Rick Perlstein
Rick Perlstein Credit: Jim Newberry

In Before the Storm, the 2001 history that made his reputation, Rick Perlstein put his readers inside the skin of a pimply college freshman cast adrift on a sprawling concrete campus in the 1960s. “Wearied from his first soul-crushing run-in with Big Bureaucracy,” the imagined student is buying his required texts in the campus bookstore when he happens on a slim book with big type. He flips it open and “standing, reads fourteen short pages inviting him to join an idealistic struggle to defend the individual against the encroachments of the mass.”

And the kid is hooked. “Freedom, autonomy, authenticity: he has rarely read a writer who speaks so clearly to the things he worries about, who was so cavalier about authority, so idealistic.”

This mesmerizing book isn’t by Che Guevara or Abbie Hoffman. It’s Barry Goldwater’s ghostwritten The Conscience of a Conservative.

The story Perlstein began to tell in Before the Storm, and will continue telling in May with its sequel, Nixonland, isn’t what you might expect. It’s not the story of how hippies and radicals turned America upside down, because they didn’t. Perlstein is telling the story of the other major grassroots movement of the 1960s, the one that grew up and elected 20 years’ worth of presidents. Holden Caulfield, meet George W. Bush.

It’s not news that Goldwater’s landslide loss in the 1964 presidential race sowed the seeds for the conservative resurgence. But Perlstein, who wasn’t even born until 1969, describes exactly how that happened, in 600-plus pages of prose whose fluency, fairness, and precision drew rave reviews from William Kristol and William F. Buckley on one hand and the Village Voice and the rabidly Democratic netroots on the other. He’s followed Before the Storm with a deluge of articles and in-depth blog entries that raise provoking questions about the future of American politics. Besides Nixonland, Perlstein has had a hand in two other books coming out this year: a reissue of The Tribes of America by Paul Cowan, due in May, and Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents, due in June.

Perlstein is no conservative himself. He grew up in a middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, and as long as he can remember he’s been obsessed with the 1960s. At first he was drawn to its exotic leftist surface: when he got his driver’s license, he sought out Milwaukee’s Renaissance bookstore, with its basement full of old magazines and books whose authors spelled America with three K’s. “It was like anthropology,” he says, “just the suffusing strangeness of it all.”

After graduating from the University of Chicago in 1992, Perlstein started graduate school at the University of Michigan, then veered off to New York City, where he became an editor and writer for Lingua Franca, the late, lamented review of academic personalities and ideas. Gradually the 60s began to look less exotic and more relevant. He discovered that no one had written up the movement that had attached itself to Arizona senator Barry Goldwater and drafted him to run for president. Studying that story, he says, he was “gobsmacked by the ironies”—many of them encapsulated in a footnote in Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1964. White wrote, “I have attended as many civil-rights rallies as Goldwater rallies. The dominant word of these two groups, which loathe each other, is ‘freedom.’ . . . It is quite possible that these two groups may kill each other in cold blood, both waving banners bearing the same word.”

Having moved from the conventional notion of the 1960s as leftist to the unconventional notion of their also being rightist, and on to the even less conventional realization that the two sides had a good deal in common, Perlstein landed a book contract. He spent what he calls “three years in paradise” rooting through the conservative movement’s bountiful archives. At the Hoover Institution, he learned how Milton Friedman never turned down a speaking request, no matter how small or hostile the audience. At the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum), the Clarence Manion papers revealed the “astonishing” 1950s origins of the right-wing direct-mail machine.

As Perlstein worked, current events provided him with a steady supply of pregnant parallels. Before the Storm was written after the 1996 election, in which Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton ran on “V-chips and toughness, trying to outflank Republicans on the right.” This Clintonian “triangulation” frustrated liberal Democrats—much as Republican standard-bearer Dwight Eisenhower had annoyed conservative Republicans in the 1950s by running on a platform that Goldwater dismissed as a “dime-store New Deal.”

Perlstein visited many surviving participants in the early conservative movement, who he says were “unbelievably generous with their time.” He was welcomed, politics notwithstanding, because he was paying them the ultimate compliment: close, careful attention. And the compliment has often been returned. When the book came out, conservative blogger Orrin Judd wrote, “I can’t emphasize enough how open minded and generous Perlstein is in examining the ideas and motivations of those on the Right (whose politics were after all antithetical to his own).” And in a recent e-mail to me, William F. Buckley describes Perlstein as “a first rate writer [who] has a streak of conscience that keeps him from hamhandling conservative ideas.”

As it garnered praise from the left and right alike, Before the Storm also won the Los Angeles Times‘s 2001 book prize for history. Academics have coasted to retirement on less. But Perlstein continues to scramble for a living as a political writer and public intellectual. Since he and his wife returned to Chicago in 2002, that work has included a stint as national political correspondent for the Village Voice (from 2003 to 2005, before its sale and disembowelment) and multiple articles in the New York Times, American Prospect, the Nation, and the New Republic, In August 2004 he told a virtual crowd of adversaries at FreeRepublic.com (a Web site and forum that describes itself as “the premier online gathering place for independent, grass-roots conservatism”), “I have always admired conservatives for their political idealism, acumen, stalwartness, and devotion. I have also admired some of their ideas—especially the commitment to distrusting grand social schemes, and the deep sense of the inherent flaws in human nature.”

As the George W. Bush era progressed, Perlstein’s admiration began to dim. In 2005 he spoke on a panel at a Princeton University conference, “The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present, and Future.” There he quoted Goldwater, who said that the first duty of public officials should be “to divest themselves of the power they have been given,” and Tom Charles Huston, the 1965 president of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, who criticized conservatives “who abuse the truth, who resort to violence and engage in slander,” and “who seek victory at any price.” Then he observed that Huston later became the author of “the first extralegal espionage and sabotage plan in the Nixon White House.” As if on cue, M. Stanton Evans replied, “I didn’t like Nixon until Watergate.”

In short, Perlstein was saying, the unchanging moral principles conservatives espouse out of power don’t seem to survive their coming to power. They seem OK with that, or even more than OK: Perlstein told me that Karl Rove, “Bush’s brain,” began his political career by infiltrating Alan Dixon’s 1970 campaign for Illinois state treasurer, sending invitations on campaign stationery promising free booze and grub at a Dixon event and distributing them on Chicago’s skid row. Rove’s pride in this exploit, which he didn’t keep to himself, didn’t hinder him in his advancement up the Republican hierarchy.

Moving from disenchantment to fury, last April Perlstein took a half-time job blogging for the Campaign for America’s Future, which describes itself as a “strategy center for the progressive movement” and is funded by contributions from liberals, foundations, and labor unions. “We wanted someone who could combine history, research, writing, blogging, and an understanding of conservatives,” says Robert Borosage, codirector of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Rick was unique. . . . I don’t know when he sleeps.”

The blog had a clear-cut mission beyond reiterating the Bush administration’s failure du jour. Perlstein kicked things off by quoting Goldwater (“I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size”) and Ronald Reagan (“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem”). In reality neither man was able to do much serious pruning. But with W. as president and Congress under the control of uncritical Republicans, Perlstein wrote in his April 18 post, “we’ve been able to witness a natural experiment: What would have happened if Goldwater and Reagan had been able to get their way?” The answer according to Perlstein: “E. coli conservatism.”

What happened once Goldwater and Reagan posthumously got their way with the FDA? The number of FDA employees dropped by 12 percent, and in 2006 there were 47 percent fewer federal food inspections than there’d been in 2003. A Perlstein blog post in April 2007 was a classic. It began, “First they came for the spinach . . . “

He went on, “I went to the produce section to buy a bag. But they had all been recalled. Three people had died from E. coli contamination from eating spinach. I decided I could live without the spinach.

“Next they came for the peanut butter.”

And after that, he wrote, they came for the tomatoes, the Taco Bell lettuce, the mushrooms, the ham steaks and summer sausage, and even the pet food. And he noted that in the case of the peanut butter, it was a bad roof and a defective sprinkler system in a plant in Georgia—never noticed by the remaining FDA inspectors—that had allowed salmonella to flourish. Perlstein’s conclusion: “George Bush’s Food and Drug Administration—and our other major food-inspection arm, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan’s noble words made flesh. But don’t let your family get too close to the flesh. They might get sick and die.”

Peanut butter’s just the beginning. From airport delays to coal mine safety to collapsing bridges, Perlstein and other bloggers have been making the case that conservatism is a failure—not because of incompetence or cronyism but because it is not and cannot be a governing philosophy. (Past posts by Perlstein and other Campaign for America’s Future bloggers can be found at ourfuture.org/thebigcon.)

Naturally this sort of thing has caused conservatives to fall out of love with Perlstein. Orrin Judd calls the blog’s premise—that conservatives can’t govern—”an obvious inanity,” given “decades of unprecedented economic growth and global liberalization.” Conservative author David Frum, a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, told me, “It’s going to be difficult to invite people to a debate about, ‘Resolved, you want to poison the American people.'”

Nixonland, which will be published by Simon & Schuster, takes its title from a coinage of former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who once described “Nixonland” as a place with “no standard of truth but convenience, and no standard of morality except sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call.” In his forthcoming book, Perlstein characteristically points out that Stevenson’s own rhetoric sometimes partook of sly innuendo, and he recasts “Nixonland” to mean “the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears co-exist in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.”

You might well ask, which Rick Perlstein will show up in this book, the empathetic historian or the implacable advocate? Says Frum, “We’ll all be waiting with bated breath.”

But perhaps a better question is, how do the historian (who admires and respects much about the conservative movement) and the advocate (who’s appalled by its results) manage to live together at all? It may help that Perlstein takes both William F. Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith as role models. His favorite New Left writer from the 1960s and 1970s is the late Paul Cowan, author of The Making of an Un-American as well as The Tribes of America. Cowan is remembered best, when he’s remembered at all, as the Village Voice reporter who covered a bitter book-burning fight in 1974 between bomb-throwing fundamentalists and liberals in Kanawha County, West Virginia, and was able to write empathetically about where the fundamentalists were coming from. Perlstein describes him with awe as “a journalist who threw himself into situations that might just change his mind.” (Perlstein’s and Cowan’s exact opposite may be David Horowitz, who managed to switch ends of the political spectrum from far left to far right without showing empathy for much of anyone. In August he called Perlstein “a political piranha with intellectual pretensions.”)

On the simplest level, empathy and solid historical research are the high road to good advocacy. (Or, if you prefer, the most devastating intelligence is gathered by a spy who at heart is half traitor.) Before the Storm has inspired and instructed the netroots, a vital part of the Democratic coalition these days. And it has unmasked some conservative fictions passing as history. Perlstein quotes Goldwater’s version of his family history: “We didn’t know the federal government. Everything that was done, we did it ourselves.” In fact, as Perlstein points out, the Arizona frontier was almost entirely a government creation. “The money to build Big Mike’s first Goldwater’s store in 1872 came largely from contracts for provisioning Army camps and delivering mail.” It’s hard to take Goldwater’s ideas quite as seriously after that.

He’s also punctured a few liberal balloons. For instance, it’s hard to take Ronald Reagan’s political acumen lightly after hearing the key story of his 1966 underdog campaign for the California statehouse. Reagan’s professional pollsters told him not to talk about the student revolt at the University of California at Berkeley because it didn’t show up in their polling. Reagan knew they were missing something, because wherever he went people asked him what he was going to do about Berkeley and the question itself drew applause. Reagan rode the latent resentment of student radicals to victory, revealing a type of tactical talent that few Democrats have displayed. Lew Koch, who covered radical politics during the period Perlstein describes in Nixonland and has become his friend, says, “He astonishes me. He’s writing about an area I covered as a reporter and he’s come up with things I didn’t know. It pisses me off.”

Perlstein’s empathy runs deeper than historical research requires. “My fantasy for the blog,” he says, “was that readers would send posts to Aunt Millie—that it would be a way to get people talking. But people aren’t forwarding them to conservative relatives and friends. They aren’t talking to them.” Perlstein, on the other hand, is. “I have a group of four very different conservatives I’ve been e-mailing back and forth [as a group] since 2003. I can’t imagine living my life, intellectually and politically, without keeping these lines of communication open to people I disagree with.”

And he doesn’t just disagree with them; he appreciates that “people genuinely believe that good order has to be protected from people with scary values.” By his reckoning even Watergate, the ultimate dirty trick, sprang from a genuine fear that if George McGovern were elected president it would spell disaster for the country. No doubt Perlstein would’ve thought the same thing of Nixon’s reelection that year, if he’d been 30 and not 3, but he can still recognize himself in the ideological mirror. He says, “If I were an academic, I’d be talking about ‘incommensurate apocalypses.'”

The point is, if you can’t feel what they feel, then you can’t take them seriously as political opponents. You see only the flimsy intellectual foundations and miss the motivating power of strategically harnessed resentment. From Adlai Stevenson to John Kerry, high-minded liberals have acted as if they were blind to the root feelings that feed the followers of politicians like Nixon and Bush. Instead, they alternate between expecting a fair fight on the issues (and getting swiftboated instead) and imagining that once people realize what a bad person Nixon or Bush is, the people will turn against him.

Conservatism isn’t just a temporary delusion or a wacky distraction. In Perlstein’s view, it’s a deep-seated expression of human nature. He recalls the Gilbert and Sullivan song from Iolanthe about two kinds of babies: “I often think it’s comical / How nature always does contrive / That every boy and every gal / That’s born into the world alive / Is either a little Liberal / Or else a little Conservative.” His point: “We’re not going to eliminate them. The best we can do is to win our 51 percent. What’s fascinating is that we share this country together.”

All that said, empathy hasn’t caused Perlstein to lose his mind. He knows that many people avoid political conversations with friends and relations who voted for Bush because there’s no there there. As he blogged on August 23, conservatives can’t imagine the possibility of disinterested expertise. It’s no accident that the Bushes, father and son, filled the Federal Emergency Management Agency with incompetent cronies. It follows from their basic conviction that (in Perlstein’s words) “the progressive notion of staffing government with disinterested experts is neither desirable or possible. [Conservatives] speak of agencies being ‘captured’ by the ‘public interest’ community—a crowd they consider political cronies in themselves, mere apparatchiks of some nefarious ‘liberal’ machine. It is a core conservative principle: if one is not an active conservative, then [the] only alternative is that you are a liberal.”

In October he reviewed a pair of revisionist conservative histories of the war in Vietnam for the Nation. Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken praised General William Westmoreland’s strategy of using large conventional forces to prosecute the war; Lewis Sorley’s A Better War lionized Westmoreland’s successor, General Creighton Abrams, who took a completely different approach and instead sought to “monitor and improve the political quality of the South Vietnamese government from top to bottom.” Perlstein pointed out that conservative reviewer Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College had praised both books in the Weekly Standard, overlooking the fundamental contradiction between them. Owens, wrote Perlstein, “is one of conservatism’s first-call ‘experts’ on military history. He seems to have brazened out the only job requirement: If a book suggests America can never lose, except when meddling liberals forsake the triumph, then that is an ‘objective analysis,’ functionally identical to all other such objective analyses.”

And on November 26 he blogged about the Bush administration’s new Interagency Working Group on Import Safety report. “I learned that the administration’s panacea for all the rotten food being exported to us from countries with low safety standards is a ‘risk-based approach’ to inspection—and that, though this sounds great in theory, in practice, it’s impossible, because the government doesn’t even keep count of the risks borne by the various kinds of foods we import.”

In short, Perlstein simply refuses to let his readers off the horns of his dilemma. Better than anyone, he makes the case that conservatives can’t govern, can’t think straight, can’t even count. And at the same time he encourages nonconservatives to fraternize with them, because we’re going to be living with them in Nixonland forever.