Rick Perlstein: How he reached the conclusion that conservatives can't govern (Profile)

Historians in the News

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.....

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