GOLDWATER: The Man Who Made a Revolution
By Lee Edwards
Regnery. 572 pp. $29.95

Go to the First Chapter of Goldwater: The Man Who Made A Revolution

By Robert Alan Goldberg
Yale University Press. 463 pp. $27.50

Go to the First Chapter of Barry Goldwater

Go to Chapter One

The Man Who Knew Too Little

By John B. Judis
Sunday, September 24, 1995

Sometimes the authors of books reveal facts that suggest an entirely different interpretation of their subjects from the one they provide. That is the case with two recent biographies of former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. Both books are extremely well-researched and well-written, but they both include details about their subject that are inconsistent with their own assessments of him.

Lee Edwards, a conservative intellectual who served as Goldwater's press aide in the 1964 presidential campaign, provides the most complete reconstruction yet of that campaign and reveals much that is new about Goldwater's relationship with other conservatives, including Ronald Reagan. While Edwards does not hesitate to vent his views, he does not allow them to dictate what he reveals about Goldwater. Robert Alan Goldberg, a professor of history at the University of Utah, describes himself as being on the left but, like Edwards, is meticulously even-handed in recounting Goldwater's life. While Edwards is at his best in describing intra-conservative politics, Goldberg, who grew up in the Southwest, is at his best in portraying Goldwater's early years and his Arizona background.

Although the biographers differ politically, they are equally admiring of Goldwater. Goldwater, Edwards writes, "laid the foundation for a political revolution and led a generation of conservatives to understand that theirs was a winning as well as a just cause." Edwards describes him as an "Old Testament Jeremiah"; Goldberg calls him a "prophetic figure." Edwards quotes with approval the opinion of conservatives that Goldwater would have made a better president than Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater, Goldberg argues, "stands well in comparison with politicians like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and even Ronald Reagan."

The reader of these books will find something to buttress these opinions but will also discover evidence for a contrary view of Goldwater. Running through both books are disturbing revelations about his intellectual abilities and about his independence of mind. These books unwittingly portray him as a good-hearted but stupid and sometimes weak man whose success depended upon his following carefully a script that other people wrote.

Both books depict Goldwater as an abysmal student. After ninth grade, he was advised to leave Phoenix's public high school. Out of desperation, his parents sent him to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, where he had to repeat the ninth grade and still received Cs and Ds. After graduating from Staunton, Goldwater went to the University of Arizona, but he dropped out after his freshman year because he was having too much difficulty keeping up with the work. Still, other politicians have had little interest or success in school and have led an intellectual life of their own. But Goldwater's sister Carolyn told Edwards that she could not recall his ever reading a book.

As a senator, Goldwater doesn't seem to have displayed any intellectual curiosity, except in how machines work. He authored three political books and two autobiographies, but he didn't write them. Other politicians also don't write their own books, but Goldwater didn't seem even to go over them carefully. Edwards relates how former National Review editor Brent Bozell wrote the bestselling Conscience of a Conservative for Goldwater at the behest of several conservatives who wanted to promote the Arizonan as a presidential candidate in 1960. When Bozell brought the manuscript to Goldwater, Edwards recounts, "The senator read quickly the less than 200 pages, pausing here and there, and then handed it back to Bozell, saying Looks fine to me. Let's go with it.' " (Clifton White, who later headed the Draft Goldwater Committee, wrote in his memoir that Goldwater never even saw The Conscience of a Conservative before it was published.) Goldwater later claimed that Bozell constructed the book from his speeches, but Bozell wrote those speeches. The truth is that Goldwater had almost nothing to do with the book that made him famous and launched his national political career.

Goldwater certainly had an underlying political philosophy that combined frontier individualism and patriotism, but it was instinctive rather than the product of any reflection. He allowed others to fill in many of the details for him. When he came to Washington as a senator in 1952, Edwards relates, Jay Gordon Hall, General Motors chief lobbyist in Washington, took Goldwater under his wing, even writing speeches for him. Under Hall's guidance, Goldwater, a member of the Senator Labor Committee, led an eight-year crusade against Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, even though the UAW was hardly a factor in Arizona politics. Goldwater was following Hall's script.

Goldwater became known for his strong, even strident, foreign policy stands, but he devoted little of his first years to foreign policy. He began to take provocative positions in the late '50s when Bozell, whose principal interest was rolling back communism, began to write his speeches. Bozell devoted about two-thirds of Conscience of a Conservative to foreign policy. Until the late '80s, Goldwater was also not known for taking strong stands on abortion or gay rights. As Edwards notes, conservatives ascribe these later stands to the influence of Goldwater's gay grandson and his liberal second wife, Susan.

During most of Goldwater's career, he did and said what others told him to. Arizonan Stephen Shadegg agreed to run his first Senate campaign in 1952 on the condition that Goldwater not make impromptu speeches or statements and not take positions that he and Shadegg had not reached agreement on. During the next decades in office, when Goldwater was given the chance to speak off-the-cuff, he displayed a thoughtless bluster more appropriate to a bar stool than a political podium. In 1958, when his prepared radio text ran short, he ad libbed that Reuther was a "more dangerous menace than the Sputnik or anything Soviet Russia might do to America." During the 1964 campaign, he advocated "one change" in social security, making it "voluntary" for individuals, as if one could maintain an insurance system on this basis. He proclaimed American missiles "undependable" and then added, "I can't tell you -- it's classified." He called for taking the Vietnam war to South China. "It would be fairly easy," he declared at a press conference. These statements were not lapses, but revealed that Goldwater did not have the capacity for judgment or reflection required of a president.

Other high officials make up for their weaknesses by surrounding themselves with advisors who possess the knowledge or judgment that they lack, but Goldwater did not choose his advisors wisely. In 1964 he rejected two experienced and willing operatives -- Shadegg and White -- and surrounded himself instead with incompetent cronies who had no experience in conducting a national presidential campaign and who reinforced his weaknesses. His only legislative achievement in 40 years was the passage in 1986 of the Goldwater-Nichols military reform bill, but the bill got through Congress largely through the efforts of Goldwater's Democratic colleague, Sen. Sam Nunn, and Nunn's able staff.

In summing up Goldwater's 1964 campaign, Edwards quotes approvingly journalist Robert MacNeil's change of heart about Goldwater. When MacNeil covered Goldwater in 1964 for NBC-TV, he believed that he would not have made a good president because he "seemed too casual in his judgments, too careless about words and facts, too indifferent to complexity, a man of too little intellectual discipline." Later, in his autobiography, MacNeil speculated that Goldwater might have made a better president than Johnson because of his "decency and common sense." Anyone reading these two biographies would have to concur with MacNeil's first and not his second judgment. Goldwater simply did not possess the mentality to deal with the enormous challenges posed by the Vietnam War, ghetto riots, growing white unrest in the South, and the erosion of America's economic superiority. He might have had a successful presidency, but only through sheer luck.

The more puzzling question raised by these books is how a man of such limited gifts managed to find himself atop the conservative movement. Certainly, Goldwater possessed fundamental decency and integrity -- evidenced in his refusal during the 1964 campaign to exploit the ghetto riots -- but these are not qualities that ensure political success. One reason for Goldwater's success is that (in contrast, say, to Texas Sen. John Tower) Goldwater looked and acted the part of the new Western conservative. He also knew how to project his own image. When he ran Goldwater's Department Store during the '30s, he was a mediocre administrator and bookkeeper but excellent at marketing and advertising.

The other reason for Goldwater's success is that he was carried along by a movement that was much more powerful than he was. In both 1960 and 1964, conservative activists drafted him for national office over his objections and misgivings. Commentator Jack Bell wrote in 1962, "The Arizona Senator was like a small cut of timber caught in a long run floating downstream. Now and then he could extract himself long enough to whirl rather fruitlessly in the current before the jam bore on him again."

Edwards and Goldberg not only fail to take account of Goldwater's weaknesses and failings in their overall assessment of him. They seem schizophrenic in the way they deal with his books and speeches. Goldberg analyzes Goldwater's ideas in Conscience in a Conservative in the same respectful way he might have dissected Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. Edwards notes inconsistencies between Goldwater's earlier and later speeches without acknowledging that these might have reflected the different views of Goldwater's speechwriters rather than of Goldwater himself.

How did authors who knew their subject so well fail to integrate the uncomfortable facts into their interpretation? Edwards and Goldberg were probably unwilling to cast Goldwater, whom they liked and admired, in a decidedly unfavorable, even cruel, light. They may have also been reluctant to diminish the importance of their subject. It is one thing to unearth scandal and intrigue in a politician's past; it is quite another to demonstrate that he was a mediocrity whose fame was largely the product of others' efforts. But if these authors are accurate in what they reveal about Goldwater's life, that is exactly the conclusion that an impartial reader will come to.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of the New Republic and author of "William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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