Rick Perlstein is mainly known for his books, his latest being Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. But he also blogs for the Washington, DC—based progressive Web site Campaign for America's Future and has recently written for the New York Times Magazine, The Nation, the Washington Post—and Smithsonian. In the September issue's "Parties to History," a roundup of commentaries on four political conventions that changed America, Perlstein takes on the 1964 Republican National Convention, calling it the "ugliest of Republican conventions since 1912." I caught up with Rick to talk about his retrospective look at the revolution of the right.
What drew you to this particular story about the 1964 Republican National Convention?
The convention is central to the narrative of my first book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2001). I researched it quite deeply; I own a copy of the Republican National Convention's published convention proceedings, and even walked the site to get a literary feel for the event.
Was there something that you learned about the convention by researching and writing this piece that you didn't know going in to the assignment? Perhaps something that surprised you?
I did gain a newfound appreciation of an insight of the historian Alan Brinkley that the party conventions were especially dramatic in 1964 because they were caught between two political worlds: the old era of backroom wheeler-dealing, and the new one of spectacles staged for television.
How do you think the effects of the 1964 Republican National Convention are made manifest in the party today?
Barry Goldwater's platform points that were so radical they made the pundits' heads spin in 1964 are taken for granted in Republican platforms nowadays. It was a key moment in the successful conservative takeover of the party from within.