Goldwater in his own words
By Steven Martinovich
Among the saints in the American conservative pantheon there must surely be a place for Barry Goldwater. Although he was annihilated in the 1964 presidential election by Lyndon B. Johnson, his classic 1960 treatise Conscience of a Conservative and his forceful but eloquent defense of conservatism during that election helped foment the Reagan revolution nearly two decades later. Yet his final legacy to conservatives is a mixed one.
That assertion is clear in Pure Goldwater, a collection of the late senator's journals, letters and speeches compiled by his son Barry M. Goldwater and John W. Dean. For decades Goldwater served as one of the standard bearers of the right, alongside luminaries like William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan and Russell Kirk, among others, yet near the end of his life he took a pronounced shift to the left. Although dubbed a libertarian by many, several of the positions he took in the late 1970s on ran counter to both that and conservatism.
Organized more or less chronologically, Pure Goldwater begins during his early years with reminisces about his family life and how he met his future wife Peggy. From there it moves onto the late 1930s when he begins a journal, one that he wrote with varying regularity. In those early days before politics, Goldwater focused much of his attention on the family business, photography and travelling his beloved state. Before long he would find himself as a pilot in the air force ferrying aircraft from the United States to England during World War II.
It wasn't until the late 1940s that Goldwater's interest in politics manifested itself into journal entries and action. Elected to the Phoenix City Council, Goldwater was tapped relatively quickly to run for the U.S. Senate in 1952. He recounts a tough campaign that saw him fly tens of thousands of miles around the state in an effort to win, which he did narrowly. Thus began a Senate career that lasted from 1952 to 1986, four years excepted, one that saw him fight for traditional conservatism, capitalism and liberty.
Those four years were the result of the disastrous 1964 election against Johnson, one where he decided not to run for his senate seat along with the presidency. Goldwater's journals and letters are filled with frustration over the vile accusations the media made about his candidacy which included questioning his mental stability, accusing him of favoring a nuclear war and dubbing him a right-wing extremist. He returned to the Senate in 1968 where he was preoccupied with military readiness, the specter of Communism and what he felt was a tepid American response to it, all of which ultimately culminated in the Vietnam War.
Much of Goldwater's journals and letters address his conflicted relationship with Richard Nixon. While he counted him as a friend for over two decades, offering him advice and tremendous assistance over several campaigns, Goldwater reveals a growing mistrust of Nixon during the 1960s. Though he defended Nixon as a stalwart conservative during the 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy, he comes to believe that the future president was more in love with power than principle and ultimately accuses him of being willing to say anything to be elected. What remained of the friendship finally ended when Goldwater called on Nixon to resign in August 1974 over the Watergate scandal and the president's mountain of lies.
For all of Goldwater's small government conservatism and devotion to the constitution, the last few years did see him take up causes that most would consider peculiar. While his support of gays in the military could be defended on libertarian grounds, Goldwater also championed campaign finance reform, tax hikes, abortion, efforts to stop land development, opposed the religious right, defended Bill Clinton over Whitewater, and on several occasions donated to and publicly supported Democratic candidates over those of the GOP. His increasing shift to the right even prompted some Arizona Republicans to try and remove his name from state GOP headquarters – a move that ultimately failed.
And yet during that time he also supported a move to make English the official language of Arizona, supported that state's holiday for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., coauthored a bill to reorganize the U.S. military and supported efforts to reintegrate Eastern Europe into the free world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whatever Goldwater's politics were ultimately transformed into, it is quite clear that they defy easy categorization. It would be a stretch to call Goldwater a liberal, as he described himself and Bob Dole in 1996, but it is clear that he abandoned several elements of his traditional conservatism.
Whether Goldwater was eventually a disappointment to the conservative movement is ultimately one for readers to decide. Pure Goldwater reveals, however, a man more complex than either his fans or detractors took him for. The book itself is an invaluable look at the American political scene from the ultimate insider who counted people on both sides of the political divide as friends. One can only wonder what trenchant observations Goldwater would have made about the current political climate.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
Buy Pure Goldwater at Amazon.com for only $16.27 (42% off)
Other related essays:
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!