Liberals love Barry Goldwater, the late five-term Arizona senator who launched the modern conservative movement. In the HBO documentary Mr. Conservative, now out on DVD, Goldwater gets glowing praise from Democrats Edward Kennedy and Hillary Clinton; the new edition of Goldwater's 1960 The Conscience of a Conservative, the first volume to appear in the historian Sean Wilentz's series of works in American political thought, has a warm afterword by the liberal activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This unseemly outpouring of liberal affection for a right-wing icon owes only partly to the socially accepted, but no less peculiar enthusiasm of American politicians for their late opponents (Ronald Reagan showed similarly odd affection for the safely long-dead Franklin Roosevelt). Mostly, it has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of Goldwater, in whom the basic contradictions of Republican libertarianism were plainly visible from the start.
The charming CC Goldwater, Barry's granddaughter, edited the new printing of The Conscience of a Conservative, and she also produced and presents the HBO film, which bears the fetchingly honest subtitle, "Goldwater on Goldwater." The man who emerges from both is her man--fiscally conservative and socially liberal, staunchly opposed to the arbitrary concentration of power in the U. S. presidency and thus increasingly uncomfortable with the Republican majority he helped to forge. And it's true that Goldwater disliked the evangelical Christian tenor of today's Republicans, true that he became an outsider because, as Ben Bradlee says in the film, "he didn't care what the Republican Bible said." Goldwater even declared himself an "honorary gay" in 1994, standing up for sexual freedoms. So liberals can admire, as Clinton does, "his wonderful sort of Western ways and values," and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., can declare Goldwater "a man of principle."
Though it's sadly incomplete, this picture of Goldwater as a great American cowboy is true as far as it goes. He was born in Arizona when it was still a territory, grew up with the state, and loved its land. CC tells how her grandfather rose to fame by filming a boat trip down the Colorado River and personally touring it around the small towns of the state. He won a Senate seat in 1952, a Republican year, and kept it in 1958, a Democratic one. In 1960 he published his credo, The Conscience of a Conservative, which Wilentz diplomatically says was written "with the editorial help of conservative writer L. Brent Bozell"; Rick Perlstein, in his 2001 biography of Goldwater, says Bozell wrote the book himself in a six-week sprint. In any case, its call to cut taxes, services, federal enforcement of civil rights--everything except national defense (which needed endless expanding)--became the Goldwater platform, and in 1964, at the end of his second term, he ran for president on it. And he got beat worse than almost anyone else in modern presidential history.
In the 1970s, Goldwater put increasing distance between himself and the Republican Party. It started with Watergate, when he brought down the hatchet on Richard Nixon. Goldwater told his son's best friend, John Dean III, "that SOB was always a liar, so go nail 'im" in Congressional testimony. And it was Goldwater--rather gleefully, if Ben Bradlee is to be believed--who went to the White House on August 7, 1974, to tell Nixon he couldn't win an impeachment trial.
But the real separation between Goldwater and the GOP came when Republican operatives realized, as Richard Viguerie says in the film, "what we were missing [were] the social issues." When the Republican Party began closing the gap between church and state, Goldwater began edging away from the party leadership. In the film we see him saying, "the religious right scares the hell out of me," and suggesting of Jerry Falwell that "all good Christians should kick him in the ass." He supported the service of gays in the military and opposed limits on a woman's right to choose an abortion. For these reasons, one could say--and Walter Cronkite says it in the film--that Goldwater "became a liberal."
But one would be--and Cronkite is--wrong, unless mere personal dislike of Richard Nixon and tolerance of sexual independence constitute liberalism. Most of The Conscience of a Conservative constitutes an appeal to dismantle the federal government. Standing well to the right of Adam Smith, Goldwater writes, "The graduated tax is a confiscatory tax." He cites a tax rate for earners of $100,000 in 1960 that's 23 percentage points higher than it really was to help make his point; facts don't much matter in books like these. He conflates "radical" with "liberal." He advocates cutting welfare, agriculture subsidies, and laws permitting unionization.
Goldwater also carried his small-government convictions into the arena of civil rights. Conscience features numerous dog-whistle appeals to American racists. Pretty much everyone, including Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkins, and Julian Bond, is willing to concede that Goldwater was not personally bigoted. But his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act would speak for itself, even if Goldwater didn't speak for it: "the Supreme Court decision is not necessarily the law of the land," he said in 1964, and he (or Bozell) said likewise in 1960, describing Brown v. Board of Education and allied decisions as "abuses of power by the Court." In italics, Goldwater declares that politics needs to take into account "the essential differences between men." And the only states he won in 1964, apart from his own, were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, a Deep South bloc that, with the exception of Louisiana in 1956, hadn't gone Republican since Reconstruction. In a 1974 article trying to explain why liberals love Goldwater, the journalist Roy Reed tried to distinguish Goldwater and George Wallace: Goldwater's crowd "was not scary in the same way a George Wallace rally is....The difference is in the build of the men at the top....While Wallace is a demagogue, Goldwater is merely a crowd pleaser." Apparently, whatever race-baiting Goldwater encouraged, it was not sincere: He really just wanted to defend a limited interpretation of the Constitution.
So far, so libertarian; so far, so worthy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s grudging admission that Goldwater put forward a "coherent philosophy." But the tenth chapter of The Conscience of a Conservative repudiates the first nine. Up to the book's conclusion Goldwater harps on the need to cut government down, but here he declares, let government's power grow. Why? The title of the chapter is "The Soviet Menace," but Goldwater does not see the enemy as the Soviet Union, he sees it as an idea: "Communism is an enemy bound to destroy us." This war on an -ism poses an existential threat tantamount to World War II. "Our goal," he writes, "must be victory...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." So important is this strategy of aggression, so pressing is the need for a preemptive military war against an ideology that could be anywhere that, Goldwater says, he's willing to set aside his libertarian principles: "As a Conservative, I deplore the huge tax levy that is needed to finance the world's number-one military establishment. But even more do I deplore the prospect of a foreign conquest, which the absence of that establishment would quickly accomplish."
Someone who truly believes, as Goldwater writes, that "individual liberty depends on decentralized government," might nevertheless subordinate his principles in time of war. But once you declare war on an idea, you've declared endless war: Once you've committed yourself to maintain a permanent war footing and a first-strike capacity anywhere at will, you've no kind of libertarian principles at all. Goldwater fantasized that the federal state ballooned in power because the Democratic Party "was captured by the Socialist ideologues in and about the labor movement." But it was the secretive, unaccountable, and ever-growing defense establishment that made decision-making less democratic and government more expensive. Considering today's government, CC Goldwater says, "Anyone who motivates our decisions by fear cannot restore the principles of a country founded in freedom." And she is surely right. Unfortunately her grandfather laid the foundation for the modern use of that motivation. Liberals don't recognize it. But it's all there if you read Goldwater on Goldwater.
By Eric Rauchway