Oh, for the Goldwater days of my youth! And even the pre-Goldwater, pre-LBJ, pre-Sputnik days of my youth — when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn, Eddie Fisher was still a wholesome lad and in my home, we still didn’t "like Ike."
Nothing personal, mind you. We thought Ike was a nice old duffer, who was not terribly qualified for the office of President — which was, in fact the first and only purely political office he ever held. Imagine that! Chief executive as an entry-level position!
No, we liked Stevenson, as my father informed me when I was still a tyke. ("We’re not for Eisenhower, he’s a Republican!" Dad explained with a good-natured laugh at my foolishness for even asking.) And of course, we would like JFK even better. The fact that he won helped, but we liked him even when the experts thought he would lose to Nixon. I imagine we would have liked him a great deal even if he had been, like Stevenson, a Protestant. He was, after all, a Democrat.
It took LBJ and "The Great Society" (How I hated that slogan!) to drive me to Goldwater and the Republican camp. But once there, I had all the fervor of a convert to the true faith. I made phone calls for Barry, I stuffed envelopes and even (illegally) mailboxes for Barry. I cheerfully sang along with the Chad Mitchell Trio’s spoof of Goldwater and the young conservatives who idolized him.
"We’re the bright young men, who wanna go back to 1910,
We’re Barry’s boys!
We’re the kids with a cause, a government like Gramama’s,
We’re Barry’s boys!"
Damn straight. I even took a train from my Connecticut town to New York to attend the wildly enthusiastic and hopelessly premature "Goldwater Victory Rally" at Madison Square Garden. We cheered William Rusher, F. Clifton White, and the incomparable Clare Boothe Luce, who told us it was better to "light a candle" and get out the vote than to "sit at home and curse the polls." When Goldwater was finally introduced, we greeted him with a standing ovation lasting 29 minutes.
"Bar-reee! Bar-reee! We want Barry! We want Barry!"
And then we hung on every word — some of them I still remember, 42 years later. I recall how he told us he could, if he chose, say the kind of things candidates generally like to say. "I could tell you that I am for peace and against war, for prosperity and against poverty, for happiness and against misery, for sunshine and against rain. But if I said all that," he said, the harsh edge of contempt rising in his voice, "I’d sound like Johnson!" Oh, how we cheered!
We came back singing "Conservative Folk Songs," the likes of which had never been heard before and have rarely been heard since. "Cool Goldwater," "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dewey," and "Hang Earl Warren" ("to a sour apple tree/His impeachment still won’t fill the bill for folks like you and me.") Oh, it was a grand ol’ time!
One of the tunes in that book of "Conservative Folk Songs" was "Won’t You Come Home, Bill Buckley?" ("Away from Ne-e-e-w York TOWN!") Bill Buckley by then had become something of a cult hero, especially to young conservatives. I had discovered him only that summer when I came across National Review on the newsstand. I was delighted to find a frankly conservative, pro-Goldwater journal that trashed LBJ as "Uncle Cornpone." It was lively, informative, and, oh, so much fun to read!
Goldwater went down in flames that November, but we carried on in our enthusiasm for the "right" cause. (For a time, I continued to wear a button that proclaimed "I am a right wing extremist in defense of liberty.") And Buckley grew in prominence beyond all imagining, in newsprint, on TV, on the lecture circuit and even on the cover of Time magazine. I continued to devour his columns and buy his magazine and even his books, which were mostly collections of his columns. I loved the way he trashed liberals and leftists, from Herbert Matthews ("Herbert Matthews and Fidel Castro, or u2018I Got My Job Through The New York Times’") to the sainted Eleanor Roosevelt. ("Following Mrs. Roosevelt in search of an irrationality was like following a lighted fuse in search of an explosion," Buckley wrote shortly after the dear lady died. "One never had to wait very long.")
In the fall of 1969, I attended a debate between Buckley and Joseph Duffey, then chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. Buckley defended the military industrial complex, reminding everyone that it used to be known as the "arsenal of democracy." Our staggering investment in military weapons and manpower, he argued, was what was required to "keep the barbarians at bay." When Duffey questioned whether "that is what we are doing in Vietnam," Buckley glibly rattled off a list of the horrible things the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were doing to people as evidence that what we were fighting in Vietnam was no doubt barbarism.
I never forgot that phrase: "to keep the barbarians at bay." The phrase itself is memorable. The way Buckley purred it made it even more so. It came to mind often. Later, when I was attending a Catholic college and the administration seemed so protective of the young ladies on campus, I remembered that phrase. "Ah, yes," I realized, "they are trying to keep the barbarians (us testosterone-driven males) at bay."
So imagine may shock when I turned to LewRockwell.com Wednesday morning and found an entry called "Barbaric Bill Buckley" Really? Bill Buckley — the Bill Buckley — a barbarian? It seemed the author of the piece, one Becky Akers, was breaking new ground. I like to think I’ve been pretty daring as a columnist but I’ve never hurled the epithet "barbarian" at anyone more prominent than a former president of the New Hampshire senate. Oh, sure, I thought, Buckley may be wrongheaded about some things, like being in favor of conscription and jingoistic, interventionist military adventures and population control and a few other dreadful things. And his conservatism leaves out a few things, like the Bill of Rights and writs of habeas corpus, but hey, nobody’s perfect. But a barbarian? Really?
Well, I’m grateful for Ms. Akers’ commentary and especially for the link to the Buckley column that inspired it, an opus in which Buckley pondered the moral dilemma of using "alternative interrogation practices" on suspected terrorists. After some hemming and hawing and beating around the bush (What Buckley himself might call "tergiversation"), he came down in favor of it.
I am, of course, disappointed, but no longer surprised. Since Buckley retired as editor of National Review, it’s hard to tell which of the magazine’s positions still reflect his considered judgment. But that publication spoke up in defense of the Bush administration claim of power for the chief executive to imprison "enemy combatants," including U.S. citizens, indefinitely, without trial or even charges filed, effectively following the Soviet method of "disappearing" citizens whom the government finds troublesome. I have to wonder though: Is this the same William F. Buckley who used to speak and write so well against "Caesarism" when Lyndon Johnson was president? We were at war then, too, as I’m sure Mr. Buckley remembers. Yet not even the most enthusiastic supporters of executive power (then the liberals) were advocating the kind of power for LBJ that conservatives now assert on behalf of George W. Bush.
I don’t know what my old hero, Barry Goldwater, would say were he alive today. I do recall, however, a couple of the things he said during those golden days of "AuH2O." He did say, at the height of the Cold War: "Sometimes I fear centralized government in Washington, DC more than I fear Moscow." And he declared, in his bestselling "The Conscience of a Conservative" the following: "Freedom depends on effective restraints against the accumulation of power in a single authority."
But Goldwater, the Cold Warrior of "Why Not Victory," also believed the world was a U.S. precinct and was in favor of a vigorous U.S. policing of same. Perhaps conservatives need to resurrect another role model. With apologies to Paul Simon, I suggest the following for the next edition of "Conservative Folk Songs":
"Where Have You Gone, Bob Alphonso Taft?"
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.