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."

But the bullets that cut down Kennedy that November ricocheted crazily through the ranks of his political enemies. Though the assassin was a lifelong Marxist who had defected to the Soviet Union and was seeking a visa to Cuba only weeks before the shooting, the blame, unaccountably, settled on the American right. Goldwater's popularity plunged 16 percentage points in a matter of weeks, never to recover. And even Americans who didn't hold him responsible for Kennedy's death were queasy about casting a vote that might result in the seating of the third president in 14 months.

Their apprehensions were fed at every opportunity by journalists who barely tried to conceal their shilling for Lyndon Johnson. Walter Cronkite falsely reported that Goldwater snapped "no comment" when asked about Kennedy's assassination. His CBS colleague Daniel Schorr managed to top that, claiming that Goldwater would officially open his campaign in "Hitler's stomping ground…Bavaria, the center of Germany's right wing." (Actually Goldwater had accepted an invitation to visit a U.S. Army base in Germany from his buddy Lt. Gen. William Quinn, father of the well-known Hitler Youth leader Sally Quinn, who would later run the secret bund at the Washington Post Style section.)

Late in the campaign, Johnson told the reporters covering his campaign that Goldwater was already beaten, and asked them which Republican congressmen most deserved to be purged: "Give me some names and either Hubert or I will try to get into their districts in the next few days and talk against 'em." The reporters helpfully suggested that Bob Dole of Kansas would make a good target.

But anti-Goldwater journalists got a good bit of help from the candidate himself, whose tendency to shoot from the lip often undercut his own message. Goldwater often unveiled startlingly new policies and ideas in response to a reporter's casual question, inevitably catching his staff unprepared. Sometimes this resulted in potentially attractive proposals (like the volunteer army, a Goldwater suggestion that went virtually unnoticed) getting lost in the background noise of the campaign. Other times, the candidate wound up looking like a nut case.

To wit: One of the many earthquakes that rocked the campaign was touched off when Goldwater offhandedly said that Minuteman missiles, one of the mainstays of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, were undependable. When stunned reporters asked how undependable, Goldwater airily replied: "That's classified information. But they're not dependable, I can tell you that." In fact, there were a lot of scientists and military men who shared his doubts: Kennedy's nuclear test-ban treaty had gone into effect before the Pentagon got a chance to fire a Minuteman loaded with a nuclear warhead. Nobody really knew if it worked.

Had staffers known Goldwater was going to talk about it, they could have been standing by with fact sheets explaining the background, including names and phone numbers of experts who agreed with him. Moreover, they could have added (as Goldwater had not) that one of his reservations about missiles was that, unlike bombers, they couldn't be called back, making an accidental nuclear exchange much more likely. That point would undoubtedly have played well with the public at a time when the movies Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove were drawing huge audiences. Instead, nobody was prepared, and Goldwater, not for the last time in the campaign, looked mildly loony.

To make matters worse, Goldwater's campaign did attract some boosters who seemed barely tethered to planet Earth, from John Birchers who thought Eisenhower was a communist to hardcore racists who praised the murder of civil rights activists. Their zealotry quickly became the stuff of legends. Among the funniest portions of Perlstein's book is his blow-by-blow account of a Young Republicans convention where the pro- and anti-Goldwater forces began by slashing one another's microphone cords and ended by brawling on the speaker's platform. (It's no coincidence, I suspect, that Hillary Clinton's maiden foray into politics was as a Goldwater Girl.) Sometimes Goldwater almost seemed to be running against his own supporters, scolding them in speeches for latching on to particular issues without understanding the underlying philosophy: "I can't help but wondering, sometimes, if you've asked yourselves why my campaign is the way it is."

Nothing was more problematic than the civil rights issue—particularly the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed most forms of racial discrimination. Goldwater was no racist; early in his career as a Phoenix city council member, he aggressively supported local civil rights ordinances. But as his conservatism deepened, he grew first skeptical and then fearful about the use of government for social engineering. "You cannot pass a law that will make me like you—or you like me," Goldwater told one rally. "That is something that can only happen in our hearts." He understood, too, that government-mandated affirmative action was merely the flip side of segregationist racialism: "It reintroduces through the back door the very principle of allocation by race that makes compulsory segregation morally wrong and offensive to freedom." And, that, to Barry Goldwater, was the bottom line. "Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society," he said. "It is to preserve a free society."

Goldwater was privately appalled to discover that his opposition to the Civil Rights Act rallied to his side not only libertarians but racists who detested and feared not state power but black people. He was horrified when Alabama's racist Gov. George Wallace offered to switch parties and run as his vice president. Goldwater eventually became so paranoid about the influx of racists to his campaign that he worried that a summer riot in Harlem had been secretly instigated by his supporters in hopes of generating a white backlash vote.

In recounting the role that the civil rights controversy played in the election, Perlstein is at his worst. Perlstein, personally charmed by Goldwater (as even many of his deadliest political enemies were), acknowledges that his opposition to the law was based on genuine principle rather than racism or political expediency. But he is unable to bring himself to say the same for any of the millions of people who supported Goldwater. He sympathetically describes Lyndon Johnson shaking his head, wondering how it could be that Goldwater voters "seemed willing to turn back the clock on every social gain of the past 30 years—just for the chance to vote nigger-nigger-nigger."

Perlstein's disdain for Goldwater's supporters extends well past the civil rights issue. If middle-aged, they're described as balding and paunchy; if young, pimply; but always as kooks and cranks "for whom Goldwater was the answer to every question and every conspiracy." In one unwitting aside, Perlstein offers perhaps the most telling critique of modern liberalism I've ever seen. He ridicules a Goldwater supporter whose Boston neighborhood is targeted for destruction by an urban renewal campaign. To Perlstein's smirking amusement, the man has erected a sign in his yard that says, WE SHALL DEFEND OUR HOMES WITH OUR LIVES. It seems that the right of black people to eat at a Woolworth's lunch counter is sacred, while the right of a white working-class man to not have his home torn down by Harvard-trained social engineers is comic-opera buffoonery.

If Perlstein is tone deaf when it comes to the concerns of Americans outside of liberalism's favored classes, he's surprisingly evenhanded when it comes to the issue that haunted Goldwater's campaign more than any other: his supposedly quick trigger finger on foreign policy. Perhaps the most memorable moment of the campaign was the infamous "daisy" commercial produced by Johnson's hardball TV people. The ad opened with a little girl in a field, counting aloud as she picked petals from a daisy. Suddenly the girl looks up, startled; the frame freezes; a man's voice picks up the count, reversing it, three-two-one; the freeze-frame cuts away to film of an atomic explosion, the mushroom cloud spreading malignantly across the screen. "Vote for President Johnson on November 3," an announcer intones. "The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

The ad—which ran only once before it was pulled, but lived on endlessly in the resulting controversy—was the subject of bitter complaint by the Goldwater forces, who called it a dirty low blow. The ad was indeed unfair, not so much in implying Goldwater was frighteningly bloodthirsty, but in implying that Democrats were not.

Goldwater had surely earned his reputation as a gunslinger with his proposal to use tactical nukes to defoliate Vietnam, his repeated calls to give NATO armies the right to use atomic weapons on their own, and his constant refrain that U.S. strategists shouldn't let fear of nuclear war keep them from standing up to the Soviet Union. But, as Perlstein notes, Goldwater in this case was a mere echo of the mainstream foreign policy thinking in the Democratic Party. When it came to the Cold War, the two parties were both unremittingly hawkish. Goldwater's decree that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" was merely the Reader's Digest version of Kennedy's Inaugural Day promise that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

The most white-knuckle act of nuclear brinkmanship in American history was Kennedy's blockade of Cuba during the missile crisis. A close second was his nationally televised 1961 speech in which he bluntly threatened to go to war with the Soviets over Berlin, putting long-range bombers on 15 minutes' alert and warning Americans to start building fallout shelters. Perlstein calls the speech "the most terrifying of the Cold War" and adds: "Later Barry Goldwater would say the same kinds of things during the 1964 presidential campaign, and people would call him a madman."

Perlstein is equally merciless when it comes to Vietnam. Goldwater, he notes, insistently and correctly argued that Kennedy and Johnson had gotten the United States far more deeply involved than anyone realized, that we were sliding into an impossible "defensive war" that neither Congress nor the American public had ever authorized. Johnson replied, straight-faced, with the most notorious lie in the history of American politics: "We are not going to send American boys nine or 10 thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves." As he spoke, his best and brightest advisors were putting the finishing touches on a deployment plan that would have nearly 200,000 American soldiers in Vietnam within a year.

Of course, on Election Day in 1964, Johnson won 43 million votes to Goldwater's 27 million. Perlstein takes unholy delight in quoting the post-mortems in which the usual gang of Washington idiots, from Scotty Reston to Arthur Schlesinger, pronounced the Republican Party officially dead and the Goldwaterites banished to the wilderness. They were absurdly, comically wrong. It didn't take long for Americans to recognize that Goldwater had been right about Vietnam (it was a war) and civil rights (you really couldn't make people like each other by passing a law). The GOP made a strong showing in the 1966 congressional elections and retook the presidency in 1968. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, who first emerged as a national political figure with a wildly popular nationally televised pro-Goldwater speech in the final days of the '64 campaign, would be elected president.

There was one strain of the Republican Party banished into the wilderness after 1964—the patrician Eastern liberals that Goldwater so despised. (Though the controversy over the martyr act of Vermont Sen. James Jeffords last year shows that a few tattered survivors still remain, like Japanese soldiers holed up in the caves of the Philippines.) The two currents that Goldwater brought into the party, the libertarians and the Southerners, coexist uneasily. If there were any doubt in which of them Goldwater himself felt more at home, it was resolved when he famously suggested that Republicans ought to "kick Jerry Falwell right in the ass."

Perlstein, surveying all this nearly four decades later, concludes: "Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers." If only. It's fair to say that Goldwater won a permanent place in America's political debate for libertarian ideas. But few of them have triumphed. Taxes consume a higher percentage of national income than ever, and George W. Bush managed to pass a tax cut last year only with the Keynesian argument that it would stimulate a lagging economy, not because hundreds of congressmen started sporting TAXATION IS THEFT buttons.

The drug war has become the new Vietnam, consuming an ever-larger share of resources and lives. New groups demanding entitlements disguised as civil rights, from non-smokers to the handicapped, pop up with depressing regularity. Even the Reagan Revolution was mostly imaginary. The Energy and Education Departments are still standing, and federal expenditures and the federal deficit climbed steadily throughout his administration. Even the much-ballyhooed reductions in force in the Washington bureaucracy during Reagan's first year in office amounted to less than four-tenths of a percent of the federal workforce and were quickly swallowed up by new hiring.

What we really wound up with was not history written by libertarians, but the acid punch line of a joke that made the rounds in 1966: They told me that if I voted for Goldwater, we'd have a war in Southeast Asia, civil and racial unrest, and a ruined economy. I went ahead and voted for him anyway, and it turned out they were absolutely right.