BEFORE THE STORM….Last year Rick Perlstein sent me a copy of his 2001 book Before the Storm, a look at the rise of Barry Goldwater and movement conservatism in the early 60s. I thanked him, and then put it aside and didn’t pick it up again until last week.
What can I say? I’m an idiot. Before the Storm is one of the best political books I’ve ever read and one of the best descriptions of the roots of modern American conservatism anywhere. It’s not just that it’s deeply researched and meticulously written ? though it is ? it’s that Perlstein has the rare gift of bringing the past to life. He gives you a sense of what it was really like to be alive during that era, something that few authors seriously try and even fewer ever accomplish.
Here’s a sample paragraph about my own hometown:
Orange County’s VFW halls and school auditoriums were Meccas for traveling lecturers like former double agent Herb Philbrick (whose claim to fame was announced in the title of his book, I Led Three Lives); Korean War POW John Noble (I Was a Slave in Russia); and World War I fighting ace Eddie Rickenbacker (The Socialistic Sixteenth? A National Cancer). Another perennial was W. Cleon Skousen, who was so right-wing he had been fired as Salt Lake City police chief by Mayor J. Bracken Lee, the tax resister working to dissolve the federal government, for running his department “like a Gestapo.” Another favorite was Ronald Reagan. It was glamorous having a movie star talk to your Republican precinct club. And he preached anticommunist hellfire as well as anyone else on the circuit.
This book is fun to read, and gets as deeply into the soul of movement conservatism as any I’ve ever read ? and it does this not by being a tedious lefty rant, but by taking its subject seriously on its own terms. Conservatives can read this book about their own roots and enjoy it every bit as much as liberals.
POSTSCRIPT: On a slightly different note, this book makes me wonder: what the hell is up with liberal funding bodies? Take a look at these reviews. Anyone who writes a first book this good should be mobbed almost immediately by foundations and “writer in residence” programs eager to shovel him a bit of cash to get him going on his next book. (It’s about Nixon.) But that didn’t happen.
Why not? I’ve read all sorts of critiques of the way liberal groups dole out money, but this really brings it home. The fact that apparently not one single person at one single liberal grantmaking institution read this book and jumped at the opportunity to help fund the followup indicates that there’s something deeply wrong with our institutional funding.
For God’s sake, someone step up to the plate and write this man a check.