Goldwater's Glitter

Work Discussed in this Essay:

  • Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (Yale University Press, 1995).

Senator Barry Goldwater strode to the convention podium. "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" he declared, sending the assembled delegates into a frenzy. The scene was not San Francisco, 1964. This was Dallas, 1984. "Members of the convention, we have a leader, a real leader, a great commander-in-chief," Goldwater continued. "President Ronald Reagan. And in your hearts you know he's right."

Goldwater was returning a favor to Reagan, who had delivered a key television endorsement 20 years earlier. Yet he was also burnishing his own mythic status. By repeating his patented slogans, Goldwater was drawing a link from his own quixotic crusade to his successor's triumphant coronation—and, in so doing, claiming for himself a belated public vindication.

That Goldwater was a seminal figure is beyond dispute. Pat Buchanan calls him "our John the Baptist"; Bob Dole paid a visit to him before the Arizona primary. In the Goldwater tradition, today's conservative leaders outbid each other in denouncing government and embracing the interests of business, promising "revolutionary" plans to overhaul government. Yet it is one thing to appreciate Goldwater's place in political history, quite another to take his lasting influence as validation of his worldview. Goldwater was certainly the catalyst of the modern Republican Party's hard right turn that culminated in Newt Gingrich's speakership. But amid the new celebration of Goldwater it's almost forgotten that he lost disastrously in his 1964 presidential bid—one of the worst defeats in years.

This sort of excessive revisionism—taking Goldwater's influence on the GOP as broader vindication of his governing philosophy—mars Robert Alan Goldberg's otherwise rigorous and eloquent book, the first definitive biography of the Arizona senator. In his worthy effort to illustrate Goldwater's importance, the author frequently glamorizes his subject, softening the rough edges and blaming either Lyndon Johnson or the press for distorting Goldwater's record. This lapse in facing up to the senator's incontrovertible extremism diminishes Goldberg's credibility as an impartial historian and obscures the real lesson to be learned from the Goldwater story: that economic conservatism is not the answer to public anxiety today any more than it was 30 years ago, particularly when it is yoked to a moralism Goldwater himself rejected.

In Robert Goldberg's rendering, Barry Goldwater, born January 1, 1909 in Phoenix, Arizona, was a true child of the West, a frontier businessman with a love of open air and open markets. It will forever seem incongruous, then, even comic, that this archetypal Sunbelt icon traced his family roots to the Polish shtetl of Konin. Goldberg shows how Michel Goldwasser, Barry's paternal grandfather, like other nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants, rose from poverty to affluence by cultivating a business in the fertile American economy of the time. Barry, a confirmed Christian, inherited not religious belief but an appreciation of the bounty of unrestrained commerce. Michel began working at a general store in La Paz, Arizona, which blossomed in the desert as prospectors and settlers pushed into the West. Over the next two generations it expanded into the Goldwater family fortune that allowed Barry to grow up, in his own words, as "a spoiled, well-off kid."

In the 1940s, the Republican Party in Arizona was still small enough, and the Goldwater name prominent enough, that a career in politics naturally beckoned. As hostility toward the New Deal spread throughout the business community, Goldwater began lacing his speeches to civic groups and even newspaper advertisements for the department store with dire predictions about the "dark clouds of socialism forming on the horizon."

Reverentially, Goldberg describes how Goldwater jumped from the Phoenix City Council into a race to oust the Democratic Senate incumbent Ernest McFarland. "During the ten-month campaign Goldwater had shown remarkable energy and endurance, delivering six hundred speeches and flying fifty thousand miles in his airplane. . . . His sharply angled face fit voters' image of the rough-hewn son of Arizona pioneers." Goldberg mentions—though doesn't play up—that Goldwater also benefited from Eisenhower's coattails and assaults on McFarland by Senator Joe McCarthy, to whom Goldwater would remain loyal even as the red-baiting senator later suffered censure from his colleagues.

In the Senate, Goldwater shone, though not through diligent application to his lawmaking duties. Rather, he styled himself a national spokesman for an emerging breed of conservatism. His talents as a "salesman-at-large" for conservatism won him chairmanship of the all-important Republican Senate Campaign Committee, from which perch he crisscrossed the country, fulminating against the communist menace and nurturing profitable political contacts. "Handsome and vigorous, candid and quotable, " Goldberg swoons, "he personified for easterners the mystique of the West."

Increasingly, Goldwater warred with Dwight Eisenhower, condemning Ike's "Modern Republicanism" as watered-down New Dealism and reproaching what he considered a timid foreign policy. Goldwater fell in with a crowd of conservative activists, including National Review editor William F. Buckley, operative Clifton White, John Birch Society founder Robert Welch (later excommunicated), and General Electric Theater host Ronald Reagan; Goldberg deftly paints Goldwater not as an all-powerful shaper of events but as the most popular spokesman for a movement that was rapidly acquiring intellectual, organizational, and financial firepower. When he accepted his party's presidential nomination in 1964, it was a victory not for a man but for a movement.

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Since the 1964 campaign marks the high point of Goldwater's career, it's a shame that when he gets to it, Goldberg, like the candidate himself, stumbles badly. Until this point in the narrative, Goldberg does a creditable job of explaining Goldwater's rise and significance. But his account of the Republican convention at San Francisco's Cow Palace—where Goldwater coined his well-known credo, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue"—gets bogged down in nostalgia.

Goldberg glamorizes the event as "the Woodstock of American conservatism," a fleeting moment of camaraderie and glory for conservatives. Yet just as liberals have romanticized Woodstock, so Goldberg views the convention and the campaign through the rose-colored glasses of his own youthful passions. As the biographer recalls in his preface, his loyalties to Goldwater stem from boyhood. He learned his politics from Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative; he was one of two students in his high school to campaign for the senator in 1964—the other being his brother. Though Goldberg has since moved leftward politically, the entire account of the campaign reads like a settling of old scores, as if the historian were reliving the feelings of injustice he must have felt as a child seeing Johnson pillory his hero.

Goldberg relentlessly blames Goldwater's failure on Johnson's dirty campaigning and on the press's distortions of Goldwater's record. Goldberg condemns as underhanded the famous "Daisy" TV ad, which, without even mentioning Goldwater, played to fears about his potential nuclear trigger-happiness. Goldberg criticizes another ad in which an anonymous pair of hands ripped up a Social Security card—hands that some viewers, Goldberg notes, remembered with certainty as Goldwater's own. The historian also harps on the media for reveling in the portrait of Goldwater as an extremist, dwelling on how reporters seized on Goldwater's trip to Germany to insinuate Nazi associations (Goldberg, using his own Nazi equation, labels this portrayal "the big lie").

But Johnson's campaign, while hard-hitting, hardly merits Goldberg's assessment of it as "defamation . . . unprecedented in American political history." Goldwater was extreme. As Goldberg himself notes, the candidate's "shoot-from-the-hip recklessness"—stray comments about resuming nuclear testing, nuking Vietnam, and making Social Security "voluntary"—haunted him at every turn. Aware that his bluntness was ill serving him, Goldwater even tried to revise his "extremism" remark. What he meant to say, he backpedaled, was that "wholehearted devotion to liberty is unassailable and . . . half-hearted devotion to justice is indefensible." It didn't wash. Much like Gingrich and the House Republicans today, he squandered public goodwill with his scattershot and often scatter-brained pronouncements. Leaders of his own party fretted about his convention speech. "Strident, divisive," said Richard Nixon. "Abrasive," offered Clif White. "More defiant than conciliatory, more militant than magnanimous," echoed Congressman Walter Judd. Besides, Goldwater himself furnished the Democrats with ample ammunition for their fusillade of ridicule. It may have been Democrats who labeled Goldwater, "The Fascist Gun in the West," but it was Goldwater who told Stewart Alsop, "You know, I haven't got a really first-class brain." Voters concluded that the unvarnished candor and impulsiveness that lent Goldwater charm as a senator didn't befit the occupant of the Oval Office.

Like political revolutions, scholarly revolutions frequently succumb, ill-advisedly, to the intoxicating temptation of overthrowing old systems completely; where topical surgery is called for they undertake radical transplants. Commentators now commonly look back on the smug dismissals of contemporary American conservatism, such as Lionel Trilling's famous characterization of it as nothing more than a set of "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas," with chagrin. It's about time liberals began taking conservatism seriously as an intellectual force, and Goldberg deserves kudos for doing so. But historians shouldn't altogether disregard what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style" surrounding the Gold water movement.

The Republicans in Congress, at least, seem not to have learned why Americans turned away from the extremism of the right. Like Goldwater, the new crop of Republican leadership sees the interests of business as essential to the nation's welfare, adopting an agenda at best irrelevant and at worst antagonistic to the public. Men such as John Boehner of Ohio and Tom DeLay of Texas come from the world of business and act as if the public hired them to represent the petroleum, pharmaceutical, insurance, and banking industries. The freshman class has already set records for accepting donations from special interests. They shun compromise, priding themselves, as in the budget negotiations, on a kamikaze-style absolutism.

The voters who elected this Congress may have bought the idea of a balanced budget and lower taxes; they certainly didn't ratify an agenda literally drafted by corporate lobbyists. Even as Time named Gingrich Man of the Year, its pollsters showed 63 percent of surveyed Americans think him "too extreme in his views." Democrats are catching on. Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden eked out a victory in his bid for Bob Packwood's vacated Senate seat by painting his opponent as "going to extremes." As is often the case, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank put it best. "In this election," Frank recently told the New York Times, "people on the liberal side are going to mobilize in ways they haven't probably since Barry Goldwater. And as a matter of fact, people here are looking back nostalgically on Goldwater as a relatively benign figure compared to this group."

After his re-election to the Senate in 1968, Goldwater seemed to mellow. His main accomplishment of his first term back in office was to help convince Richard Nixon to resign. He had stood by the president until the bitter, embarrassing end of Watergate, when the transcripts revealed the president as a bald-faced liar. "He had lied to the people, had lied to his friends in the Congress, including me," Goldwater said. "That was the last straw. . . . I was wrong in protecting him as long as I did." Feelings of personal betrayal ran deep. When Nixon died, politicians left and right attended the disgraced president's funeral; President Clinton delivered a eulogy. The unsentimental Goldwater boycotted the whole affair.

The break with Nixon ushered in the final phase of Goldwater's career, marked most notably by his drift away from the New Right. In 1976 Goldwater endorsed Gerald Ford for president over the right's darling, Ronald Reagan. Moved, in Goldberg's view, by fealty to the incumbent, Goldwater irreparably damaged his relationship with Reagan and drew fire from William Buckley and other right-wing opinion leaders. In subsequent years, Goldwater began attacking the Religious Right and its efforts to impose its Christian morality on the nation. When Reagan named Goldwater's protégé Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981, Jerry Falwell balked at her insufficiently rabid anti-abortion credentials. "Every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass," Goldwater replied. "I get damn tired of those political preachers telling me what to believe in and do." In 1992, he presciently warned the GOP that "the convention will go down in a shambles, as well as the election" if the party emphasized an uncompromising anti-abortion stand. On the service of homosexuals in the armed forces, he lambasted Clinton's wishy-washy "don't ask, don't tell" policy, arguing, "You don't have to be 'straight' to fight and die for your country. You just have to shoot straight." When the Religious Right took over the Arizona Republican Party, Goldwater blasted the "bunch of kooks" and endorsed a Democrat for Congress over the evangelical preacher the Republicans had nominated, helping the Democrat to win.

When Bob Dole made his recent pilgrimage to Paradise Valley, he seemed momentarily struck by the irony of his campaign to brand Pat Buchanan as, of all things, an extremist. "Barry and I—we've sort of become the liberals," he sheepishly noted. "Can you imagine that?" the aging Goldwater chimed in. As a biographer, Goldberg has responsibility for making sense of what might seem like radical change in his subject's politics. Unfortunately, he can't quite fit together the pieces of this puzzle, in part because he fails to explore fully Goldwater's personal life. Goldwater's first wife, Peggy, was active her whole life in Planned Parenthood; his daughter, Joanne, had an illegal abortion at age 19 in 1955. A Goldwater grandson and grandniece were openly gay. Goldberg cites these facts but doesn't mine them for psychological import.

In a sense, Goldwater's social liberalism may not be that anomalous. All along, his was the conservatism of the freedom-loving frontier. As the New Right captured the Republican Party, purging Rockefeller Republicans, their ascendance brought out the libertarian streak of those who couldn't stomach the new public morality. If Goldwater wanted to shore up his position as father of contemporary conservatism, rather than letting others define his legacy for him, he had to brand it in the public mind that he didn't regard the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons as his heirs. "They are not the Republicans of the same cast that I and many, many others are."

As Robert Goldberg notes, Goldwater certainly never converted to liberalism. He remained opposed to gun control and to women working instead of raising children. His most enduring legacy has been his vociferous criticism of federal social programs; his powerful antigovernment message resonates now more loudly than ever. But the moral certainty of the far right also came to alarm him deeply, fundamentally contradicting not only his libertarian sensibilities (which, too, increasing numbers of Americans seem to share) but the basic laws of human nature. If we really want to derive some lessons from the career of Barry Goldwater, we should consider that as he aged, he came to see that extremism in any pursuit was no virtue, and moderation no vice.

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