Barry Goldwater and the
Unmaking of the American Consensus
By Rick Perlstein
Hill & Wang -- 671pp -- $30
In the final years of Barry Goldwater's life, liberals battled conservatives for ownership of his political legacy. Some on the left embraced the curmudgeonly Arizonan's strong support for gay rights and legal abortion, as well as his colorful execrations of Religious Right leaders--with specific reference to the parts of his anatomy they were welcome to kiss. According to this revisionist view of the Goldwater legacy, the 1964 Republican Presidential nominee was an enemy of government interference--whether in the boardroom or the bedroom.
But conservatives who had been galvanized by Goldwater's unapologetic extremism, venomous government-bashing, and anticommunist ardor weren't willing to let their hero become an icon of the enemy. They insisted that Goldwater was the creator of the rightist movement that, despite his 1964 debacle, eventually seized the White House under a smoother and more optimistic conservative, Ronald Reagan.
Rick Perlstein's comprehensive and compelling new book makes the answer obvious: Goldwater's true legacy is as an uncompromising conservative. As chronicled in Before the Storm, the scion of a Phoenix department-store magnate took a Republican Party that was a captive of the Eastern Establishment and made it into an instrument run by and for the archconservatives of the burgeoning Sunbelt. And this grandson of a transient, Yiddish-speaking immigrant made history by reaching out to Southern segregationists. His strategy ultimately transformed the Democrats' "solid South" into a Republican bastion. "Here is one time, at least, in which history was written by the losers," concludes Perlstein. Although the author has written for liberal publications such as The Nation, Before the Storm maintains a balanced perspective.
While Goldwater was the front man for the movement, he was hardly its catalyst. The heart of Perlstein's lengthy book is his colorful account of the intellectual giants, the canny political operatives, and the far-out fellow travelers in the conservative cause. Among the most compelling: William F. Buckley Jr., the muckraking son of a Texas oilman kicked out of Mexico for allegedly plotting a coup; L. Brent Bozell, Buckley's Yale College classmate, whose skill as a ghostwriter helped make Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative a national phenomenon; and far-right commentator Clarence "Pat" Manion, a former Notre Dame Law School dean who mobilized big donors behind a draft-Goldwater movement. There are cameo appearances by everyone from Warren Burger and Phyllis Schlafly to Robert Bork, Caspar Weinberger, and William Rehnquist.
This was the original Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. They saw Franklin D. Roosevelt as the first socialist President. They thought Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a weak foil for the international communist cabal. They saw John F. Kennedy as a tool of gangsters and reds. And they saw Nelson A. Rockefeller and his fellow corpocrats as "One World" appeasers.
In Goldwater, they found a rugged, handsome spokesman. With the help of Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, Goldwater rocketed to national prominence in 1952 by upsetting Senate Minority Leader Ernest McFarland, author of the wildly popular G.I. Bill.
The outspoken Arizonan offered the far right a respectable vehicle after the death of the discredited McCarthy. Perlstein plumbs the historical archives for choice Goldwaterisms. In the world according to Barry, even Eisenhower embraced "the siren song of socialism." And the poor deserved their station. "The fact is that most people have no skills, have no education, for the same reason--low intelligence and low ambition," said Goldwater.
The Goldwater of Perlstein's book is not a natural politician. He's rude, crude, surly, and moody--with hints of alcohol abuse and depression. Indeed, he was a reluctant leader of the movement. Manion and other conservative conspirators plotted to draft Goldwater as Republican Vice-Presidential nominee in 1960 to no avail, as Richard M. Nixon opted for Establishment blue blood Henry Cabot Lodge. After Nixon's self-imposed exile beginning in 1962 ("You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore"), Goldwater was persuaded to take on another man he hated: President John F. Kennedy. But Kennedy's assassination left the man who declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" facing Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ, who considered Goldwater "nutty as a fruitcake," won in a rout.
Nutty or not, Goldwater concocted a recipe that would lead the right to power in 1980 and then to control of the levers of power two decades later--for the first time since the 1920s. Among the innovations identified by Perlstein: the importance for a Republican to appeal to "the vast uncommitted middle" without compromising conservative principles; the need to split workers from their union bosses; and the conclusion that racially polarized balloting--with most whites voting Republican and blacks voting Democratic--was a formula for GOP victory.
Where does that leave the left's claim to Goldwater's legacy? Liberals can take solace in Goldwater's hatred of Nixon (whom he considered a pathological liar and an unprincipled opportunist) and his loathing of fundamentalist Protestant preacher-politicians. But on balance, the Arizonan's legacy is clear. Perlstein's Goldwater is fiery, flawed, and unmistakably conservative. Dunham covers the White House.