualities. Apparently both were terrible students, and both seem to have nurtured a profound incuriosity about the great affairs of the Republic they sought to govern (Goldwater may never have read The Conscience of a Conservative, the hugely popular trademark tract that bore his name). But there is one inescapably important difference: The Incumbent made it to the White House; Goldwater went home to Arizona. He's back for the moment, though, messin' with my head.

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