Neocon Myths About Barry Goldwater

Email Print

Prospecting for AuH2O

by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy

Andrew Busch, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, gets at least one thing right in his essay "The Goldwater Myth" in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books: Barry Goldwater was not a libertarian. Certainly Murray Rothbard didn’t consider him one; he recognized the Arizona senator as an archetypal Cold War conservative. Other prominent libertarians warned that Goldwater’s concessions to the welfare state would undermine its more thoroughgoing critics. After all, if even an extremist like Goldwater stopped short of calling for the outright privatization — or abolition — of the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, then those who did could readily be dismissed as outright loons.

Goldwater was no libertarian in ’64, and it was hardly without reason that the book published under his name four years before — penned by Brent Bozell at the behest of Dean Clarence Manion of Notre Dame — was called The Conscience of a Conservative. But Andrew Busch and the Claremont Review of Books don’t stop there. For them, the real Goldwater isn’t enough; they want a Goldwater myth of their own to tie the man and his movement to George W. Bush. So the professor from Claremont McKenna sets out to create one, borrowing from the black arts of Procrustes, Harry Jaffa, and Victor Frankenstein to fabricate a Barry Goldwater that even the Moral Majority could love.

"Strange … that these days many commentators believe that Goldwater’s conservatism was a different species from Reagan’s and, especially, from George W. Bush’s," he writes. "Though admittedly an economic conservative, Goldwater has become an icon of opposition to social conservatism." Busch quotes John McCain, the Goldwater Institute’s Darcy Olsen, and George Will — who suggests a connection between Goldwater and the nightstick liberalism of Rudy Giuliani — to that effect.

At stake in this dust-up over a dead man’s legacy are claims that "the cultural Right has abandoned true conservatism," that "presidents like Reagan and Bush … deviate from Goldwater’s rugged and pure frontier conservatism," and that "Republicans must move back in Goldwater’s direction if they are to reclaim their intellectual credibility." But these are all moot points: Republicans have never had anything like intellectual credibility; Reagan and Bush have nothing to do with the frontier; and the cultural right comes in two very distinct varieties. Serious traditionalists have not abandoned conservatism, though many of them abandoned Bush. Political operators like Ralph Reed, on the other hand, are another story altogether.

There is, however, something more at issue: the good name of the late senator, whose reputation is at least marginally better than that of the average office holder and who, whatever his sins, does not deserve to be tarred with responsibility for George W. Bush and the state of movement conservatism today. And as a simple matter of fact, Goldwater was no cultural conservative in either sense of the term: he was neither a Kirkian traditionalist nor a man who would exploit faith, his or others’, to win elections.1

Busch acknowledges that the later Goldwater was no fan of the Religious Right. He quotes Goldwater’s famous 1981 remark that "every good Christian should kick [Jerry] Falwell in the ass" and notes the senator’s waffling on abortion — though Busch exaggerates the degree to which Goldwater was ever anti-abortion — as well as his support in retirement for letting homosexuals serve in the military. None of this, though, means that Goldwater conservatism is distinct from the ideology of Bush’s values-voters, since "Goldwater’s move away from social conservatism came only in the twilight of his Senate career — and more starkly after he had left the Senate in 1987."

Fair enough, yes? Except that two paragraphs later, Busch writes, "several of the hot-button issues that later mobilized social conservatives en masse were non-issues in 1964, or had barely begun to stir." Busch says this in order to establish that Goldwater could not have been an explicit advocate of a religious-political movement that didn’t exist in his heyday. But of course, the reverse is true as well: he could not very well oppose something that hadn’t yet come to be. Once the Religious Right did develop into a political force in the 1980s and 1990s, Goldwater repudiated whatever support for its issues he may once have had.

But what about the Goldwater of the 1960s? Like most politicians, he knew how to use a rostrum as a pulpit. Busch cites copious examples of Goldwater rhetoric about moral decline and religious faith. Just how reliable an interpreter of such language Busch is, however, can be judged from the use to which he puts the following anecdote:

The campaign also produced, but did not air, a television program called u2018Choice.’ It focused on the u2018moral issue,’ and featured disturbing footage of topless bars, wild beatnik parties, drunken college students, and riots by both whites and blacks. Goldwater declined to use the film in the end, but only, it seems, because he feared that scenes of blacks rioting would introduce unseemly racial overtones into the campaign.

Goldwater did indeed denounce "Choice" as "a racist film." But that was not the only reason he distanced himself from an ad that in fact had little overt racial content. Here’s what Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess, who was in the room when the senator was first shown the film, relates about the episode in his autobiography Mostly on the Edge:

I recall also a campaign trip to Philadelphia, one on which my older son accompanied me, that revealed the profound decency of the man [Goldwater]. In the afternoon before the senator’s appearance, there was a briefing to review a television ad that supporters had put together to exploit the ever-present, always popular issue of moral decline in America. It was the sort of slimy self-righteous imagery that has come to dominate American politics today. It showed topless (but appropriately censored) women at a public beach and had the stern voice-over, holier-than-thou condemnation of the country’s slide into moral decay. Before a word could be said, the senator turned to my son — then sixteen years old — and asked his opinion. Young Karl said the ad was silly, had nothing to do with the ideas of the campaign, and was dirty politics to boot. Goldwater agreed. That was it; the ad was pulled, and the campaign stuck to the high ground of principles and substantive issues.

"That dirty movie" was what the senator called it in 1981, when he watched it again at a reunion with members of the Draft Goldwater Committee, according to Goldwater biographer and longtime historian of the conservative movement Lee Edwards. Race-baiting was not the only thing the senator found distasteful about the film.

Goldwater the man can be distinguished from the Goldwater movement, however. If the case cannot be made that the senator himself would be comfortable with the Bush coalition, it need not follow that Goldwater’s voters, volunteers, and admirers would be similarly uneasy. But take a look at the components of 1960s conservatism and consider how they have fared in the four decades since.

There were, first of all, the Cold Warriors, who can be divided into two camps: the anti-Communists, whose raison d’tre disappeared along with the Soviet Union; and the outright militarists, who are now stronger than ever. A few surviving anti-interventionists supported Goldwater, too, and the senator, though a Cold Warrior himself and an Eisenhower delegate in ’52, was not entirely unsympathetic to them. Hess recalls that once, "I read aloud the part of SDS’s founding Port Huron statement dealing with foreign policy. To the senator, and to me, it sounded brilliantly isolationist, in the Taft mold. The senator’s reaction was that it could have been written for Young Americans for Freedom, the foremost right-wing youth group. I explained that it really couldn’t have, because YAF was deeply committed to the expansion of the American empire through military power."

Then there were those voters and activists who were chiefly interested in Goldwater’s stand against forced integration and the Civil Rights Act. Some of these people were outright segregationists and racists; others were states’ rights constitutionalists or libertarians. Ironically, while the GOP has long anathematized racists — and Goldwater in particular did so — the party retains a strong appeal for them. That appeal was first felt in ’64, when the only states to go for Goldwater besides his native Arizona were in the Deep South. Not all of those voters, and reasonably not even a majority of them, were strict constitutionalists. More recently, the Washington Post has noted a study showing that Bush voters tend to have more negative views of blacks than Democrats do. Race-conscious whites are still part of the GOP coalition, whatever the party’s explicit policies.

Goldwater-style opposition to compulsory integration, however, is entirely dead. Goldwater was no racist himself: he integrated the Arizona Air National Guard and abolished segregation in his family’s department stores. But he took states’ rights and property rights seriously, so that as late as 1988 he could tell the New Yorker, "I voted against civil-rights legislation because I thought it was unconstitutional. I still believe that if you have a boarding house and you don’t want to rent to a Jew or a black man or an Irishman, you have that right." That’s a principled, unpopular position — one that no Republican would dream of giving voice to today.

So what about cultural conservatives? In the 1960s there were certainly traditionalists and religious conservatives, if not quite what we now know as the Religious Right — evangelicals and charismatics had not yet been politicized and abortion law had yet to be federalized. Even so, if militarism and racial politics provide two threads of continuity between the Goldwater movement and much of the contemporary right, some manner of cultural conservatism does too. Values-voters went for Goldwater in u201864 and for Bush forty years later.

But just as Goldwater was no traditionalist — Brent Bozell, who was one, told Catholic scholar Patrick Allitt, "Goldwater didn’t know much about conservatism" until he read The Conscience of a Conservative — Bush’s credentials as a latter-day social conservative don’t stand up to examination. Bush, after all, supported federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research — something that the 1960s Goldwater, pro-choice though he was, would not have done, given his (relatively) limited-government philosophy. Some religious conservatives credit Bush for his court picks — but this is a man who put Alberto Gonzales on the Texas Supreme Court and who tried to place Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court of the United States. His top priority in judicial matters, it’s plain to see, is not ending abortion but strengthening executive power.

(The rise of abortion as a matter of conservative dogma, incidentally, goes to show how much conservatism has changed since the 1960s — not merely developed, but moved in a new direction. There were anti-abortion conservatives in the ’60s, to be sure. But the leading conservative spokesmen of the era were functionally pro-choice. That included not only Goldwater, but also Ronald Reagan, who as governor of California liberalized the state’s abortion laws. And who wrote in 1966 "Some Catholics may understand themselves to be pleading as defenders of the rights of unborn children of whatever faith, and the stand is honorable; but not viable; and the means by which the case is pleaded must be suasive rather than coercive"? That was a 40-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr. He and Reagan later had changes of heart.)

Finally, the Goldwater movement included foes, to one extent or another, of the welfare state and the legacy of the New Deal. Some of these were libertarians, others green-eyeshade conservatives. How have they fared with the conservative Republican administration of George W. Bush? One need hardly ask. If you had wanted spending like Bush’s in 1964, you would have voted for Lyndon Johnson, not Goldwater.

Goldwater conservatism, contrary to Busch, was a thing very different from the conservatism (such as it is) of the present administration and its supporters. One can show the historical steps that led from Goldwater to George W. Bush, but that would be an account of ongoing change — deformation, some might say — rather than continuity. What the Goldwater movement did bequeath to the modern Right was a preference for force in foreign policy and devotion to military build-up and the national-security apparatus at home. The rest has been flux.

There were some admirable elements in the Goldwater coalition — serious about cutting government, desirous of strictly limiting federal power — but those elements today are without a home, and no place could be less congenial to them than the Bush White House and Republican Congress. One might almost say the same for Barry Goldwater himself, were he still alive.


  1. Unlike more recent presidential aspirants, Goldwater refused to make a spectacle of his faith on the campaign trail. As Karl Hess recalls: There was the matter of going to church. As the presidential campaign got underway, the public relations people began planning all of the conventional coverage of the candidate. One of the hoariest of campaign conventions is the coverage of the candidate attending church.

Senator Goldwater has a deeply held, personal religious faith. He doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t argue about it. He doesn’t use it to score political points. He just has it. And he does not attend church on any regular basis. So, when asked to go to church so that the photographers could snap him, he simply said no. He didn’t go.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is literary editor for the American Conservative. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

Email Print