Saturday, September 3, 2016

Before the Storm by Rick Perlstein

Last year, when my wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas I gave her a definitive answer.

“An author named Rick Perlstein has written a three-volume history of the conservative movement in American politics. Get me all three volumes.”

She did. Before the Storm is volume one, subtitled “Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.”

And the idea of that American Consensus is key to understanding the genesis of the conservative movement. Between the end of World War II and the rise of Barry Goldwater, Perlstein paints a picture of an America that had forged a great political consensus. The two major parties--then, as now, the Democrats and Republicans--existed in a kind of bipartisan harmony, each standing for essentially the same principles of American exceptionalism and ordained progress mediated by a federal bureaucracy. Each had different policy prescriptions and pet programs, to be sure, but when it came to the great generational wheel of destiny, each essentially agreed that it was spinning the correct way and were willing to apply shoulders with their political rivals.

Barry Goldwater, and the conservative faction of the Republican Party that he represented, was the only part of the political spectrum that seemed to disagree, that thought the wheel was spinning in the wrong direction, and were willing to say so. Perlstein’s book is the story of how that faction came to briefly control the nomination apparatus of the Republican Party, and what the impact of that takeover was on the Party and the country.

A Liberal's Take on the History of Conservatism?

In telling this tale, Perlstein walks a fine line. Mostly he writes as a journalist, but occasionally he lets the commentator that must live inside him come through. While he takes his subject matter seriously--the history of the conservative movement--there are many conservatives that he profiles that he doesn’t take very seriously at all, undercutting them with well-chosen phrases and punctuation.

Here’s an example, where he documents the conservative reaction to Nikita Khrushchev’s visit to the United States in 1959.

[L. Brent] Bozell convened a Committee for the Freedom of All Peoples, [Clarence “Pat”] Manion a National Committee of Mourning (to greet Khrushchev, he announced, with public prayers, the tolling of bells, and black arm bands). Robert Welch’s Committee Against Summit Entanglements circulated petitions accusing Eisenhower of treason; [William F.] Buckley’s National Review held a melodramatic rally at Carnegie Hall, with Buckley promising in a press conference to dye the Hudson River red to greet the Butcher of Moscow. Milwaukee’s Allen-Bradley Company bought a full page in the Wall Street Journal: “To Khrushchev, ‘Peace and Friendship’ means the total enslavement of all nations, of all peoples, of all things, under the God-denying Communist conspiracy of which he is the current Czar … Don’t let it happen here!”

Khrushchev left; the republic stood; new headaches arose.

Snark aside, Perlstein correctly identifies the (sometimes irrational) fear of communism as a real motivator for these early conservatives. The descriptions and quotes he provides reminds me a lot of the doomsaying I encountered recently in Herbert Hoover’s Magnum Opus.

Another clear motivator Perlstein selects for the early conservatives was their racism. And, given what he drags out of this dark time in our history, it's hard to disagree. Here’s what some people on the right side of the political spectrum were saying in the early 1960s.

The citizens were split down the middle on who they preferred for President--but they agreed that they held the White House responsible for racial violence. “I think Kennedy is too damned lenient with them damned niggers,” one local farmer was quoted as saying. George Wallace, back from his successful Ivy League tour, proudly read his mail for a Time reporter: “‘God willin’ I won’t vote for Martin Luther Kennedy. … You have my vote in the Presidential election.’ That’s from Detroit. Dayton, Ohio … ‘Strongly recommend you to run for President Against Nigger Kennedy…’” Wallace said he was thinking about entering some Democratic primaries.

We correctly call it racism today, but then they called it the “Negro Issue,” which, I was surprised to learn, was premised at least partly on whites blaming blacks for the temerity they showed in protesting their own subjugation--and thereby prompting counter violence against them.

But whether it was communism or racism (or both) that motivated these early conservatives, Perlstein makes it clear that they were determined to upset the political consensus and put the nation back on the right track. To do this, they had to find a candidate who could win twice--first taking the nomination within their own Republican Party, and then in a general election against a Democratic opponent.

Barry Goldwater, the senator from Arizona, emerged quickly as their candidate of choice. And Goldwater’s lodestar throughout the first battle for the nomination was his fellow, but very differently-minded, Republican Nelson Rockefeller. If Goldwater came out of the Herbert Hoover branch of the party, stoked to a fever pitch over the threat of collectivism and communism to the American way of life, then Rockefeller was more a bud off the Theodore Roosevelt branch, believing that capitalism must make peace with the common welfare both to survive and to be justified.

Perlstein, in fact, introduces us to Rockefeller as a kind of Republican Franklin Roosevelt, a patrician driven to improve the lives of those less fortunate than he. After a two-month trip to Latin America to inspect the holdings of the Venezuelan arm of his Standard Oil Company, for example, Perlstein says he was overwhelmed by “the unspeakable poverty in the squatter towns that had grown up around the oil fields, and the imperial condescension with which workers were treated.”

Upon returning, he addressed Standard’s board of directors in perhaps the most succinct statement he would ever make of his evolving patrician liberalism: “The only justification for ownership is that it serves the broad interests of the people. We must recognize the social responsibilities of corporations and the corporation must use its ownership of assets to reflect the best interests of the people.”

This view perfectly exemplifies the American Consensus of Perlstein’s subtitle. As I said earlier, the 1950s and 1960s, certainly under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, were a time of conciliation between the Republican and Democratic parties, each coming together in a way that built a broad bi-partisan coalition for how the country should be governed.

How Big Was the Goldwater Army?

Of course Goldwater, and the movement that pushed him forward, wanted nothing to do with this idea. Some of these Goldwater supporters, certainly, were cranks. But the question I kept asking myself while reading the book was: How many? How wide and popular was this movement? I read the book carefully, looking for clues that would help me answer this question, admittedly biased for the idea that the conservatives, then and now, are a movement good at punching above its weight-class, influencing our politics and culture to a degree out of proportion with its actual size.

And again and again, it seemed, there were indeed allusions to the idea that the conservative base was not large enough to win a national election outright, that it needed to figure out a way to appeal to and to back a candidate that would appeal to the vast undecided middle of the country.

Conservatives, meanwhile, said that Republican presidential candidates lost because millions of disgusted heartlanders stayed home rather than vote for so unnatural a beast as the “me-too Republican.”

Yes, we’ve heard that before and lately, here in 2016, we’re hearing it again. Conservatives only win when they “stick to their principles” and nominate a candidate who is harshly conservative, not a moderate ready to appease with the liberals in a vain attempt to gain votes. But, inevitably, the harsh conservative turns off swing voters, and they are unable to carry the day, even with a good turnout from their conservative base.

But how many “harsh” conservatives were there, then or now? The text gives no definitive answer. What it does offer is a lot of well-crafted and explanatory paragraphs that capture the zeitgeist of the times.

Years earlier, Fortune had called Barry Goldwater the “favorite son of a state of mind.” Gene Pulliam had recently termed the candidate’s swarms a “federation of the fed-up.” But a more appropriate metaphor was that of a virus. There was the original exposure. It might have come long ago: if you were a manufacturing baron, while fighting a grasping union boss or filling out your one-thousandth federal compliance form. But most people weren’t factory barons. More likely it came after writing an ungodly sum on the bottom line of an income tax return. Or from watching your ancestral party, the party of Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, crawl into bed with the civil rights carpetbaggers. Or after your Northern suburb became gripped by rumors of Negro families moving into your neighborhood, Negro children busing into your children’s schools, Negro men taking your place at work to fulfill some egghead’s idea of justice. Or from newspaper columnists asking you to “coexist” with the slavemasters of your relatives in Czechoslovakia, Poland, or Hungary. Or you caught the bug just watching the evening news, seeing citizens of countries that were perfectly happy to take our foreign aid spitting on our flag; you had not fought for that flag to put up with that. You felt helpless to do anything about it. You were looking for an army to march in. You saw one forming around a junior senator from Arizona. And--four years ago, three years ago, last year, last week--you took that first, fateful step.

You licked an envelope, phoned a phone tree, planted a yard sign, thumbed a file, put a bumper sticker on your car reading “GALLUP NEVER ASKED ME!” You saw others doing more. So you did more. And then some more--and the more energy you invested, the more passionate you became that your investment not go down the drain. You tried to infect friends and family (though some had been inoculated by large doses of liberal media). Others infected others. The contagion spread, and before long there were millions of you. And then there was an army--an army of true believers. And true believers work harder than any paid professional staff.

In other words, I take it, conservatism is not a movement of the wide middle class, it is a movement comprised of small enclaves of unconnected people, all of them angry, but most of them angry about something slightly different. Their one focal point: the federal government, and how it was destroying the country that gave it birth.

And when Goldwater was on the rise, it was a time of tremendous change, stoking a lot of anger among these unconnected camps. Perlstein calls 1964 a “watershed year in American mores.”

The Supreme Court declared school prayer a menace to the Constitution; the Boston Strangler, Kitty Genovese, and other dramatic murders were forever removing America’s dominant image of crime from the benign realm of the 1950s-vintage “juvenile delinquent.” Adlai Stevenson told Colby College students, “In the great struggle to advance human rights even a jail sentence is no longer a dishonor but a proud achievement.” It all seemed to fit together somehow. Do-gooders uprooting neighborhoods and school districts; a smut magazine like Playboy running interviews with politicians like some kind of cultural arbiter; marijuana smokers; what J. Edgar Hoover called “one of the most disturbing trends I have witnessed in my years in law enforcement--an overzealous pity for the criminal, and an equivalent disregard for his victim.” Privileged college students in California whining like victims and holding their own university hostage; the Beatles and their long hair; topless bathing suits; climbing divorce rates; this Warhol displaying Brillo boxes as “art”; that outrageous professional atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair--the list went on. Suddenly, it all seemed political--something people wanted to take a side on. Since it was a presidential year, they looked for a presidential candidate who was on their side, too.

It was the beginning of the Moral Majority, not yet a true political entity, but a kind of political force brewing in people’s hearts.

All those folks who were angry at domestic disorder, at immorality, at crime--most of whom would never consider calling themselves liberals--now had a side to join: Goldwater’s. And [political organizer Rus] Walton knew that for millions of undecided and lukewarm Johnson supporters, this appeal might close the gap.

And how angry were these people? Angry at the way the world was changing and the way the “liberals” seemed to be leading the charge?

[President John] Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, was spooked. He had received a letter on November 19 [, 1963] from a Dallas woman: “Don’t let the President come down here. I’m worried about him. I think something terrible will happen to him.” Salinger answered the letter personally: “I appreciate your concern for the president, but it would be a sad day for this country if there were any city in the United States he could not visit without fear of violence. I am confident the people of Dallas will greet him warmly.” Richard Nixon, on a short visit to Dallas on November 21 for a board meeting at Pepsi-Cola, one of the legal clients that was making him, for the first time in his life, comfortably rich, urged a “courteous reception” for Kennedy.

It was too late for that. Extremists were distributing in the street a “WANTED FOR TREASON” handbill produced by General Walker’s Dallas business partner, with face-forward and profile “mug shots” of the President. The Dallas Morning News editorialized: “If the speech is about boating you will be among the warmest of admirers. If it is about Cuber [sic], civil rights, taxes, or Vietnam, there will sure as shootin’ be some who heave to and let go with a broadside of grapeshot in the presidential rigging.” A full-page ad was set in type for the next morning’s News, but only after consultation with libel lawyers:

“WHY have you approved the sale of wheat and corn to our enemies when you know the Communist soldiers ‘travel on their stomachs’ just as ours do? …

“WHY did you host, salute and entertain Tito--Moscow’s Trojan Horse--just a short time after our sworn enemy, Khrushchev, embraced the Yugoslav dictator as a great hero and leader of Communism? …

“WHY have you banned the showing at U.S. military bases of the film “Operation Abolition”--the movie by the House Committee on Un-American Activities exposing Communism in America? …

“WHY has the Foreign Policy of the United States degenerated to the point that the C.I.A. is arranging coups and having staunch Anti-Communist Allies of the U.S. bloodily exterminated?”

They were angry.

Of course I’m not saying that the Goldwater campaign had anything to do with the Kennedy assassination. But, speaking as someone born after that tragic event, the narrative that tends to linger in the ears of us inheritors is too often the one about the noble leader, struck down in his prime by a lone gunman, and not often enough about the underlying turmoil of those times. The bullet may very well have come from Oswald’s rifle, but there were clearly many more people angry about the way Kennedy, the charismatic Democrat, was leading the nation.

So, as Perlstein documents, this army of angry and disconnected people saw, in 1964 (as their political descendants would again in 2016) a candidate they could get behind. But let's get back to the basic question. How many “millions of disgruntled heartlanders” were there?

Well, one thing we can look at is the election results.

The numbers were spectacular: 43,126,218 votes for Johnson to 27,174,898 for Goldwater, who won only six states--one of them, Arizona, by half a percent.

That’s a 61/39% split on the popular vote, one of the most lopsided in U.S. history. But even more interesting to me is the analysis of how much of this vote came Goldwater’s way purely because he was the Republican nominee.

According to the Washington Post, Goldwater had only God to thank that so many Republicans had voted for him at all. The vast majority did so “out of habit...despite grave fears of victory if it should come.” A study of exit-poll statistics by Louis Bean and Roscoe Drummond published in Look was cited over and over: it concluded that the “pure” Goldwater vote was less than three million, the rest just party loyalty.

Three million voters, motivated by the principles and policy prescriptions espoused by the harsh conservative. That translates to a 96/4% split on the question of harsh conservatism. Looking through our modern lens, that seems almost impossible, but I’d like to believe it. Perhaps that percentage has doubled or tripled in the intervening years, but even then it illustrates how unpopular the extreme conservative view actually is--then and now.

Lyndon Baines Johnson

There are a lot of minor characters in Perlstein’s epic--too many to recount in any holistic way here. But one person I can’t avoid mentioning is the man who succeeded the assassinated Kennedy as President: Lyndon Baines Johnson. Rockefeller was Goldwater’s nemesis in securing the Republican nomination, but Johnson was the man Goldwater had to defeat if he was going to become President. And Johnson was no lightweight contender.

Johnson had hardly returned from the Kennedy funeral when he surveyed the former Administration’s legislative calendar and made civil rights his strategic priority--the South in 1964 be damned. He called Martin Luther King and told him, “I’m going to try to be all of your hopes.” King’s head spun; the only times Kennedy called him were to work him over to fire his one Communist-associated deputy. “Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined,” he said at the State of the Union; congressmen exchanged knowing glances. They knew the bottom line. Of the bill’s seven titles, five would likely pass as is: stiffened enforcement of voting rights and school integration, a community relations service for localities suffering racial tensions, and extension of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the withholding of federal funds from discriminatory state and local programs. Two proposals would be shaved off as they were every time to win the swing votes of conservative Republicans like Goldwater and Carl Curtis: Titles II and VII, guaranteeing equality in public accommodations and employment.

Then Johnson told his best friend, Georgia senator Richard Russell, “I’m not going to cavail and I’m not going to compromise. I’m going to pass it just as it is, Dick, and if you get in my way I’m going to run you down. I just want you to know that, because I care about you.” When black leaders spoke with the President, they steeled themselves for the inevitable request for this or that compromise. It never came. He told them it would pass “without a word or a comma changed.”

This is an amazing story and Johnson was an amazing politician--someone, unlike Goldwater, who understood instinctively what the nation needed and what the nation demanded, not just the lamentations of his particular political class. Political power is to be used to defeat injustice and advance opportunity for all, not only to dole out favors to one’s political bedfellows. One of the most interesting things I read in this book about Johnson was the way he worked in the months following the Kennedy assassination to “close the books on the case by putting together a commission of inquiry led by Chief Justice Warren.” This was not to cover up his own culpability in the crime (who else, the conspiracy theorists love to ask, had more to gain from Kennedy’s death than Lyndon Baines Johnson?), but to tamp down the Communist fear-mongering that was consuming the country. “The thought that the killer was an agent of the Communist conspiracy was almost too awful to contemplate.” Johnson, acting as he did, was trying to avoid a commitment to retaliate against the Soviet Union.

But let’s get back to civil rights, because the story reveals so much, not just about the kind of politician that Johnson was, but also the kind of opposition he faced.

The proof was in the pudding. On January 30 Johnson won a petition to discharge the bill from Judge Smith’s Rules Committee. His success was dismissed as a function of the eighty-year-old Smith’s senility. Then, on February 10, the President won over the House, 290 to 130. That victory could be dismissed as a function of conservative House Republicans achieving morality on the cheap--the assumption being that by the time for final passage, the bill would have been watered down in the Senate under filibuster threat.

That, too, Johnson was determined would never come to pass. To pass the bill as is, he would need not just fifty-one senators, but sixty-seven--the two-thirds necessary to end Senate debate, which, under that body’s infamous Rule 22, could extend indefinitely. Such “cloture” votes never succeeded. But then, the Senate had never seen a lobbyist as obstinate as Lyndon Baines Johnson. Getting two-thirds of the senators meant getting four-fifths of the Republicans. “You’re either for civil rights or you’re not, you’re either for the party of Lincoln or not,” he would tell them; if that didn’t work, there were other methods. “I hope that satisfies those two goddamned bishops that called me last night,” Karl Mundt exclaimed after voting the President’s way on one early test vote.

Civil rights, of course, was just the first step in what would become LBJ’s vision of a Great Society--a compelling vision of a future America that galvanized the served and underserved alike. And months later, when Johnson was in the presidential race against Barry Goldwater, his record on civil rights and his vision of the Great Society allowed him to frame the narrative around the racists and know-nothings in Goldwater’s base.

People’s response to seeing Johnson in the flesh was primal. Sometimes security men used their fists to keep crowds from smothering the President; sometimes they had to reach for their guns when rope lines snapped. Everywhere it was the same: people packed shoulder to shoulder as far as the eye could see. The President stood on his limousine seat and seemed to float above the crowd. Photos looked like laboratory demonstrations--a million iron filings massing around an electric charge, bodies falling inward, arms outstretched, as if the President was the center of the world and his magnetism could give them life.

He was. And it could.

In the spectacle liberal intellectuals spied Newtonian perfection: the pull toward consensus, the push away from extremism, a system regressing toward a safe, steady equilibrium. The architecture of their thoughts allowing little place for such things, they missed the more mystical aspects of the transaction--the feelings sweeping these throngs that Americans, because America was not a monarchy, were not supposed to feel: their young ruler had died, and they reached out to the new one with raw, naked need, to fill an empty place, as if with his touch he could, just as he had promised, let us continue, as if the bad things hadn’t happened at all.

This was the opponent Goldwater faced--one of the most skilled politicians ever to hold the presidential office, with the old, wide American Consensus in the palm of his hand. During the campaign, Johnson would frequently go into the South--a Goldwater stronghold if there was such a thing--and not temper his message one bit.

Lay low on civil rights. Especially in New Orleans. Imperatively in New Orleans: that had been the advice. Johnson ignored it. There was nothing about the year 2000 in the evening’s speech [an allusion to his Great Society], broadcast live throughout Louisiana and Mississippi from the Jung Hotel banquet hall. … An old shame rose up in the candidate, and he spoke to that instead. He glanced over at Senator Long and poured it on thick, singing songs of praise for his father, Huey, that made the old senator blush. He talked about the North--and how much Southerners should resent it. “All these years they have kept their foot on our necks by appealing to our animosities and dividing us.” Then he twisted the knife.

“I am not going to let them build up the hate and try to buy my people by appealing to their prejudice,” he said, leaning in to tell “you folks” a story. An old senator--“whose name ah won’t call”--was on his deathbed, and Old Sam--House Speaker Sam Rayburn--was there beside him. His people were going hungry, the sick man said. The hospitals, the schools, the roads were deteriorating. “Sammy,” he said, “I wish I felt a little better … I would like to go back down there and make one more Democratic speech. I feel like I have one in me! My poor old state, they haven’t heard a Democratic speech in thirty years. All they ever hear at election time is: ‘Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!””

Oh, to be a modern man, traveled back in time, standing there in the Jung Hotel to witness this! Johnson wasn’t speaking to the racists and know-nothings in the Goldwater camp, even if they created a majority in the ballrooms and lecture halls he spoke in. He was speaking to America, both the one he knew and the one he hoped he would have a hand in creating. And America was listening.

The Great Pumpkin

But, increasingly it seemed, America was not listening to Barry Goldwater. Because Barry Goldwater was a polarizing candidate; a politician who, in his zeal to “tell it like it is,” at the same time kept himself distant from the corrupting influence of reality and espoused opinions held and understood by vanishingly few Americans.

On a wall in the Think Tank was affixed a Peanuts comic strip. Linus declares from a speaker’s stand, “On Hallowe’en night the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch, and brings toys to all the good little children.” His audience laughs at him. Later, Linus confides to Snoopy, “So I told them about the Great Pumpkin and they all laughed! Am I the first person ever to sacrifice political office because of belief? Of course not! I simply spoke what I felt was the truth.” Snoopy walks off, muttering, “I’ve never pretended to understand politics, but I do know one thing. If you’re going to hope to get elected, don’t mention the Great Pumpkin.”

The Think Tank mentioned here was essentially Goldwater’s own campaign office, populated by people who cared deeply about the Goldwater message, but who were often kept out of the loop by the candidate himself and just as often chagrined by the counter-productive things Goldwater would say on the campaign trail.

Goldwater preferred a kind of inner circle--a handful of close advisers who were even truer believers than the Think Tank workers and even truer than the candidate himself. They acted very much as if winning the election was irrelevant. What mattered was saying the things that needed to be said.

That Goldwater alienated audiences was taken by his inner circle as evidence he was doing something right--telling them things they needed, but didn’t want, to hear. What frustrated the people on the second floor [the Think Tank] was that they believed these were things the American people did want to hear, if only the messages were communicated more skillfully. To them, it seemed more and more that their third floor rivals [the inner circle] weren’t interested in winning the election at all.

Facts Don’t Matter

The most amazing aspect of this book is the fact that these alienating things that Goldwater said, these prescriptions based on his harshly conservative principles, are the same things that any number of harsh conservatives say today. Here are two quotes from a speech Goldwater gave in 1959.

“Not long ago, Senator John Kennedy stated bluntly that the American people had gone soft. I am glad to discover he has finally recognized that government policies which create dependent citizens inevitably rob the nation and its people of both moral and physical strength.”


“Republicans across this great nation of ours have been telling me we can win the elections of 1960--they tell me we will win if we thrust aside timidity, plant our flag squarely on those conservative principles which made this nation great and speak forthrightly to the American people.”

There tropes weren’t true then and they’re not true now. The American people have not gone soft under the burden of government policies and Republicans don’t win when they plant their flag on their conservative principles. But what is even more amazing to me is how Perlstein’s text reveals, time and again, that many of their perennial conservative positions and talking points, not only had their genesis in the Goldwater era, but are, in fact, based on abject falsehoods.

Two examples practically leapt off the page at me. The first is eerily reminiscent of the 2012 Republican National Convention, where spin doctors, outraged at an off-hand comment by President Obama on the assistance the federal government had given over the country’s history to the business community, chose “We Built It” as one of the convention’s themes. It is the story of Walter Knott.

An itinerant day laborer from one of the poorest families in Pomona, at age thirty-one, Knott managed to rent a forlorn berry plot in Buena Park. His wife, Cordelia, sold delectable berry pies from a roadside stand; then, noting the increasing traffic from yachters on their way to the harbors at Newport Beach and Balboa, she convinced her wary husband to let her have a try at selling chicken dinners. Cordelia’s savory cooking and homey kindness brought customers back again and again; a banker offered Knott a loan to open a restaurant. Knott refused the debt but built the restaurant anyway.

Humble beginnings. Check. Next, pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

He did well as a restaurateur. But in true Orange County fashion, it was technology that made him rich. Painstakingly, over the course of three years, Knott had been nursing a new hybrid: a cross between the loganberry, blackberry, and raspberry, marvelously fat and juicy, that a certain Mr. Boysen had invented, than abandoned when he found the prickly bramble too difficult to cultivate. Knott had the entrepreneurial spirit to persevere. “Boysenberries” yielded Knott a Depression-era fortune. In 1940 he expanded the restaurant and opened a restored Western ghost town, a tourist monument to the pioneer spirit that had built the West--and to the entrepreneurial pioneers like himself who kept it great. Through the years an abandoned schoolhouse was shipped from Kansas, a hotel from Arizona, and rolling stock from around the country to build a working railroad line. In 1951 Knott moved in an entire abandoned Mojave Desert silver mining town in which he had once toiled as a day laborer. By the 1960s Knott’s Berry Farm was drawing seven thousand visitors on a busy weekend and was the region’s second biggest tourist attraction, behind Disneyland.

Check. Next, evangelize free-market capitalism to the wayward masses.

Knott shared the welfare-capitalist business philosophy of Barry Goldwater and Herb Kohler: his employees had profit-sharing, health insurance, and a generous retirement plan; he also headed the fight for a California right-to-work law in 1958.

Knott also added a “Freedom Center” to the grounds--a two-story restored farmhouse where a former college president and a former minister toiled full-time spreading the free-market gospel. Knott wrote the Freedom Center off on his taxes as a business expense; no use giving Washington any more of his money to waste than he had to. “We’ve seen government grow until it is all out of proportion,” he told Reader’s Digest in a profile called “One Man’s Crusade for Everybody’s Freedom.” “Every time it grows, it takes bits of freedom out of our lives, and we become more dependent on it and less on ourselves.”

Except, like the business leaders the Republicans trotted out at their convention in 2012, many of whom having built their successful businesses with government contracts, the story of Walter Knott has one major shortcoming.

The Boysenberry was a welfare case. It all started when the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Plant Industry’s experimental station at Beltsville, Maryland, received a letter reporting a rumor of a marvelous new berry developed by a Mr. Boysen of Orange County, California. An agent as the Bureau did what he was paid taxpayer money to do: he made the trip out to California to investigate. He began asking local berrymen what they knew. None had heard of the boysenberry. Walter Knott was intrigued, though, and asked if he could tag along on the agent’s investigation. They located Rudolph Boysen, who was working as a “tax-supported” (as Ray Hoiles would have put it) park superintendent in Anaheim. The three of them found the abandoned vines amidst the weeds at Boysen’s old farm. Boysen gave Knott the right to try to cultivate the berry for profit.

Like President Obama said. Many successful businesses got some help along the way, and Knott’s Berry Farm was clearly one, despite what the demagogues of the time would have had you believe. Perlstein skillfully reveals that this anti-welfare bias is core to the conservative ideology, even though by the 1960s, nearly every person in the country--conservative and liberal alike--had benefitted so much from the “collectivist state” as to make this talking point incoherent.

The men who led their families on weekends to Knott’s Berry Farm as if to secular worship were like Walter Knott’s boysenberries: in a way not quite apparent to the naked eye, they were welfare cases. Veterans who returned home from World War II to a country terrified of sinking back into depression benefited mightily from federal schemes to boost consumer spending by subsidizing homeownership; before the war, a typical mortgage required a down payment of 50 percent and came due in ten years; now a mortgage involved a down payment of 10 percent, was financed at 4 percent, lasted three decades, and was tax deductible--one of the most generous redistributions of wealth in American history. The irrigation projects that were the lifeline of the arid regions were funded by taxes from the forty-nine other states. People like James Wallace cursed Washington at John Birch Society meetings after spending their days inside firms build lock, stock, and barrel with government contracts and after earning their engineering degrees in California’s tuition-free, state-run university system, or buying them with GI Bill money. They delighted in Ronald Reagan’s sparkling professions of free-market faith. But even his faith had its limits. When Reagan began saying that the Tennessee Valley Authority drained the U.S. Treasury better than its own basin, he was reminded that G.E. had a $50 million bid in for TVA generators. Reagan gladly dropped the reference.

Like Reagan, most conservatives simply ignore or obscure the facts if they run counter to the dogma so necessary to maintain their political views.

The second example is even more damning. It’s the story of “a balding career bureaucrat named Joseph Mitchell,” who is hired on as the city manager for the town of Newburgh, New York. The picturesque, Hudson River town was having financial difficulties, brought on, in the opinion of its conservative City Council members, by “the share of the budget taken up by relief payments to Southern blacks who came to Newburgh because of its reputation as an ‘easy relief town.’”

As city manager Mitchell made his first policy decision in February. Newburgh had been hit hard by the same squall that blanketed Washington on the eve of the inauguration. To make up a deficit brought on by snow removal costs, he decided to close out thirty “borderline” relief cases and reduce the food relief allotment. Welfare, he said, was bringing “the dregs of humanity into this city” in a “never-ending pilgrimage from North Carolina to New York.”

Sound familiar? Listen to any talk radio station in the country today and you’ll hear the same talking points. But wait. It gets better.

In April, the city sent out letters to all relief recipients: “You welfare check is being held for you at the police department. Please report to the police department and pick up your check there. This procedure is effective for this check only. Future checks will be mailed to you as in the past.” And so they came: women, mostly, many with infants in their arms, and elderly home-relief recipients leaning on canes. Some came on foot, others in buses, still others, police reported, in Cadillacs. (The police report was the first a many politically charged misapprehensions to come, since the Cadillacs belongs to members of the town’s Junior League who were shepherding the oldest and frailest citizens to city hall to save them the shame of hobbling through the center of town.)

There it is. One of the most persistent hobgoblins of the conservative mind. The welfare cheat. Living high on the hog on the public dole. Did it start here? In Newburgh? Even though based on a politically charged misapprehension?

Apparently so. Despite the fact that no cases of fraud were detected in this in-person review of all relief recipients in town, Mitchell “pushed through the city council thirteen provisos for the administration of the city’s welfare system.

The first demand was that all cash aid be converted into vouchers for food, clothing, and rent. Then: “All able-bodied adult males on relief of any kind who are capable of working are to be assigned to the chief of building maintenance for work assignment on a 40-hour week.” If recipients were offered a private-sector job but refused it, “regardless of the type of employment involved,” they would lose their relief. “All mothers of illegitimate children are to be advised that should they have any more children out of wedlock, they shall be denied relief.” No relief package for any one family could exceed the take-home pay of the lowest-paid city employee. Newcomers to the city would have to demonstrate a concrete offer of employment, “similar to that required for foreign immigrants.” Any payment of aid would be limited to three months in a year. The relief budget would be slashed; the city’s corporation counsel would review all cases monthly. Finally, “prior to certifying or continuing any more Aid to Dependent Children cases, a determination shall be made as to the home environment. If the home environment is not satisfactory, the children in that home shall be placed in foster care in lieu of Welfare aid to the family adults.”

It’s a conservative wish list, as fondly hoped-for today as it must have been then, all of it based on the perceived immorality associated not just with welfare cheats, but the institution of welfare itself. When state and federal authorities tried to shut Mitchell down, he responded by taking his “Thirteen Points” to the court of public opinion, where he was largely vindicated by citizens and newspaper editorialists of the same political opinion.

“I willingly join those you defame as ‘know nothings,’” read a typical letter to the [New York] Times [which had printed a front page story on the situation and an editorial critical of Mitchell]. Newburgh’s “people have a good deal to protect from this creeping modern malady which well may be softening us up for the cold war.” Another letter writer wondered why “those receiving unearned benefits from the public purse” should not “suffer the social stigma that is rightfully theirs.”

In response, liberals, advocates for the poor, policy experts, and welfare officials “all leapt confidently into the fray with a bunch of data suggesting that Mitchell’s system would be more bureaucratic and expensive than the present methods.”

They pointed out that Newburgh had spent $338,000, not $1 million [as Mitchell had claimed], on relief the previous year. Mitchell said that real estate valuations had gone down by $1 million owing to migrants’ slovenly housekeeping; values had actually gone up slightly. Newburgh, in fact, carried less of a welfare burden than comparable cities around the state, and among a sample of the thirty “borderline cases” Mitchell tried to close after the winter snowstorm, twenty of twenty-three had resided in Newburgh for over three years, and eleven were lifelong natives. They added that work requirements for able-bodied men were already written into state law--and pointed out Mitchell’s shocking display of ignorance in demanding that women have children in wedlock in order to get their relief: federal law prevented families from receiving Aid to Dependent Children if there was a man in the house.

What ensued was a protracted fight in the media, conservative demagogues trumpeting Mitchell as a crusading hero, while liberals and welfare officials tried desperately to correct the record.
Eventually, for Newburgh, the day of reckoning came, July 15, when…

All able-bodied men on relief were to show up for work detail. Television cameras and reporters massed to meet them. An hour passed, then another. A single able-bodied male reliefer arrived--the only one in town, it turned out. He was a thirty-three-year-old former ironworker with one eye who lived with his wife and six small children in a house without a stove, heat, or hot water, and who had been searching for a job in vain for months.

It didn’t matter. Mitchell was still a hero to his movement.

They warded off the menace with more statistics: Spiraling welfare costs were a myth; in fact costs were declining. The very dynamism of the American economy left whole sectors behind when markets shifted, and automation wiped out thousands of unskilled jobs a month. How could you blame a helpless individual for that? The city manager Mitchell had replaced, now secretary to the New York state senate called the whole scandal “a microscopic example of the deterioration of the German middle class under Hitler.” On July 28 a sixty-year-old reliefer in Oneida County assigned to shovel debris on a 90-degree day died of heat prostration; the same day, in Newburgh, Mitchell hired a local gym teacher as commissioner of welfare. Social work professionals said that was like replacing atomic engineers with tenth graders to build missiles.

Here’s the key point.

It was no use; Mitchell’s critics were impotent. Americans in the millions who were not Birchers, who had not read Conscience of a Conservative, who had not heard of National Review; whose families did not own factories, who did not live in military-industrial-libertarian enclaves like Orange County--all read the Thirteen Points, liked what they saw, then tuned out the voices of the experts who pointed to their unimpeachable evidence, moralists who demanded that they care more, and highbrows who compared them to Nazis. Nothing quite like it had ever happened before.

Indeed. Well, it would happen many more times in the future. What I find most distressing about these stories, and the reason I have decided to cite them here at length, is how they demonstrate, from the very beginning of the modern conservative movement in America, the simple truism that facts don’t matter. What matters is stories that spin morality-based intuitions into supposedly practical realities. To the true believers in the conservative movement--then and now--facts don’t stand a chance against these stories.

Everything Old Is New Again

The parallels in this book to our political situation in 2016 are uncanny. Here’s perhaps the starkest parallel of them all.

In 1960, Goldwater was at the vanguard of a conservative movement within the Republican party, intent on snatching the presidential nomination away from the more liberal, establishment Republicans, who had settled on Richard Nixon (not Nelson Rockefeller) as their candidate. After a hard-fought battle, Nixon and the establishment came out on top.

Here’s an except from Goldwater’s concession speech:

“The great Republican Party is our historic house. This is our home.

“Some of us do not agree with every statement in the official platform of our party, but I might remind you that this is always true in every platform of an American political party. … We can be absolutely certain of one thing--in spite of the individual points of difference, the Republican platform deserves the support of every American over the blueprint for socialism presented by the Democrats. …

“Yet, if each segment, each section of our great party were to insist on the complete and unqualified acceptance of its views, if each viewpoint were to be enforced by a Russian-type veto [he referred to the Soviets’ power to stymie any action of the UN Security Council], the Republican Party would not long survive. …

“Now, radical Democrats, who rightfully fear that the American people will reject their extreme program in November, are watching this convention with eager hope that some split may occur in our party. I am telling them now that no such split will take place. Let them know that the conservatives of the Republican Party do not intend by any act of theirs to turn this country over, by default, to a party which has lost its belief in the dignity of man, a party which has no faith in our economic system, a party which has come to the belief that the United States is a second-rate power. …

“While Dick and I may disagree on some points, there are not many. I would not want any negative action of mine to enhance the possibility of victory going to those who by their very words have lost faith in America. … Republicans have not been losing elections because of more Democrat votes--now get this--we have been losing elections because conservatives often fail to vote.

“Why is this? And you conservatives think this over. We don’t gain anything when you get mad at a candidate because you don’t agree with his every philosophy. We don’t gain anything when you disagree with the platform and then do not go out and work and vote for your party. I know what you say, “I will get even with that fellow. I will show this party something.” But what you are doing when you stay at home? You are helping the opposition party elect candidates dedicated to the destruction of this country. … Now, I implore you, forget it. We have had our chance and I think the conservatives have made a splendid showing at this Convention. We have had our chance. We have fought our battle. Now, let’s put our shoulders to the wheel for Dick Nixon and push him across the line.

Now his voice was raised, the right corner of his mouth curled slightly above the left, his eyes narrowed; he was a stern father working over a recalcitrant child.

“This country is too important for anyone’s feelings. This country, in its majesty, is too great for any man, be he conservative or liberal, to stay home and not work just because he doesn’t agree. Let’s grow up, conservatives. If we want to take this Party back, and I think we can someday, let’s get to work.”

1960 was 2008 and 2012, when the conservative wing of the Republican Party fought for conservative candidates, lost, and got behind the more moderate, establishment candidates that emerged from their conventions.

2016 is the year the harsh conservatives, in my opinion less principled than those of 1964, got the candidate they wanted. We’ll see if he fares any better than Barry Goldwater.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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