The Conscience of a Curmudgeon


Goldwater, by Barry M. Goldwater with Jack Casserly, New York: Doubleday, 403 pages, $21.95

Curmudgeons come and go in American politics, as in other free societies, rarely leaving any traces other than anecdotes chronicling their curmudgeonliness. Who can remember anything that Ohio's Sen. Steve Young ever did in Congress other than that he responded to hostile letters with a rejoinder that went: "Some horse's ass is signing your name to his letter. I thought you'd like to know."

Will Barry Goldwater leave behind him no more than selected grouchy remarks about the high and the mighty and periodic outbursts? This past year, the former Arizona senator unburdened himself of a near-total condemnation of the Republican convention: its tedium, the bad acoustics at the convention hall, the hubbub, the blather. And not all that long ago, as the senator's party seemed about to perform a mass groveling before the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, our straight-talking curmudgeon cut through the moo and said that "somebody ought to give Falwell a swift kick in the ass." These endearing grumblings threaten to take on a life of their own, such that Barry Morris Goldwater might be remembered, if remembered at all, merely as a politician who spoke his mind.

Such is often the fate of pioneers who didn't cross over into the Promised Land. After all, Barry Goldwater suffered a devastating loss when, pushed to run for president against his instincts and desires, he went down before the Lyndon Johnson juggernaut in 1964. Quick now, name the four people who lost to Franklin Roosevelt.

But if Goldwater never made it, he made possible the career of the one who did. It was his nicely packaged, simple, inspiring speech on behalf of Goldwater in 1964—and it was a speech, endlessly reiterated across the land—that launched Ronald Reagan's political career. From service for Goldwater in 1964 to the California governorship in 1966 to a run for the GOP nomination in 1968, then another in 1976, and then victory in 1980, Ronald Reagan incarnated the promise of Goldwater, becoming, if you will, the Joshua to Goldwater's Moses.

The rest is history, and in a jerkily written, rambling, yet charmingly on-target reminiscence, the Arizonan has selectively recalled important swatches of that history. Along the way, he offers well-trod yet still inspiring glimpses into his family's history and his own youth, young manhood, and emerging involvement with politics. Goldwater is not the history of conservatism in America, as, for instance, George Nash has so carefully provided. Nor is it the intellectual, witty grand overview that might have come from William F. Buckley, Jr.

Like the man, the book is plain, crotchety, unadorned, relatively unsentimental, and right-on. If not the stirring call to activism and promise of triumph that The Conscience of a Conservative was (and believe it or not, remains: just read it again, and you can feel the juices of millions of young Americans flowing), Goldwater is a fitting coda to a career that has had vast significance beyond the particular victories and disappointments of the man himself.

The authors fail in one significant particular: Goldwater skims the Reagan years, leaving us with profundities like: "Reagan…has a gift of eloquence and generosity of spirit that demonstrates the concerns and compassion of Republicans and others." This is neither analysis nor reminiscence; it is fatuous and unenlightening. Perhaps the senator and his coauthor, Jack Casserly, lost steam as they rushed the book through to completion. More likely, Goldwater decided to stand back from the present administration and the current president and leave to others the task of evaluating the '80s. A pity, that, since Goldwater served in the Senate through 1986. His comments are unsparing about the woeful decline of talented and knowledgeable senators. He doesn't much like what he has seen in recent years and hints at some dramatic reforms of Congress. But he says far less than he suggests.

Not so on pre-Reagan personages, among them Richard Nixon: "The most dishonest individual I have ever met in my life. He lied to his wife, his family, his friends, his colleagues in Congress, lifetime members of his own political party, the American people, and the world." And Bob Dole, who "doesn't have the leadership qualities that his job as Minority Leader requires. He tries to make everybody happy." The reader will not be surprised by Goldwater's less-than-flattering references to selected Democrats, though his vast affection for John F. Kennedy and his tremendous respect for Hubert Humphrey might give conservative zealots pause. Barry Goldwater admires guts, people of principle, and generosity of spirit. He abhors deceit, ambivalence, hypocrisy, and meanness, which qualities he finds in ample abundance in the man who beat him in 1964, Lyndon Johnson.

The central message of Goldwater is a clear-cut justification of the conservative faith: in small government (I speak now of vaunted conservative principles, not of the Leviathan that Ronald Reagan and his horde have championed), in Americanism, in individualism, in respect for each person irrespective of condition, race, religion—the usual litany. Goldwater explains his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, angrily defends himself against the stupid charge that he is and was a racist, and without making himself a paragon of virtue does make his decisions based on basic principles plausible to the reader. He's a tough cookie, and he feels no more inclination now than ever to pander to the pious twaddle that passes for "values" among many in both parties.

A student of psychology might have some fun fabricating a theory of Goldwater's penchant for using anal images—"crap" and "ass" and "butt" and "rear end," and the like. And he regales us with his traditional New Year's Eve dance for his grandchildren: "I would bend over, flip up my nightshirt, and show my bare bottom." Maybe it is just the glaring contrast between Goldwater's earthy language, here in a public place in his new book, and the sanctimonious moralistic claptrap that issues from the mouths of today's bunch of conservative hotshots, that brings these particular words their surprising effect.

Goldwater is a nice if not brilliant addition to anybody's library of political commentary. In the spirit of Goldwater's own choice of words, one may say that it's short on bullshit and long on plain talk. The book is a paean to freedom, its subject's career a testament to valor, decency, and belief.

Contributing Editor David Brudnoy is a radio talk show host for WBZ in Boston and a cable-television and newspaper film critic.