In the years leading up to Barry Goldwater’s death, conservatives wondered what had happened to their hero. They had wondered for some time, actually—since at least 1976, when Goldwater endorsed moderate incumbent Gerald Ford over insurgent conservative Ronald Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination. Back then, conservative activist John Lofton suggested Goldwater must not be in his right mind, “still in an ether fog” from recent hip replacement surgery: “Possessed of all his faculties, he would never say the things he has been saying about Reagan.”
But by the early ’90s, there could be no doubt: Goldwater damned the Religious Right at every opportunity, spoke out for abortion rights, and not only supported letting gays serve openly in the military, but even lent his name to an effort to pass federal antidiscrimination laws for homosexuals—quite a turnabout for a man who as a senator had once stood on federalist grounds against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Goldwater’s death in May 1998 rendered all of that moot. Whatever his heterodoxies, his place in conservative history, and conservatives’ hearts, was settled. He was still, as Pat Buchanan wrote at the time, “the father of us all.”
Yet now, less than a decade on, Goldwater is at the center of a philosophical paternity suit. Every part of the political spectrum wants to claim him. Libertarian Nick Gillespie, editor of Reason, recently called down the ghost of Goldwater to testify that government does not belong in the bedroom, the boardroom, “or, as [Sen. Larry] Craig might add, in your bathroom.” National Review’s John J. Miller and the Claremont-McKenna Colleges’ Andrew Busch have contested such uses of Goldwater, with Busch claiming in the Claremont Review of Books early last year that in his heyday, the Arizonan had been more a social conservative than a libertarian. Even liberals have joined the fray, with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Watergate informer John W. Dean holding up Goldwater as a contrast to—in the title of Dean’s recent book—Conservatives Without Conscience, such as George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, and the leaders of the Religious Right.
With all this goodwill toward the late senator, opportunistic though it may be, it’s easy to forget just how polarizing a figure Goldwater was in the 1960s and how reviled by the Left. To the conservative cheer “in your heart, you know he’s right,” liberals taunted, “in your guts, you know he’s nuts.” Radical libertarians like Murray Rothbard didn’t think much of Goldwater either—he was not actually for abolishing the Tennessee Valley Authority or Social Security, after all, and he had mused aloud about using tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam. “We don’t want to occupy any part of Southeast Asia,” Goldwater said. “All we want to do is get this little war over with. There’ve been several suggestions made, I don’t think we would use any of them. But defoliation of the forest by low-yield atomic weapons could be well done.”
To his critics and much of the public, Goldwater was a warmonger. Bill Moyers, then an aide to President Johnson, dramatized that impression with one of the sleaziest attack ads of all time, “Daisy,” which juxtaposed images of a little girl in a field pulling petals off a flower with a mushroom cloud that obliterated the screen as President Johnson intoned, “These are the stakes! To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.” The ad aired only once, and that was enough.
Just how far Goldwater’s reputation has come since then can be seen in “Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater,” a 2006 documentary, now on DVD, co-produced and narrated by the senator’s granddaughter, C.C. Goldwater. It’s the anti-“Daisy.” The 90-minute program features glowing tributes from old-guard conservatives and newly appreciative liberals alike: Republican stalwart Morton Blackwell Jr. and New Right funding father Richard Viguerie alongside James Carville, Al Franken, and, yes, former Goldwater girl Hillary Clinton. The film is not all rose-tinted: its most affecting moment comes as Barry Jr. and his sister Joanne, interviewed separately, struggle to say how much they wanted their father to be proud of them, something Barry Sr. was too stoic to express—“We knew he loved us,” says the younger Barry, “but he had a hard time showing it, and that probably hurt.” Other segments attest to the strain politics put on the family. But all that serves to humanize the icon. What criticisms the film makes of Goldwater’s politics, mostly concerning his record on civil rights, are glancing blows at worst.
A further sign of the strange new respect accorded Barry Goldwater is the appearance of a fresh edition of his 1960 philosophical manifesto, The Conscience of a Conservative—originally published independently in Shepherdsville, Kentucky by Goldwater supporter Clarence Manion—from Princeton University Press, as part of the James Madison Library in American Politics assembled by Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz. Last time Conscience was in print, Regnery brought it out, and the book was aimed squarely at conservative readers, with an introduction by Pat Buchanan. Princeton’s edition, by contrast, seems almost designed to prick conservatives’ sensibilities, with an afterword by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that spends more words attacking Christian conservatives and the New Right than it does celebrating Goldwater. A new foreword by George Will is, in its own way, as critical of conservatism’s recent direction as RFK’s contribution is, but with the added sting of greater truth.
There are still Goldwater books by and for conservatives: William F. Buckley Jr. is working on one now, and A Glorious Disaster, by Goldwater ’64 campaign treasurer William J. Middendorf II, came out last year. But the fashion in much of the recent literature is to emphasize the differences—real, if often exaggerated—between the senator and the movement he fathered. The new Conscience of a Conservative takes what might be called the “anti-fusionist” side in the Goldwater wars, with Will distilling the case for Goldwater as a pure libertarian.
It’s a much stronger case than the one made by people like Andrew Busch who claim that Goldwater was an early culture warrior because he sometimes exploited what at the time was called the “social issue,” a backlash against rising crime, racial unrest, and the sexual revolution. In 1964, he wrote a note to campaign adviser F. Clifton White saying, “Agree completely with you on morality issue. Believe it is the most effective we have come up with. Also agree with your program. Please get it launched immediately.” That program was a 27-minute documentary, “Choice,” designed, in the words of its producers, “to portray and remind the people of something they already know exists, and that is the moral crisis in America, the rising crime rate, rising juvenile delinquency, narcotics, pornography, filthy magazines.” It included shots of topless women and rioting blacks.
But it never aired. Goldwater himself pulled the plug, calling it “nothing but a racist film.” Whatever advantage Goldwater saw in playing to the “social issue,” there was a limit to how far he would go. That was shown as well in his handling of the discovery that LBJ’s personal assistant, Walter Jenkins, had been arrested in the men’s room of a D.C.-area YMCA. Goldwater refused to capitalize on the scandal—“Hands off,” he told his campaign staff, as William Middendorf recalls. “Walter Jenkins had been a member of his Air Force Reserve unit, and Barry would do nothing to add to the pain of his wife and six children.”
Yes, he had a libertarian streak, and in his foreword to Conscience, Will paints a vivid picture of Goldwater as a rugged Western individualist. “You must remember this,” he writes, “Goldwater was a conservative from, and formed by, a place with precious little past to conserve. Westerners have no inclination to go through life with cricks in their necks from looking backward.” To Will, this set Goldwater apart not only from the later Religious Right—“who argue that government can, and urgently must, have an active agenda to defend morals and promote virtue”—but even from the traditionalists of his own time. “The growing conservative intelligentsia would savor many flavors of conservatism,” writes Will, “from Edmund Burke’s to T.S. Eliot’s, conservatisms grounded on religious reverence, nostalgia, and resistance to the permanent revolutions of capitalist, market society. Such conservatisms would have been unintelligible, even repellent, to Goldwater, if he had taken the time to notice them.”
Unfortunately for George Will, The Conscience of a Conservative was written—ghost-written—by a man who subscribed to the very Burke- and Eliot-derived conservatisms that Will thinks Goldwater would have found repellent. Will acknowledges the “assistance” of L. Brent Bozell, William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law, in compiling Goldwater’s book. But “assistance” is an understatement: Bozell wrote it, in six weeks during 1959, under commission from Goldwater organizer Clarence Manion, lately the dean of Notre Dame’s law school. And Will doesn’t mention that Bozell, even then, was a traditionalist Catholic who took care to distance Conscience from pure laissez faire: by page 2 of Goldwater’s manifesto, we get the characteristically Bozellian statement, “Conservatism is not an economic theory” that “puts material things in their proper place … economics plays only a subsidiary role.” Bozell would later be famous for championing a strongly Catholic traditionalism against Frank Meyer’s libertarian-inflected fusionism in the pages of National Review—and later still, Bozell would become a radical traditionalist with his own magazine, Triumph.
Will is not wrong to highlight the loosely libertarian, Western soul of Barry Goldwater. His geographic origins shaped his character, as did the mores of a his social class. Michael Lind was on to something in 1995 when he wrote in the New York Review of Books that Goldwater’s “socially tolerant views” were of a piece with “his class and particularly the well-to-do circles he frequents in Arizona,” where support for abortion rights, for example, had long been unexceptional. (Goldwater’s first wife, Peggy, co-founded Planned Parenthood of Arizona in 1937; his daughter Joanne had an illegal abortion, with the senator’s support, in 1955.) There may have also been a biographical element in Goldwater’s distaste for the likes of Jerry Falwell—about whom Goldwater once said “every good Christian should kick him in the ass.” Goldwater was a non-church-going Episcopalian, grandson of a Jew, and a direct descendant on his mother’s side of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, a paragon of religious liberty. Little wonder that Falwell’s brand of political Christianity was anathema to him.
More than he was ever a philosophical libertarian, Goldwater had an ingrained character formed by the individualism of his region. Yet that did not stop him from attracting the support of traditionalist Catholics like Manion and Bozell—far from it, for they agreed with his anti-statism and, especially in Bozell’s case, with his militant anti-Communism. Once a defining quality, more than 15 years after the end of the Cold War that anti-Communism is now all too easily overlooked. Yet as Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review and a perceptive scholar of conservative history, has pointed out, Goldwater’s hawkish anti-Communism is the key common denominator between the senator and much of today’s Right—including the neoconservatives.
Tanenhaus was visibly frustrated at the revisionist liberal interpretations of Goldwater emanating from his fellow panelists John Patrick Diggins and Robert Kennedy Jr. at a May 1 New York Public Library forum on The Conscience of a Conservative and the other inaugural title in Princeton’s James Madison Library, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State. “There’s a kind of fantasy created that Goldwater was a singular, heroic conservative unattached to the movement that followed,” said Tanenhaus. “We should be a little careful about drawing distinctions between what we imagine was a kind of utopian Goldwaterism and the Republicanism we have now.”
To illustrate the link between Goldwater and latter-day conservatism, Tanenhaus read from the concluding chapter of Conscience of a Conservative, “The Soviet Menace”: “In addition to [parrying the enemy’s] blows, we must strike our own. In addition to guarding our frontiers, we must try to puncture his. In addition to keeping the free world free, we must try to make the Communist world free. To these ends, we must always try to engage the enemy at times and places, and with weapons, of our own choosing.” “This,” offered Tanenhaus, “is the approach to the enemy that we now see pursued by the Bush administration.” Bozell had penned the words, but Goldwater stood behind them, and the Goldwater movement, like conservatives today, wanted “victory” not “containment” or “deterrence.”
Sure enough, less than a month after Tanenhaus made that argument, Roger Kimball of the New Criterion published a column trumpeting a 1961 Goldwater essay from National Review, “A Foreign Policy for America,” as being neatly in tune with the Bush administration’s foreign policy. “Substitute the phrase ‘radical Islam’ for ‘Communist,’” wrote Kimball, “make allowances for a few other anachronisms, and ‘A Foreign Policy for America’ could as well have been written today as in 1961.” Neoconservatives, no less than libertarians and traditionalists, make their own claims to the Goldwater patrimony.
That should not be too much of a surprise. For the Right, Goldwater really is “the father of us all,” and each branch of the conservative movement can plausibly trace itself back to some tendency, however great or slight, in the Goldwater effort. But that’s not to say all claims on the family estate are equally valid. Nor is it the case that conservatives who blend the Goldwater movement’s tendencies toward economic libertarianism, values rhetoric, and militarism are necessarily the most truly “Goldwaterite” of all. If that were the case, even Rudy Giuliani would be a Goldwaterite: after all, the former New York mayor is socially liberal but promises religious conservatives strict judges, he’s putatively economically conservative, and he’s very hawkish. Yet few old-guard Goldwaterites take Giuliani’s bona fides seriously. Even the genteel William Middendorf, who praised Mitt Romney and John McCain in a C-SPAN interview with David Frum, expressed doubts about Giuliani. Almost as few old Goldwaterites credit George W. Bush’s pretence to the mantle of Mr. Conservative. But if the Republican Party is full of pretenders, where does one look for Goldwater’s true heirs?
To answer that question, one has to look to the sharpest division that split the Goldwater movement of the ’60s. It wasn’t the division between libertarians and traditionalists, it was the division that separated idealistic libertarians and traditionalists alike, the campaign amateurs, from the campaign professionals. The conservative movement still pays lip service to economic liberty, social order, and military strength—but on all three points, Republicans have become hollow men who have preserved the rites of Goldwaterism but who long ago lost its spirit. That was an amateur spirit—in both the best and worst senses of the word—and it drew together in common cause traditionalists and libertarians as different as Brent Bozell and Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess.
Conventional wisdom among conservatives has it that Goldwater and his followers just weren’t savvy politicos and media manipulators. Perhaps nobody could have beaten Lyndon Johnson in 1964: as George Will argues, America wasn’t ready to have three presidents in the space of two years. But, the story goes, Goldwater would have done much better if he had run a more professional campaign. Lines like “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” which Hess included in Goldwater’s convention acceptance speech, might be stirring stuff, but they terrified the public. And the “Arizona mafia” that kept tight reins of the ’64 campaign, men like Stephen Shadegg and Richard Kleindienst, might be Goldwater’s friends, but they didn’t know how to run a national campaign. All these men disliked East Coast political pros like Clif White, and the feeling was reciprocal. As one pro, Charlie Barr, once yelled at Hess, “You g–damn Boy Scouts are going to ruin everything!” But those Boy Scouts did what the pros couldn’t, even if they lost the election.
The conventional wisdom overvalues politics and undervalues the philosophy of the movement: it overlooks the ways in which Goldwater succeeded far beyond the electoral success of a Johnson or a Nixon—or a Bush. The Conscience of a Conservative continues to be read today because it isn’t a political tract, a soulless campaign book of the sort generated by every other modern presidential effort.
The idealism and amateurism of the Goldwater people inspired a movement in a way that political professionals never could: indeed, the cynical professionalism and win-at-all-costs mentality of today’s conservatives, best represented by Karl Rove, has had the opposite effect. Goldwater galvanized America’s youth—Young Americans for Freedom grew directly out of Youth for Goldwater. Under the professional Republicans of the past decade, on the other hand, conservatives have lost whatever momentum they had with the next generation.
Amateurism and idealism united the libertarian and traditionalist components of the Goldwater movement and kept them at least minimally honest: winning the election—the nomination in 1960, the presidency in 1964—was not everything to them, and the idealists who rallied to Goldwater were willing to follow their beliefs even into the wilderness. In Karl Hess’s case, that took him into radical libertarianism and an alliance with the New Left and, ultimately, led him to stop paying income taxes to a government he opposed, an act of rebellion for which the IRS nearly ruined him. In Bozell’s case, the fires of idealism lit a conflagration of Catholic reaction: he came to believe that “a state of war exists” between the Church and a United States that had legalized abortion, and Bozell spent time in jail for his disruptive but nonviolent protests against abortion clinics. As troubling as the extremes to which Hess and Bozell went might seem, at least they ran afoul of the law for the sake of their principles. Compare their example with those of recent Republicans who have had run-ins with the law for having sleazy relationships with lobbyists or soliciting sex in the men’s room.
No putatively conservative politician today—with the exception of Ron Paul —has the idealism of a Goldwater or brings together idealists like Bozell and Hess. Even the one area where latter-day professional conservatives seem most idealistic, in their support for grandiose schemes of democratization and empire-building abroad, there is a startling contrast. Bozell and Hess, each driven by a vision of a more just America—the one vision radically Catholic, the other radically libertarian—came to oppose the Vietnam War. Late in life, Goldwater described that intervention as “a useless war,” and Tanenhaus speculates that Goldwater, like his friend Bill Buckley, would sooner or later have opposed Bush’s war in Iraq: “Presumably Goldwater would have seen this, but you never know.” The idealism of the Goldwater movement did infect its foreign policy—a look at Conscience of a Conservative will confirm that. But ultimately, the ideals that Goldwater stood for were not nation-building and empire.
Today, nation-building and empire, together with K-Street politics, is about all that animates the Republicans who claim to be following in Goldwater’s footsteps. They’ve lost what the 1960 and 1964 Goldwater movements were really all about, and they won’t rediscover what they’ve lost by furrowing their brows wondering if Goldwaterism was really purely libertarian or fusionist. Goldwater himself was a man of the American West, and his legacy can be claimed by either libertarians or traditionalists—if they can put the principled spirit of the old movement before the emoluments of politics.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.