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A Single Spark Can Touch Off a Prairie Fire

BEFORE THE STORM Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus; By Rick Perlstein; Hill & Wang: 672 pp., $30

SUBURBAN WARRIORS The Origins of the New American Right; By Lisa McGirr; Princeton University Press: 416 pp., $29.95

April 15, 2001|BILL BOYARSKY | Bill Boyarsky, former city editor, recently retired from The Times. He is working on "Big Daddy," a biography of Jesse Unruh, to be published by the University of California Press

The conservative movement has become such an established part of American political life that only the ancient can recall when it was written off as dead, buried and soon to be forgotten. The year was 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson had just defeated Barry Goldwater, the "voice of conservatism," whose followers had seized the Republican Party from the Eastern bankers, stock brokerage presidents, lawyers and industrialists in control since before World War II.

The word "defeat" does not adequately describe the immensity of Goldwater's loss or the blow seemingly suffered by the conservative cause. Goldwater won only six states, and his loss gave Democrats huge majorities in the House and Senate, clearing the way for passage of Johnson's Great Society legislation. The time had come, it seemed, to mark the demise of the conservative crusade, with its fierce anti-communism and unrelenting opposition to social programs dating to the New Deal.

Pundits and academics, analyzing the election results, did exactly that. Richard Rovere predicted at the time in The New Yorker that "the election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction." Arthur Schlesinger Jr. summed up a commonly held view that the two-party system was endangered. Citing the twice-beaten Republican presidential nominee Thomas E. Dewey, Schlesinger wrote: "The election results of 1964 seemed to demonstrate [Dewey's] prediction about what would happen if the parties were ever realigned on an ideological basis: 'The Democrats would win every election and the Republicans would lose every election.' "

"At that," writes scholar Rick Perlstein in an elegantly sarcastic phrase that concludes "Before the Storm," his study of the era, "there seemed nothing more to say. It was time to close the book."

But, as history has proved, it was, in fact, time to keep the book open and fill the pages with the story of a movement that, though defeated, was not destroyed and within two years had captured the governorship of California with a candidate who would be elected president in 1980. The story of this remarkable fall and rise is told in two excellent books that delve into the roots of the conservative movement and explain its staying power and growth.

One is Perlstein's "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus." The other is "Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right" by Lisa McGirr. Perlstein, a scholar who has written for Lingua Franca, Slate and the Nation, and McGirr, an assistant professor of history at Harvard, have explained the transformation by tracing its growth among the suburbanites who have in the last 30 years become the dominant force in American politics. Perlstein views the movement from the standpoint of the Goldwater campaign, McGirr from the suburbs of Orange County.

With clarity and insight, both authors show how the nation's journalistic and academic elite had underestimated conservative strength and misinterpreted the 1964 election. Goldwater's words and style, reminding people of Dr. Strangelove, were too frightening for the electorate. The Goldwater persona and the lopsided results made the experts play down such events as George Wallace's winning a quarter of the votes cast in the Wisconsin primary earlier in the year. "We won without winning," Wallace exclaimed. Nor did they understand the historic importance of Goldwater's success in the South in November. These results were evidence of a strong resentment among a substantial number of white voters, starting with traditional working-class Democrats and moving up the economic scale, against civil-rights legislation, welfare and other important parts of the liberal agenda. Despite the election of 1964, America was becoming more conservative. Volunteers were at the heart of the comeback, men and women in their 30s and 40s from Southern California suburbs.

Their preoccupation with extreme anti-communism and conspiracy theories, along with an affection for the secretive John Birch Society-the right wing's counterpart to the Communist Party in the '50s and '60s-made them seem so marginal that it was difficult to understand how they would ever connect with a majority of Americans. It took Ronald Reagan and his political managers, Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts, to expand this narrowly based movement into a "prairie fire," a phrase the candidate used in almost every speech to describe the tide sweeping across California in 1966. Reporters treated the phrase as a joke. When Reagan reached "prairie fire" in his speeches, everyone knew it was time to pack their gear and board the bus, for the speech was almost over.

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