Goldwater's Grandchildren Rebel Again—This Time, to the Center


The old man's place is up for sale. It perches atop a desert hill in Paradise Valley, a suburb of Phoenix; growing up almost literally in its shadow, I used to marvel at the mighty antenna that bespoke the owner's passion for ham radio. Later on, I liked to imagine the old Senator squinting hawkishly down on the city beneath. Today, for only $4.5 million, you can live in Barry Goldwater's house. His widow, Susan, rejected all notions of turning the place into a museum. She said she wanted it lived in.

The city and state that produced craggy old Barry were, and are, astonishing places, even by American standards. Their growth is of a sort that suggests not just expansion but explosion. Phoenix is the fast-growing of all the country's large cities; in the 1990s, its population has grown more than 20 percent. Arizona is the second-fastest growing state, after Nevada, which builds on a much smaller base. In the 1990s the state has added more than 1 million people, for growth of 27 percent. Personal incomes grew faster here than anywhere but Nevada and Colorado, tying Washington state.

In 1999, a century after the last American frontier vanished, Arizonans are still building frontier towns. Twenty long, bone-dry miles north of Phoenix, past Happy Valley Road and Skunk Creek, on a patch of windy desert that until lately contained nothing but a lonely outlet mall and a handful of ancient mining claims, a town is appearing literally out of nothing. Welcome to Anthem, Arizona. The Del Webb Corp. is building what will eventually be as many as 15,000 homes. And not just homes. Shopping malls, a community center, walking trails and bike paths, churches. "You're buying into the concept of a place where you can live, work, play, worship," says Ben Redman, Anthem's vice president and director of development.

Fiber-optic lines let Anthemites wire their houses for all the voice, fax, and high-speed Internet lines they might ever need; many of the houses come with attached cabanas, for use as home offices. More than 90 percent of the residents and prospects report owning home computers. At last, here is the bedroom community for people who work at home, a suburb without the urb.

Arizona is to America as America is to the world: a place of immigrants seeking fresh starts and boundless horizons. Yet the state also resembles the nation in its uncanny knack for implanting its values in wave after wave of newcomers. Through some obscure political osmosis, Arizona maintains much of the distinctive sagebrush outlook that launched Barry Goldwater into politics five decades ago.

The people pouring into places like Anthem and starting families and entering politics–Goldwater's grandchildren–are ornery, like the old man. They do not like to be told what to do by Washington, or by much of anybody else. They are skeptical of "big government." They are rebels, albeit of a more suburban sort than Barry. Not for the first time in American history, a salty, iconoclastic Arizona Senator (and former military pilot) is upsetting a Republican presidential race. This time the joyfully impolitic interloper is John McCain. All of that, Goldwater would have celebrated.

He would not, however, have been so quick to resonate to the issues that his state's newest newcomers find compelling. Talk to Arizona politicians these days, of both parties, and you hear about education, children, the local (not global) environment. The grandchildren have remained true to Goldwater's temperament but not, it turns out, his policies.

One day in August 1983, Janet Napolitano, fresh out of law school, arrived in Phoenix for a judicial clerkship. Everything she owned was jumbled into her Honda, with a bicycle stuck on the back. She knew no one, the temperature topped 100 degrees, and she had no intention of staying. Last year, ornery Arizona made history by electing women to all five of its statewide offices. All but one of them were Republican. Attorney General Janet Napolitano was the Democrat.

She won in an overwhelmingly Republican state by running a dogged shoe-leather campaign, by stressing competence over ideology (she had been a federal prosecutor), and by talking about both doing more for children and enforcing the law. Today she is overseeing the switch to a new system adjudicating children's removal from troubled homes: a quicker, less adversarial approach that tries to marry two antagonistic cultures, law enforcement and social services. Her crisp, self-contained manner is that of a lawyer, not a politician, which may have had something to do with her victory in 1998. "I felt when I was campaigning that most people were pretty moderate," she says. "The populace had a kind of consensus that's really not being translated very well into public policy."

If he were still around, Goldwater might be amused to find that his representative in the Legislature is a 28-year-old former Eagle Scout and Army officer–son of a Mormon bishop–who is a Republican, a self-described "conservative in the Goldwater tradition," and openly gay. When I met with Steve May in November, one Army committee was trying to kick him out of the reserves for his homosexuality, while another was preparing to promote him for his glowing service record.

May is an exuberant streak of energy whose conservatism is not orthodox. Ask him about his core legislative interests, and he mentions education. He supports charter schools but also wants more money for public ones. "You can't reform education by suffocating the institutions that teach our children," he says. "Suffocating education doesn't make you conservative, it makes you stupid." He also proudly mentions his work with Democrats to fund the arts. If May's inspiration is Goldwater, his eclectic politics is John McCain's. "I don't want big government, I want small government," says May. "But I want good government."

Arizona is the country's runaway leader in charter schools: Its 380 or so constitute about a fifth of the nation's total. Leading the charter charge is Lisa Graham Keegan, the 40-year-old superintendent of public instruction, mentioned by the Great Mentioner as a possible Republican Secretary of Education. She looks ahead toward a world where, as she puts it, money follows children to schools that work. Someday, she says, "people will not even remember why they ever objected to money going to whatever school the child wants to go to."

Very Republican. Not so Republican is her insistence that property taxes are an inherently inequitable, and therefore unacceptable, way to finance education. "The property tax is pernicious in low-income communities, where really high taxes generate really low returns," she says. (Arizona, unusually, finances education from statewide taxes.)

Charter schools allow parents to circumvent politicized school boards and bureaucratic schools. Arizona has also adopted a tax credit that allows parents to "donate" state money to any school, public or private; in order to capture this money, schools must market themselves directly to parents, rather than to politicians and bureaucrats.

The voters defied the political establishment in 1996 by approving medical marijuana in a statewide initiative. When the Legislature effectively overturned the initiative, the voters approved it again in 1998, and for good measure they took away the Legislature's power to overturn initiatives. Another initiative adopted open primaries, which are supposed to help centrist candidates by letting independents–a growing contingent–vote in either party's races. Yet another initiative, likely to be on the ballot in 2000, would seek to end the political gerrymandering of state legislative districts, creating many more competitive seats and, in principle, pushing both parties toward the center.

"I think all these things lend themselves to a centrist tendency and more competition in government," says Chris Cummiskey, a 35-year-old Democrat who is assistant minority leader in the state Senate. He turns out to be–surprise!–a self-described New Democrat who speaks of governing from the vital center. "People want a problem-solving approach to government," he says.

You wonder, looking up at the house on the hill, what old Barry would have thought. Arizonans today seem as wary as he once was of government; again and again they seek to circumvent it and to upset its sinecures. But they have tired of the extremes of partisanship and ideology that Goldwater and his successors went in for, and so they are weakening the party machines and tugging reluctant politicians toward the middle. They have inherited Goldwater's rebellious spirit; but they are rebelling not against government but against politicians, and not to the right but to the center.

So the house Barry built will not be a barren museum, frozen in time. The grandchildren are moving in and rearranging the furniture.