Goldwater Revisited

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Remembering Barry Goldwater

By William F. Buckley Jr. | Basic. 208 pp. $25.95


By John W. Dean and Barry M. Goldwater Jr. | Palgrave. 399 pp. $27.95

Only yesterday, or so it seems, American conservatives were on the verge of becoming a political majority. Now, burdened by internal divisions and a discredited president, the conservative movement is in retreat; in a recent Pew survey only a third of Americans called themselves conservative. Facing an uncertain future, conservatives have become increasingly celebratory about their leaders of the past, especially the iconic Ronald Reagan and the recently departed William F. Buckley Jr., who lit the torch at National Review in the 1950s and kept it burning for half a century. Conservatives are also rediscovering Sen. Barry M. Goldwater of Arizona, honored in Flying High and Pure Goldwater as an American original and a seminal conservative hero.

Goldwater was a comet in the summer skies of 1964, riding out of the West to rescue the Republican Party from its long-dominant Eastern establishment. Speaking his mind with a forcefulness that both inspired and alienated, Goldwater was the change candidate of his time, drawing huge crowds and bringing young people into politics. Nelson Rockefeller, the establishment champion, depicted Goldwater as an "extremist" who was hostile to Social Security and civil rights and provocative toward the Soviet Union. After securing the Republican nomination by narrowly defeating Rockefeller in the California primary, Goldwater defiantly accepted the mantle that had been draped on him, declaring in his acceptance speech at the San Francisco Cow Palace that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice [and] moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

The Goldwater comet descended rapidly after that. President Lyndon B. Johnson fine-tuned Rockefeller's extremist theme and waged a fear-mongering campaign that depicted his opponent as likely to lead the nation into all-out war -- if not Armageddon. Its low point was a television commercial in which a little girl plucks the petals of a daisy while a voice-over does a countdown that ends in a nuclear blast. Frightened voters elected Johnson in a monumental landslide. He promptly sent half a million American troops to Vietnam, as he had secretly planned to do all along. In 1964 Republicans were so badly beaten across the board that pundits speculated they might go the way of the Whigs. Instead, the GOP was soon resurgent under Richard Nixon and was later reborn under Reagan, who made his national debut on Oct. 27, 1964, with a stirring televised speech on Goldwater's behalf.

As John W. Dean, who was Nixon's White House counsel, and Barry M. Goldwater Jr., Goldwater's son, remind us in Pure Goldwater, the results of the election were not surprising to the Arizona senator. Goldwater had expected to run against President John F. Kennedy, with whom he had discussed a trailblazing campaign in which the two of them toured the country together debating issues. After Kennedy was assassinated, Goldwater said he wouldn't run but relented at the urging of young conservatives. As Goldwater later reminisced, he knew he had no chance of victory "because the country was not ready for three presidents in two and a half years."

Indeed, it seems doubtful from the evidence in these books that the country would ever have been ready for a Goldwater presidency. He was too outspoken; his offhand remarks, such as a wisecrack about wanting to lob a grenade into the men's room of the Kremlin, played into his opponents' hands. And even if he had been less colorful, Goldwater was always well to the right of the American mainstream. The earliest political commentary in Pure Goldwater -- an annotated collection of his letters, diary entries and other writings -- is a 1937 editorial bemoaning the New Deal and accusing President Franklin D. Roosevelt of turning "the future of the working man" over to "the racketeering practices of ill-organized unions."

In 1958, as related in Buckley's memoir Flying High, Goldwater charged that Walter Reuther and his United Auto Workers "are a more dangerous menace than the Sputniks, or anything Russia might do." Goldwater hurled around the words "socialist" and "socialistic," using them to describe domestic policies of FDR and Harry Truman, the attitudes of various reporters and columnists, and the relatively timid proposals of the Eisenhower administration to spend federal money on health care and education. Goldwater refused, in Buckley's words, to "bend with the spirit of the age."

Indeed, Goldwater was not much of a bender in any respect, and he viewed U.S. presidents with a gimlet eye. Despite his fondness for Kennedy, Goldwater believed that the president had shown a "rather gutless character" in refusing to provide air cover for the anti-Castro Cuban forces at the Bay of Pigs. He had no use for Johnson, whom he considered "not honest enough to be a good president." Goldwater backed Richard Nixon but suspected he was insufficiently dedicated to conservative principles. Disgusted by Watergate, Goldwater was one of three GOP congressional leaders who told Nixon on Aug. 7, 1974, that he would be removed by impeachment if he did not resign. In a 1975 letter to Washington Post columnist David Broder, Goldwater concluded that everything Nixon did over the years had been "for his own advancement, only I was too damn dumb to realize it."

Goldwater wasn't dumb, but he was no match for Nixon in the dubious craft of political intrigue, and he lacked the populist reach of Reagan -- a former FDR supporter and union president -- with working-class Democrats. Still, Goldwater paved the way for Nixon and Reagan by routing the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party and transforming the GOP into a conservative institution. In so doing, he assured his own defeat but left the party hungry for unity.

The ideological framework for Goldwater's achievement was The Conscience of a Conservative, a surprise bestseller in 1960. It bore Goldwater's name, but the writing (even the typos, according to Flying High) was the work of Buckley's brother-in-law and Yale debate partner, Brent Bozell. In clear, polemical prose, Bozell made the case against collectivism and detente and argued that U.S. leaders needed to make a vigorous effort to win the Cold War. Conscience became a widely quoted text for conservatives, notably Reagan.

Pure Goldwater waffles on the authorship of Conscience, suggesting that the book was a collaboration. In fact, Goldwater had no talent for the overarching formulations on which Bozell thrived; the Arizona senator was a man of action, not a theorist. He was an accomplished aviator and photographer as well as a passable carpenter and an avid outdoorsman. Radio was a special love. When he was 14, Goldwater wrote Thomas Edison to inform the inventor that he was operating a 10-watt radio station at his public school. In time this boyhood fixation evolved into an elaborate ham radio operation; during Vietnam Goldwater patched 200,000 calls from servicemen to their families. These personal glimpses redeem Pure Goldwater, which is at once a sprawling treasure trove and a hodge-podge with so many gaps in Goldwater's dictated journal entries that it relies on other books and public documents for several key episodes.

Flying High, in contrast, is a slender but elegiac volume in which Buckley's wit and lyricism soar from beyond the grave. Few readers will mind that several of the chapters are devoted less to Goldwater than to the early days of National Review. As always, Buckley writes well about politics, but the singular achievement of this book is its nostalgic remembrance of an enduring friendship between the author and his subject.

Goldwater is worth rediscovering. He was a conservative of the old school who believed, in the mantra of his day, that government should stay out of the boardroom and the bedroom. Almost casually supportive of abortion rights (and later gay rights) and proud that his wife was active in Planned Parenthood, Goldwater worried about the concentration of federal power and believed that the constitutional role of Congress had been usurped by the executive overreach of the Johnson administration. These were valid concerns in 1964, and they are valid today. Conservatives -- and liberals, too -- take note. ยท

Lou Cannon is a former White House correspondent for The Post and the co-author, with his son, Carl, of "Reagan's Disciple: George W. Bush's Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy."

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