Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What Would Barry Goldwater Do?

I have a friend who has often used the name "Barry Goldwater" when he didn't feel like giving his real name. He would introduce himself to drunks at parties that way, sign the occasional credit card receipt that way, and almost always fill out forms that way. What was alway surprising is how few people recognized the name of the so-called "Father of Modern American Conservatism."

I realized how little I actually knew about Goldwater when I watched a fascinating documentary about him on HBO last weekend. Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater is a 91 minute tribute to the former Arizona senator and failed presidential candidate, produced by his grandaughter CC Goldwater. It has interviews with people like Goldwater's successor Senator John McCain, George F. Will, Edward Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Walter Conkite and Al Franken.

For some reason I always pictured Goldwater looking like Henry Kissinger. I couldn't recall ever seeing Goldwater, and someone with the legacy he had seemed like they ought to look stiff and nerdy. He actually looks more like the playwright Arthur Miller.

Goldwater may be best known for his monumental loss to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election. But it's often said that he was vindicated by Ronald Reagan's win in 1980, a win for the new brand of conservatism that Goldwater popularized in the 60s.

As conservative as Goldwater was, it was a radically different kind of conservatism from the one claimed by our current president. Goldwater, the son of a Jew and an Episcopalian, was never comfortable with the religious right. He didn't believe the abortion issue was something the government ought to be involved with. Regarding gays in the military, Goldwater said famously: "You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight." His grandson was gay.

About the Christian factions of the Republican party, Goldwater said:
"Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they're sure trying to do so, it's going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can't and won't compromise. I know, I've tried to deal with them."
[from a 1994 book by John Dean.]

Then again, this is the guy who once said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

Goldwater gave up his senate seat to run for president in 1964, but he was re-elected in 1968. He wasn't much of a Nixon supporter. In 1974, Goldwater didn't seek to hurry along Nixon's demise, but he never stood in the way of his fall. Goldwater retired from the senate in 1987. He died in 1998.

The Washington Post has a very nice, lengthy obituary online from 1998 that summarizes his life and accomplishments.



Anonymous andysturdevant said...

The liberal rejoinder to Goldwater's campaign slogan was, of course, "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

You're in town? Give me a call, Scheff!

4:25 PM  

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