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The lessons of history depend on when we read them. Barry Goldwater’s crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential election (Lyndon Johnson took 44 states, Goldwater only six, all in the South) was seen at the time as proof that a hard-line conservative could never occupy the modern White House.

Sixteen years later, we had Ronald Reagan – who had made his breakthrough as a national political figure during that same ’64 campaign. (Reagan, GOP strategists noted, could warm up a crowd for Goldwater better than Goldwater could).

That’s not the only reason that author Rick Perlstein, an independent scholar who has written for the Nation and Slate, thinks we should take another look at the ’64 election. His book, “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus,” reminds us that it was no small thing for the GOP to take the Solid South from the Democrats for the first time since the Civil War.

And it was a huge thing that one-third of the nation had voted for a stand-up conservative like Goldwater rather than a New Dealer like LBJ or a me-too Republican like New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

This proved – if the headlines from Berkeley, Calif., and Birmingham, Ala., didn’t – that the times were indeed a-changin’. No longer were we a nation basically in agreement about its core values – and ’64 was only the start of it. Still to come: the Watts riots, war protests and the “generation gap.”

Rather than a full stop, Perlstein argues, the Goldwater campaign was the first step in the nation’s long march to the right: a test shot from which conservatives learned how not to run a campaign (Goldwater’s was a shambles) and how not to present their message.

Losing it `my way’

Goldwater’s “we would rather die than lose our freedom” wasn’t essentially different from JFK’s “we shall pay any price” inaugural speech of 1961, but the word “die” made the voters think twice, as did his advocacy of “small, clean nuclear weapons” to show the Russians we meant business.

The Democrats’ best-remembered response was a TV spot showing a little girl plucking the petals off a daisy, followed by a nuclear countdown, followed by solemn words from LBJ on the need for nuclear restraint. Goldwater was too proud to answer the ad.

“I’m going to lose this election,” he told an adviser. “I’m probably going to lose it big. But I’m going to lose it my way.”

He was, proudly, an extremist – and for Perlstein absolutely in tune with the times. (“The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists will we be,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in a Birmingham jail in 1962.)

“Before the Storm” makes fewer connections to the present than it might have. Its account of the makings of Goldwater’s candidacy is illuminating – he was in some sense invented by Clarence Manion, an ex-America Firster with an influential radio program – but Perlstein gets so caught up in political minutiae that pages go by without a reminder of why he’s telling us all this.

This is especially annoying when he goes into novelist mode. Who cares how Richard Nixon’s heels clicked on Nelson Rockefeller’s parquet floor the night they hammered out their famous, now totally forgotten, “Compact of Fifth Avenue?” Too often, “Before the Storm” seems conscientious spadework for the book that our author really wants to write: how, specifically, the conservatives came back from the grave in ’64. Now that would be a page-turner.

-Dan Sullivan teaches arts journalism at the University of Minnesota.

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus

– By: Rick Perlstein.

– Publisher: Hill and Wang, 639 pages, $25.

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