June 1, 1998


Analysis by Howard Gleckman

Without Barry Goldwater, there would have been no Ronald Reagan.

Goldwater, who died on May 29 at age 89, was a pivotal figure of the last half of this century. Though he was crushed in his 1964 Presidential race against Lyndon Johnson, the outspoken libertarian was the first post-war national politician to question the New Deal. And it was Goldwater who first energized the young conservatives who, decades later, are the leaders of today's GOP.

When Reagan ran on his less-government-is-more platform in 1980, he was merely reaping a harvest from ground that Goldwater plowed 16 years before. The big tax cuts of 1980? Goldwater demanded them while Reagan was still hosting the TV show Death Valley Days. Privatizing Social Security? Goldwater was talking that up 25 years ago. And the long-awaited balanced budget? Somewhere, Goldwater is growling, "What took 'em so damn long?"

Barry Goldwater was outspoken and often outrageous. Republicans howled with indignation when Johnson ran a now-famous TV ad juxtaposing a freckled-faced little girl and the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb -- an ad that more than hinted at Goldwater's itchy trigger finger. But Goldwater would have used nuclear bombs in Vietnam. He said so often in the aftermath of his disastrous '64 campaign.

Sadly, like many prophets, Goldwater was later marginalized by his own disciples. Indeed, today's GOP is a battleground between the economic conservative/social libertarians whose roots go back to Goldwater and the religious right -- whom Goldwater detested. The Arizonan favored abortion rights, had no objection to homosexuals serving in the military, and generally believed that government had no business intruding in the personal lives of any American. Goldwater famously said that Jerry Falwell, a leader of the Christian Right, "deserved a boot right in the ass" for pushing his values on the GOP.

In 1964, Goldwater was a self-described extremist. Today, many of his views -- on domestic policy at least -- have become shockingly mainstream. But Goldwater was destined to never become politically acceptable. While he instinctively grasped that the New Deal had reached its limits, he was 15 years ahead of the voters.

Goldwater's other political flaw was, of course, his candor. In the era of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich -- each of whom is willing to say whatever it takes to get them through the day -- there was no room for the straight-shooting Goldwater -- who really did prefer to be right than President.

Gleckman, a senior correspondent in Business Week's Washington bureau, frequently offers his views for BW Online

News Flash Archives

Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.
Terms of Use