He Was Right

Looking back at the Goldwater moment

Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, by Rick Perlstein, New York: Hill and Wang, 671 pages, $30

Cursed with two plundering, rapacious younger sisters, I grew up with a highly developed sense of private property (it's my room, get out) and freedom of association (I don't want to have a tea party with you and Mrs. Flopsy). This did not always put me in good stead with my parents, or with an angry sixth-grade teacher who insisted that no decent human being could question the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My doubts -- if you own a restaurant, aren't you entitled to decide who can eat there? Isn't that what it means when something is yours? -- were dismissed as callous racism, not only by the teacher, but by the other kids as well. Imagine my astonishment when I heard the Republican presidential candidate on TV agreeing with me. Barry Goldwater quickly became my passion. I wore his campaign button to school, handed out leaflets door to door, and watched the returns election night in crushed disbelief as he absorbed the most hideous beating in American political history.

As it turned out, my experience was by no means unique. Goldwater's doomed candidacy was the political awakening for millions of young Americans thrilled by his promise of a campaign that was "a choice, not an echo." They did not go back to sleep when he lost. They would shift the tectonic plates of the two-party system, forcing a profound realignment; remap the political landscape, drawing boundaries that 40 years later show no signs of change; introduce the concept of ideology into American elections; create sharp tensions within the Republican Party that persist to this day; and, eventually, elect a president, Ronald Reagan, whose rhetoric, if not his actual policies, would dominate the nation's political discourse for the last two decades of the 20th century.

Before the Storm, the first book by Rick Perlstein, a regular contributor to The Nation, is only the first part of this tale -- Barry Goldwater's rise and fall as a national political figure. The former was wildly improbable -- the ascent of a half-Jewish department store owner from a distant state that most Americans thought of as a rattlesnake-infested desert. The latter was utterly inevitable -- the self-destruction of a politician who was maddeningly, hilariously, lovably impolitic. You may remember that Goldwater went into the South and off-handedly mentioned that the Tennessee Valley Authority ought to be sold. But it's only when Perlstein describes him taking a swig of Gold Water, a soft drink bottled by an ardent supporter, and barking, "This tastes like piss! I wouldn't drink it with gin!" that you realize how insanely unsuited for politics Goldwater really was.

Yet he connected with many Americans in a deeply personal way. Lyndon Johnson may have creamed Goldwater at the polls, but it was Goldwater who was truly a grassroots phenomenon. About 3.9 million Americans worked in his campaign, twice as many as in Johnson's. More than 1 million individual donors gave money to Goldwater, almost 20 times as many who contributed money to John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon combined four years earlier. Worried LBJ operatives reported to headquarters late in the campaign that Goldwater bumper stickers outnumbered those of Johnson by a 10-to-1 margin. Clearly, Goldwater touched something in the American consciousness.

To understand what it was, you have to consider the dreary state of American politics in the early 1960s. The Republican Party had never really recovered from the shellacking it took in 1932. The Democrats had controlled Congress almost continuously for three decades and had won six of the last eight presidential elections; only the decision of war hero Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Republican had kept it from being eight straight. Because of the relentless battering -- or perhaps it was vice-versa -- the GOP was mostly dominated by FDR wannabes like Thomas Dewey and Wendell Willkie, "the simple barefoot Wall Street lawyer." Both parties essentially accepted the New Deal precept that modern society (particularly its economic component) was too complex to be left to its own devices; the federal government had to provide an ever-stronger guiding hand. Eisenhower's victory in 1952 only offered more of the same: He set up the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court.

Onto this arid terrain, Barry Goldwater burst like a spring shower. An unenthusiastic politician elected to the Phoenix city council as part of a reform slate, he became a U.S. senator almost by accident, running in an unwinnable race as a sacrificial lamb as a favor to Arizona's tiny Republican Party. He then pulled off an upset when the overconfident incumbent barely set foot in the state during the election. He took the national stage for the first time during the McClellan Committee hearings on mob control of labor unions in 1958.

Goldwater was less interested in Jimmy Hoffa's trickery with Team-ster finances than he was in Walter Reuther's ambition to couple the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party in an effort to bring about a centrally planned U.S. economy. Goldwater used the hearings -- including, eventually, a direct confrontation with Reuther in the witness chair -- to make the point that the growing power of labor unions was anything but democratic in the way most Americans understood that term. Workers were forced to join the unions by closed shop contracts, then their money was extracted through compulsory dues that went, in large part, to the Democratic Party. "I would rather have Hoffa stealing my money," Goldwater declared, "than Reuther stealing my freedom."

It might be easy enough to dismiss this as labor-bashing grandstanding (and Perlstein certainly tries), but there was a stubborn consistency to Goldwater's critique of American politics. At a time when Eisenhower was hugely popular and Goldwater desperately needed his support for a shaky reelection bid, the Arizonan nonetheless went to the Senate floor and unleashed a scorching tirade against the president for succumbing to "the siren song of socialism" in preparing his record-setting 1958 budget. Soon after, he ripped the farm subsidies so dear to the hearts of Midwestern Republicans. He sneered at the passion of both parties for technocratic reformers: "I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient for I mean to reduce its size."

Nor was Goldwater's philosophy purely political. He stressed both personal liberty and personal responsibility, and warned against the propensity of modern liberalism to see society as a collection of groups: "The conservative knows that to regard men as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery....Every man, for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being."

Goldwater, in short, was a politician of ideas, not knee-jerk reaction or pork-barrel plenitude. His ideas appealed to a large segment of the population (Goldwater called them "the forgotten Americans") -- instinctively wary of the growing power in Washington and the elite class that wielded it -- that had long been without a political voice. Their elation at the end of their isolation showed in their wild response to Goldwater's speeches, though he was generally a humdrum speaker who only occasionally drifted up into the oratorical jetstream where Ronald Reagan would later cruise.

He appealed not only to traditional conservatives but to young Americans harboring quiet worries that their lives were being put together on a social assembly line over which they had no control. Goldwater's cry against conformity struck a chord, loudly, with them. Later, as he ran for president, the news media would delight in caricaturing Goldwater as a reactionary loon trying to rub out an entire century of American history. (Editorial cartoons frequently showed his supporters carrying signs reading "Goldwater in 1864.") But his fears about the loss of individuality to the madding crowd were on the razor edge of the social debate on America's restless college campuses, and shared much with the early manifestos of Students for a Democratic Society.

Every coffee-house folksinger in the country was droning Malvina Reynolds' song "Little Boxes" about a cookie-cutter society in which suburban commuters and their houses, wives, children, and martinis were indistinguishable from one another: "And they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same." No dorm room's bookshelf could be without David Reisman's The Lonely Crowd, William H. Whyte's The Organization Man, along with Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Ayn Rand. It was fertile ground for the Arizonan's message, and the initial boomlet for a national Goldwater candidacy -- as Richard Nixon's vice-presidential candidate in 1960 -- owed much to a spontaneously formed Youth for Goldwater group.

But the GOP establishment would have none of Goldwater in 1960. Nixon chose as his running mate Henry Cabot Lodge, a prototype of the liberal Northeastern Republicans. When Nixon lost, conservatives were determined to take matters into their own hands. When Goldwater was reluctant to run, they formed a secret draft committee that went about organizing for the 1964 GOP convention. Goldwater was close to locking up the 655 convention delegates he needed for the nomination before he even knew he was a candidate.

The nomination, unfortunately, was followed by a truly catastrophic general election campaign in which Goldwater won only six states. Goldwater was doomed even before he started, his fate settled by the bullets in Dealey Plaza. In the fall of 1963, Kennedy's erratic foreign policy and public uneasiness over his support for the civil rights movement made him look vulnerable. His approval rating had dropped from the 70s to 57 percent. An anti-Kennedy book by conservative hatchet man Victor Lasky soared to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, and Look magazine ran a feature headlined "JFK Could Lose."

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    Cursed with two plundering, rapacious younger sisters, I grew up with a highly developed sense of private property (it's my room, get out) and freedom of association (I don't want to have a tea party with you and Mrs. Flopsy). This did not always put me in good stead with my parents, or with an angry sixth-grade teacher who insisted that no decent human being could question the Civil Rights Act of 1964. My doubts -- if you own a restaurant, aren't you entitled to decide who can eat there?

    It's good to see that you carried your childhood thinking forward and are applying it to your adult thinking.

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