Barry Goldwater, by Robert Alan Goldberg
Rebel with a Cause
by Robert Alan Goldberg.
Yale. 451 pp. $27.50.
As we learn from this balanced and earnest biography by a professor of history at the University of Utah, Barry Morris Goldwater was born in not too modest circumstances in Phoenix, Arizona Territory, in 1909. (In Goldwater’s own crack, “I was born in a log cabin equipped with a golf course, a pool table, and a swimming pool.”) His mother, an old-stock Wasp, was a descendant of Roger Williams, who founded the colony of Rhode Island in 1663. His father, a Jew though not religiously observant, owned the town’s main department store.
In the late 1930′s, Robert Goldberg tells us, young Goldwater took over the task of running the family business. Though management bored him, he exhibited a distinct talent for design and marketing. “You’ll rant and dance with ants in your pants,” ran the jingle he wrote for one of his more successful products: men’s underwear emblazoned with red ants.
World War II came along and Goldwater spent it in the Army Air Corps. Returning home after the war, he found merchandising too tame for his taste and began to dabble in politics. He won a seat on the Phoenix City Council in 1949; then, in 1952, he campaigned for the United States Senate and toppled a giant—Ernest McFarland, a two-term incumbent and Democratic majority leader.
Over the next twelve years, Gold-water’s presence and convictions helped to remake the Republican party. He came to Washington in a period of transition for the postwar Right. Senator Robert Taft had died in 1953, and Joseph McCarthy was censured in 1955. As old leaders fell, new intellectual spokesmen emerged, preeminent among them Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Ayn Rand. Goldwater joined them in an effort to shift the party away from Eisenhower Republicanism, which he considered nothing more than a “dime-store New Deal.” But Goldwater and his fellow conservatives were swimming against a powerful tide. In the 1950′s and particularly in the early 60′s, to be a conservative was to be a rebel, cutting against the grain not only of the intellectual class but of much of the nation as a whole. As one campus conservative quoted in this book recalls, wearing a Goldwater button in those years gave a “thrill of treason.”
Goldwater himself was ambivalent about leading the conservative movement in a takeover of the party, but by the presidential season of 1964 the movement was sure it wanted him. “Let’s draft the s.o.b.,” one activist declared. Although Goldwater lost two of the Republican primaries that year—New Hampshire and Oregon—the depth of his support carried him over these setbacks, and over the party’s northeastern establishment, to claim the nomination at the San Francisco convention (which Goldberg calls “the Woodstock of American conservatism”).
The ensuing campaign against Lyndon Johnson taught conservatives some lasting lessons about media partisanship and dirty campaigning. In an era when the press had supposedly made itself professional, Goldwater endured a journalistic mudbath, complete, his biographer reminds us, with insinuations that he was a Nazi; Sam Donaldson of ABC referred to Goldwater’s supporters as the “Bund,” and Daniel Schorr of CBS reported that Goldwater would be vacationing in Berchtesgaden. Fact, a magazine today happily defunct, assembled a panel of psychiatrists who, without the benefit of putting the Republican candidate on the couch, diagnosed him as a “paranoid schizophrenic” and a “lunatic.” The Johnson campaign contributed its own notorious touch to the demolition: a television commercial of a young girl in a meadow who one moment is picking a daisy and in the next has been obliterated by an atomic blast. The voiceover ran: “Vote for President Johnson. . . . The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
From their ordeal of near-total defeat at the polls in November 1964, conservatives inherited a mixed legacy. Many became acute and unwavering critics of the media, a disposition which later led them to give figures like Richard Nixon the benefit of too many doubts when the press reported unpleasant yet genuine facts. On the other hand, conservatives also learned from the fiasco where to look for future votes. The Goldwater campaign, having carried five states in the Deep South, and having made inroads in Irish and Italian Catholic precincts in the Northeast, faintly foreshadowed an electoral map that would bring victory to Republican presidential candidates in years to come.
Goldwater himself remained in the Senate until he retired in 1986, his last term there marred by ill health. In recent years, the career chronicled by his biographer has taken a surprising turn: he has been most often in the news for his clashes not with the Left but with the religious Right. Thus, when the Reverend Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority questioned the nomination of Goldwater’s protégée, Sandra Day O’Connor, for a seat on the Supreme Court, the Senator suggested that “every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.” Goldwater has also supported lifting the ban on homosexuals in the military, offering characteristically straight-shooting advice to President Clinton on how to finesse this controversial step: “Give the order and then shut up about it.”
Goldwater’s estrangement from contemporary conservatism is not a simple story. His politics had long shown a libertarian streak. His wife worked for Planned Parenthood, and in the mid-1950′s Goldwater arranged for a daughter to obtain an illegal abortion. But social conservatism was a powerful theme of his 1964 presidential campaign. The platform called for prayer in the schools, and Goldwater attacked “riot and disorder in our cities,” the “breakdown of morals of our young people,” and the “flood of obscene literature.” “The moral fiber of the American people,” the candidate proclaimed, “is beset by rot and decay”; Jerry Falwell could not have said it better.
Such seeming inconsistencies remind us of an important fact about Barry Goldwater: he made his mark not only as politician but as a personality. His famous bluntness, his profanity, and his utter lack of pretension were crucial to the impact he had on others. In this biography, Robert Goldberg attempts to explore some of the inner dynamics of the Goldwater personality, but in the end he fails to evoke it fully. Though Goldberg has compiled a great many details about his subject and assembled them in a readable form, his book is less an essay than a compendium, and as such almost inevitably inadequate to its subject—one of the most vivid figures in recent American politics.
Still, despite this limitation, Barry Goldwater does offer an informative and measured account of a man who was at the center of American conservatism during the years of its lift-off. For anyone interested in understanding how the Republican party came to triumph at the polls in 1994, the life story of the politician who led it in a “lost-cause” election three decades ago would be a good place to start.