Goldwater's Glitter

Work Discussed in this Essay:

  • Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (Yale University Press,

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

Subscribe to The American Prospect

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

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.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)