No parent watching the fight between Barry Goldwater and his progeny on the New Right can withhold a small smile of recognition. Oh, how many times have we raised our children to listen to us and then reacted with dismay when they did precisely that? My son, for instance, still has not learned that although you never cross the street on the red there are times when it is all right to do so. Like when I do it.
It is the same with Goldwater. Here he is, the old man of conservatism, the avuncular elder statesman of the movement who once said that "exteremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," surprised at being taken at his word. One is tempted to say something about chickens coming home.
Goldwater made that statement to the 1964 Republican National Convention that nominated him. In the context of the times, it was a ringing rebuff to the likes of Nelson Rockefeller who was calling on the GOP to moderate its tone, move towards the center and not be, well, so conservative. The statement was enough all by itself to cause some Republican moderates to say that they would sit out the campaign, and it helped generate a feeling about Goldwater that he was slightly mad. Lyndon Johnson capitalized on this by painting Goldwater as an extremeist, a warmonger and a reactionary and literally rolled over him on the way to a landslide victory.
Now Goldwater is more or less savings that he didn't mean it. When it comes to Sandra O'Connor, he is willing to settle for something less than extremism. It's not that O'Connor is not a conservative. She is just not as conservative as she could be and on the social issues that seem to matter most to the New Right -- abortion and women's rights -- she shows a suspicious quality of enlightenment. She is not, it appears, a wigged-out antiabortionist. There are times when she thinks that the Constitution is more important than the antiabortion movement. (You know how lawyers can be about the Constitition.) As for women's rights, O'Connor may very well be one of those women who does not think of herself as inherently inferior to men, doomed by God and by genes to work in the kitchen.
Now it happens to be my suspicion that O'Connor is a closet moderate -- that any woman with her experiences would have to be. The fact of the matter is, though, that you can go either way on her, that you can believe that she is as conservative as they come or something of a moderate. (There seems to be no chance that she is a liberal) The record is scanty -- and contradictory.
What the New Right wanted, though, and what it was led to expect, was not some unknown, not some farm team jurist with the potential to be conservative, but a tried and tested, died-in-the-wool conservative whose positions on abortion and ERA are documented. Liberals during the 1960s would have expected no less from either Lyndon Johnson or John F. Kennedy when it came to the issues that mattered to them. The appointment of someone who might or might not have been in favor of, say, school integration, would hardly have been tolerated.
It is interesting, then, that a whole bunch of people, liberals included, think that Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sandra O'Connor is cute -- very clever politics. It puts a woman on the court, therefore fulfilling a campaign promise, and it puts some distance between Reagan and the New Right, therefore fulfilling a political imperative, but it plays fast and loose with the larger Reagan campaign promise of putting a certified antiabortionist on the court. There is such a thing as being too cute.
And that, after all, is what the New Right is saying.It got jilted. It lost out to pragmatism. Ronald Reagan needed a woman on the court and he needed to put some distance between himself and the New Right. And instead of Goldwater denouncing the appointment with half the vigor with which he once extrolled extremism, he defended it. The lady, after all, is an Arizonian -- and a friend.
So here is Barry Goldwater, arguing it out with ideologues who cut their ideological teeth on "Conscience of a Conservative" and who discovered Ronald Reagan only after he discovered Barry Goldwater. The message, even from a Goldwater, is always the same: Watch what I do, not what I say. That's not even the Old Right. It's just the Old Politics. w