Rick Perlstein


Rick Perlstein was interviewed on July 14, 2014. He appeared on Booknotes on June 3, 2001, where he discussed his book Before the Storm.


Interview Transcript

Today is Monday, July 14, 2014, and we are interviewing author Rick Perlstein, who appeared on Booknotes on June 3, 2001, to discuss his book, Before the Storm, Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. Hello, Mr. Perlstein, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview.

It's a joy.

I would like to know, do you know how your book came to be on Booknotes?

I mean, only in the most general terms. I mean, it was kind of within the wheelhouse of the sort of thing that Brian would have been interested in. And, you know, it got some degree of a publicity push from my publisher, Ferner, Strauss & Giroux. So that would be kind of like the extent of my knowledge, I think. Well, did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes? Did I prepare for my appearance? Not specifically. Of course, I prepared in general for the kind of publicity I knew I would be doing, radio interviews and things like that.

Did you know Brian Lamb was a military social aid in the White House under LBJ during this time, or the time that your book is set?

No, I didn't know that. We did have a bit of chit-chat either beforehand or after with regards to his service during the Nixon administration and the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, because one of the characters in my book who was involved in the Goldwater campaign was Dean Burch, who was the head of the FCC during the Nixon administration.

Yes, I believe Brian Lamb was part of the media corps in the Nixon administration, but he was also the, when he was in the Navy, he was attached to the White House to be a military social aid. He's in fact the person who walked Lady Bird Johnson down the aisle for the wedding of Chuck Robb and Linda Johnson.

You know, I think Bob Woodward might have had a similar job in the Navy.

Yeah, there was a handful of people that are still very close friends, including Brian Lamb and the former president of our university, Alan Merten, and Chuck Robb, who were all military attached to the White House at that time. It was an interesting thing. I can hope Chuck Robb was attached to the White House.

Well, I suppose that's probably how he met his wife, right?

Exactly, yeah. Yeah, and there's every time you see LBJ mentioned in your book, it's underlined. I would love to see that. We have a copy right here in our university and we would love to have you come and take a look at it. Someday, someday. Well, what do you remember most about your appearance on the program and if you could describe your experience with the show?

I think that the thing I remember most was the kind of warmth and ease that I felt around Brian. I was young at the time, barely 30 years old, not quite 31, and with that experience, I think it was either my first TV appearance or certainly my first extended TV appearance. I think that his open and democratic and almost, I'm going to say, Midwestern manner was just a wonderful entry point for the kind of media work that I would do much more frequently in the future.

Now I'm guessing you went on in later years to do plenty more television, but I'd like to ask you about Booknotes hour-long format, that it differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less.

Yeah, I was astonished to watch it again this morning, how much detail we went into.

Well, what do you think are the benefits or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

I mean, considering that there are plenty of other interview opportunities that are kind of shorter and punchier, I don't think there are any drawbacks. I think it's really important to have that sort of thing within the media ecology. The shorter stuff will take care of itself. I think the benefits are manifest. I mean, beyond sort of the wonderful open and kind of unjudgmental style that Brian has of interviewing, which we can talk about later, I think the advantage of our format in itself is just that, that kind of detail that you could go into. The richness, the expansiveness, I think that it invites a real kind of comfort on the part of the person being interviewed that they know they're going to be able to get in all their points. I think a lot of stress that comes from doing media is exactly that. Am I going to have time to say all the things that I want to say? And that's beyond the danger that sort of the short kind of shallow interview represents for our kind of media ecology and our kind of citizenship. It's harder to address complicated issues in a short amount of time. And of course, the interviews have gotten shorter and shorter. I remember in, I think making of the president in 1960, Teddy White said something like, you know, the problem with television is that the interviews are only five minutes long. You can't say anything important in five minutes. And of course, that's funny to us now because now the interviews are whatever, 15 seconds long.

Well, judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, it appears Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this to be normal for interviewers and how does it change the interview experience?

Well, my books are very long. The photo film is the shortest. I think the text is about 550 pages. And my most recent book is about 800 pages of text. So I imagine I'll be getting a lot of interviewers who are able to respond. And it's a great thing. I mean, you really can't underestimate the shallowness of a lot of people who are doing interviews these days. There's kind of a continuum from kind of commercial AM radio to the typical kind of local NPR host who usually does a great job within the constraints that they have. To Brian Lamb, and I would single out Terry Gross, NPR, who has the show NPR, Fresh Air, as someone who meets that standard. But those are the only two I can think of who consistently read and study every book that they pre-concord upon.

Well, Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting? And do you think other authors or publishers find them interesting?

I know that readers find them interesting because that's what readers ask you about all the time. How do you write your book? How do you do your research? And the fact that a few other interviewers ask about that sort of thing is problematic. It's very charming. The openness and eagerness and interest that Brian had in those kinds of questions. And that kind of earnestness really came through. He wanted to know how this thing came about. And I think it's interesting to people because a lot of people think that they could possibly write a book. Maybe some people dove in and tried themselves. Thanks to the kind of things they learned from those interviews. I mean, the Paris Review interview, which has been going on for decades, maybe 50 years, maybe 60 years, in which famous authors talk frequently about their writing methods. I have a coffee table book by a photographer named Jill Cremins called The Writer's Desk in which she kind of photographs writers at work. So it's a subject, I think, that is of perennial fascination to readers.

Well Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests biographical questions. Did that surprise you? And is that generally different from most author interviews you have experienced?

Well it didn't surprise me because I was familiar with his interview style, but it was distinct. We talked about my now former in-laws who supported Barry Goldwater. He asked me where I was from. He asked me how I got interested in my subject. And again, it's just the kind of openness and earnestness with which he did that that was so refreshing. There's a media scholar at NYU named Jay Rosen. For all I know, he might be on your interview list because he's written lots of books. He says that the biggest problem with the media these days is what he calls the church of savvy, that kind of all the media pros are just very kind of snobbish and assume that their reader is kind of in on this kind of clubbish atmosphere. It's not a very democratic way of thinking about the public process. And Brian was just the opposite. He had this kind of eager curiosity about people and how they did what they did. I mean, I'm sure if he was interviewing people who were plumbers, he'd want to know how they became plumbers. And I think that, you know, you asked me if I was familiar with it and if I was surprised. I probably tuned into a lot of these interviews precisely because I shared that curiosity. And I can't speak to this kind of specifically, but I can surmise that it was very helpful to me in writing this, my first book.

Well, were you surprised by any of Brian Lamb's questions? 

I think I was surprised with the specificity with which he just kind of would drill down on a point that would seem quite marginal and make something of it, make something interesting of it.

What was the one that came to mind?

Well, he asked about, well, he spent a long time on my acknowledgements, right? But he kind of like, you know, was a kind of like an archaeologist kind of digging deep into, you know, figuring out the layers of influence and the networks that kind of went into producing both kind of the writer and the writer's product. So he asked me about my acknowledgement to John and Leonard, who, John is dead now, but he was the literary review editor at the Nation magazine. And I thought he was asking me about the fact that I write for a left-wing magazine. I write books about the right wing. So I kind of started answering a question he hadn't quite asked yet. But he was like, no, John Leonard is interesting because he used to be a writer at the National Review. And so we had this kind of conversation about the National Review and all the interesting writers who came out of there who weren't necessarily conservatives. And what it kind of said was this kind of, it kind of showed this kind of depth of kind of erudition about the political literary world and his ability to kind of pick up very kind of subtle detail to kind of expound upon that erudition to a broader audience in a very accessible way.

Well, you had, your book had such a, you know, if I for want of a better term, such a cast of characters. I mean, you really had to handle a lot of different people and their careers to get your story out. I mean, that's  heavy lifting. Keeping them all straight.

It would be heavy if I didn't enjoy it so much.

Well, did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? And if so, why? And did your experience of the show change your impression of it?

Well, this book, as I mentioned before, yes, I did watch it before and I suspect that it had, it was a kind of comforting way to kind of answer my own questions about what, whether I could do that because I always had this kind of fantasy in the back of my head. And he kind of comes across as, you know, just kind of a friend and the guy who was on your side and the guy who's not part of some kind of unaccountable elite. So I think that afterwards I probably just thought, oh, there's my friend. And lo and behold, we did become friends and we exchanged all kinds of emails and he would ask me questions about people and I would alert him to interesting authors and things like that. So, you know, afterwards I was like, oh, there's my buddy Brian. You know, I would see him at conferences and, you know, see the CNN truck and see him wandering around and he was just a really easy person to fall into conversation with. That's great.

Well, for Booknotes, Mr. Lamb intentionally worked on a minimalist studio setting so that the viewers focus would be entirely on the author being interviewed. This is very different from network TV, for example. What do you think are the pluses or minuses of such an approach for the interviewee and for the viewer?

Well, I suppose potentially there is a minus that the audience might kind of skip over it and the dial because there are those bells and whistles. I don't think there are any advantages for the person being interviewed. I think that a set that's free of distractions is a very calming thing. I mean, I do a lot of work with MSNBC and it's like a circus. You're right in the middle of a newsroom and there's lights everywhere. It's a typical kind of cable news set. For the interviewer, yeah, I think it really focuses the interviewer too. This is serious business. Although I say it's a serious business, but of course, Brian also maintained a very light and friendly tone, so never somber. I think it was a great decision on his part.

Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800 book collection with this focus? A nonfiction focus?

Well, it's an archive of American history and American historians and American political discourse and those who think and write about it. I imagine that it's a priceless resource. I suppose that now that everything is online, a historian who took it as their subject matter, the intellectual history of American politics, would have a priceless archive at its end.

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. This is a specific Booknotes show. If asked, would you have returned for another interview?

Absolutely. Now, some authors, because of this rule, didn't have what they felt was their strongest book appear on Booknotes. Did you fall into that trap, do you think? Well, I don't think ... I mean, of course, I love all my books. I love all my children, but I don't have any children. Most of my books are my children. Yeah, I mean, I suppose my second book and then my third book, which is coming out this month, are better in a lot of ways. But the fact that I appeared when I did, when my first book came out, I think was by far the most valuable thing because it helped launch my career. I think it was also especially valuable in that, again, Brian was such an easy person to be interviewed by that it was wonderful training for the later media work. So I'm glad I didn't have to wait for my second or third book to talk to him. I think it was a good outcome because I think I was a fresh voice then. And it's really to his and the show's credit that he was able to say, "Okay, here's an interesting book. Who cares that this guy isn't a household name yet?" It wasn't about celebrity, it was about interesting work. Well, your book is being about Barry Goldwater. That's a pretty off the mainstream sort of topic, do you think? Or at least when you were writing in 2001, I keep... Yeah, I think it was more off the mainstream then. I think one of the things my book did was help to kind of place the subject of the rise of the conservative movement in the '60s more into the mainstream.

What do you think about current politics now? Do you think your book reverberates at all in what we're seeing currently in politics?

Well, I do. My book had an interesting afterlife in the 2003 and 2004 period, young liberal activists who sought to kind of increase their influence on the Democratic Party in the same way that young conservative activists increased their influence through Barry Goldwater and kind of took over the party from the ground up. Took my book as an inspiration and almost kind of like a guidebook. And so it's kind of reverberated as an important touchstone in understanding how a more ideological brand of politics can be achieved within sort of a centrist kind of political system. And it's had a lot of resonances, and I hear about this every day, from people who are trying to understand the key party in American politics and why the Republican Party has moved so much further to the right. And I'm very gratified when people tell me this is the most important book to read if you want to understand the Republican Party today. So I've been very fortunate in that I do think I've been able to make a contribution which people still find valuable today. I'm agreeing with them.

I am finding your discourse on, especially the Cold War and the conservative movement, I'm finding it invaluable for my research and also for understanding my mother-in-law.

Well, yeah, we all have our conservative relatives. And that's kind of what I try and do in my work is kind of explain Americans to each other. I'm a bit of a translator. Yeah, we need that help. Was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book just after you discussed it with Brian Lamb? And what about the critical reception? The discussion was before or right around the time it came out. So I couldn't really answer that.

What did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?


Okay. What have you been working on after this book and which works are you most pleased with? I'm eager to hear about your book coming out on August 8th.

Yes. Well, that was the first book in what was going to be a trilogy, but now it's going to be a four-book series. I had that in mind kind of while I was writing it, a series of books that went through Ronald Reagan's presidential victory in 1980. So it kind of like a, you know, kind of my, the series of books I had in mind were Taylor Branch's books on Martin Luther King and the rise of the civil rights movement. So immediately afterwards, I started working on my second book, Nixnoland, which picks up pretty much exactly where, before the storm leaves off in 1965 with Lyndon Johnson's inauguration after winning his landslide reelection against Goldwater. And then my book that comes out in August picks up the story in 1973 when Richard Nixon declared the end of the Vietnam war just as kind of Watergate is kind of returning to the headlines and takes the story through the 1976 Republican and Democratic nomination fights with a focus on Ronald Reagan's rise.

In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in the then contemporary American society and perhaps in subsequent times?

I think the lasting impact was to give a voice to all sorts of political writers of every political persuasion and keeping before the public eye writers and books that didn't enjoy the kind of publicity and attention of a push by a major publishing company. It was just to broaden the awareness of all kinds of nonfiction writing. Is there anything that you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program C-SPAN or Brian Lamb? Well we had one exchange afterwards, actually during the, I mentioned the exchange we had afterwards about his work in the FCC, but I learned something actually that my research didn't turn up that if I had only interviewed Brian Lamb before I came out with my book, I could have improved it. One of the major figures I write about in my book was kind of early radio, reviewing radio host named Clarence Mannion. And I write about him because he was one of the people who kind of pioneered the movement at the draft Barry Goldwater for presidency first in 1960 and also published his book Conscience of a Conservative. I learned that Clarence Mannion's radio show, he actually paid to put it on the air. So it was kind of almost like a paid ideological commercial. It wasn't like radio stations were clamoring to put him on the air. So that really teaches us something very important about the passion of conservative ideologues from the 50s going forward to kind of get their voices out there. And a broader point about how their ideas lack a certain kind of natural popularity that they've been more successful than they might have been precisely because ideologues have been kind of willing to sacrifice their, to use some revolutionary arrow, languish their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to get across ideas that they thought were crucial to the preservation of civilization.

Well do you think the media itself, the use of the media itself gave the message an authoritative sheen that it possibly wouldn't have gotten had it just been a pamphlet?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And that became sort of more and more true as the decade that it has. In that sense, Ronald Reagan was a great improvement over Barry Goldwater. And when I listened to his radio broadcast, because Ronald Reagan basically did what Clarence Manion did, he had a kind of very short five minute radio show after he became governor before he ran for president in '76. And then again, before he ran for president in 1980, when he was actually an official candidate and he couldn't go on anymore because of the fairness doctrine, Barry Goldwater substituted for him on the radio. And it was just really striking to hear Barry Goldwater saying the same things, the same kind of, same ideological message, but with none of the kind of style and flair that Reagan had. So yeah, media was absolutely crucial to getting across a conservative message.

Well I have reached the end of my scripted questions, but I would like to close out with a formal thank you, Mr. Perlstein, for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on Booknotes.

Thank you for the work that you guys are doing.