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A Long View: Goldwater in History

Early in the campaign Barry Goldwater established a firm image of himself as predictably unpredictable: no one can tell where the audacious veerings and swoopings of his mind will take him, what bizarre new sallies he will launch, what vast intellectual retreats he will find it necessary to undertake without acknowledging that he has budged an inch.

One stands in bewilderment before such a mentality. The temptation to explain the man simply as an outrageous opportunist must be resisted. There is, and indeed should be, an element of the opportunist in every political man, and Goldwater is no exception. His opportunism has grown as he has moved closer to the grand prize. But his earlier voting record, taken as a whole, is not the record of an opportunist but of a man of principle, whatever you think of his principles.

Nor is it quite satisfactory to settle for the proposition that he is not as alert or informed intellectually as we are accustomed to expect our major political figures to be. There must be many men active in our public life who are no smarter than Goldwater but who do not share his lust for banalities and absurdities. Indeed, one of Goldwater’s problems is that his mind is not only more vigorous but also more pretentious than the ordinary. He yearns for profundity, and is so intent upon elaborating his ideas that he has written, or at least signed, two books that have increased his vulnerability. Much of his difficulty rests, I believe, upon the fact that his serious political education began only recently, and he has been in the unenviable position of having to conduct it in public.

It is no simple thing to account for the development and the prominence of a mind so out of key with the basic tonalities of our political life, and it would take a soothsayer to tell us what we can expect of it in the future. However, Goldwater’s present difficulties in winning broader acceptance, even among the moderate voters in his own party, may blind us to the fact that up to the point of his nomination at the Cow Palace his impulsive and contradictory pronouncements were a part of his stock in trade and they were selling. His main problem now is that it is hard to create still another new image of himself. It is possible, I believe, to discern three overlapping but fairly distinct Barry Goldwaters. The chronological lines that separate them are by no means absolute, and the earlier Goldwaters can still be seen slightly below the surface of the latest Goldwater. Still, for the purpose of understanding his career, they can be roughly distinguished.


Goldwater I is the original, the native, the impulsive Goldwater, as he was raised in Arizona and as he regularly expressed himself up to about a year ago, before he mounted his final campaign for the nomination. To understand him one must think of the political and social atmosphere of the Southwest, where the raw views of the new millionaires count for much more than they do in other parts of the country, a region where the reforms of the New Deal, now a generation behind us, are still acutely controversial. Imagine a charming, vigorous, basically apolitical man somehow drawn out of this atmosphere into political affairs. Endowed with an active, though largely untutored, mind, he is attracted by the resonances of deep-sounding ideas, and he superimposes upon the brash conservatism of the country-club locker rooms some hasty acquaintance with the notions of our ultraconservative highbrows. Grant that you begin with a man who has a keen taste for combat—political, moral, or military—and who looks upon the necessity of countering the dominant liberal philosophy of the country as a welcome challenge to his manliness and independence. Here you have the first Goldwater, who charmed the right-wing enthusiasts in the Republican party, and whose ardent campaigning among them built up the strong cult that has made him what he is today.

Now imagine the uninhibited psychological mood in which the ideas of Goldwater I are formed and expressed. First, there is the remoteness from actual administrative, and even from legislative, responsibility; as Senator, Goldwater does not become responsible for any major positive legislation, is never thrown into a position in which he must carefully weigh the relation between legislative aims and social realities. His entire intellectual stance puts him into a negative relation to the legislative process. His contribution as a senator is not to sit, as for example, Robert A. Taft did, with other senators in committee trying to iron out the intricacies of pending legislation: it is simply to vote No. In fact, the greatest part of his political life during the years of his senatorial prominence is to make speeches—hundreds of them—before audiences already largely or entirely sympathetic to his message. He is an ideologue and a prophet; he has little need to persuade, only to exhort, and like most exhorters he hypnotizes himself with his own repetition. He luxuriates in saying what he truly believes, without having to weigh his words, before receptive and enthusiastic audiences. In the process, he makes friends and admirers throughout the country. As yet he does not really expect to be nominated for the Presidency, much less to be President; so it is hardly necessary for him to think very much about what his ideas would actually involve if they were the ideas of the man in the White House.

Goldwater I, then, spoke freely. “I of the world thinks about the United States as long as we keep strong militarily.” “We should, I believe, announce in no uncertain terms that we are against disarmament.” For a time he favored withdrawing recognition from the Soviets. He found the U. N. “unworkable,” and urged that we “quit wasting our money on it.” He denied that there is “such a thing as peaceful coexistence.” He thought that Khrushchev’s visit to the United States was the consequence of “a craven fear of death” that had entered the American consciousness. He attacked Eisenhower’s 1957 budget as “a betrayal of the people’s trust,” and his administration as a “dime store New Deal,” urged that the government sell TVA “even if they only get one dollar for it.”


If Goldwater I represents the Goldwater id, Goldwater II represents the Goldwater ego, aware of the eyes of a larger world, and now making certain more rational calculations about what a major public figure ought to be saying. Goldwater II became increasingly evident about a year ago. Goldwater is here no longer the provincial prophet but an increasingly powerful party figure about to make a sustained bid for the presidential nomination, and concerned about what his ideas might sound like to a larger national audience. While he is not yet making statements that risk alienating his true believers, he is beginning to realize that some of his past utterances have discredited him. He states that he is going to process his past statements through a computer so that he will have greater mastery over what he has said. (This in itself marks a historic moment in our politics.) His statements are now often set forth within the framework of a kind of craftsmanlike equivocation.

Now it is not withdrawal of recognition of the Soviet that is demanded but the use of the threat to withdraw recognition as a means to win bargaining concessions. Withdrawal from the U.N. is no longer urged—except if Red China should be admitted. In the New Hampshire campaign Goldwater declares: “We must stay in the United Nations, but we must improve it.” Again, in the same campaign, he insists that the statement that he is against social security is a “flagrant lie,” but adds that he does believe that by 1970 social security beneficiaries “will be asking questions such as whether better programs couldn’t be bought on the private market.” More recently he has suggested threatening the Red Chinese with a show of force if they continued to supply the Viet Cong guerrillas, but he quickly added: “I’m not really recommending this but it might not be an impossible idea.”

Goldwater II’s increasingly experimental way with ideas may be explained in part by his previous business experience. While he has never had any administrative or legislative responsibility, he was a successful businessman in Arizona, and much of his success rested on his capacities as a merchandiser. He understands the problems of salesmanship, and appears to have transferred the salesman’s pragmatic promotional techniques to politics. He once said that his political don’t give a tinker’s dam what the rest role was largely that of “a salesman of ideas,” and he spontaneously used the same comparison shortly after his nomination when he said in an interview that he hoped the campaign would prove him “a better salesman” than President Johnson. Now there is a certain innocuous tentativeness about the tricks of salesmanship—like the famous “antsy pants” so successfully marketed by the Goldwater stores—and it may be both charitable and accurate to look upon Goldwater’s sudden suggestions that the Marines be sent to turn on the water at Guantanamo or that the jungle in Vietnam be defoliated by nuclear devices as the experimental gestures of a man who is feeling his way into a new and larger market of public opinion. Aggressive though such proposals sound, they are put forth in an experimental way, and may be withdrawn and discarded if they do not arouse much consumer interest.

If one bears in mind that Goldwater represents a very special minority point of view, which is not even preponderant in his own party, one must grant that in capturing the Republican party he has turned in a remarkable political performance, and that Goldwater I and Goldwater II have thus far served him well. Of course, he was helped by a series of poilitical accidents: the divorce and remarriage of Rockefeller crippled a formidable antagonist; the assassination of Kennedy and the ensuing overwhelming popularity of Johnson caused other candidates to hang back, looking to 1968 rather than 1964; an unusually large field of possible moderate candidates spread disunity among the opposition; even the fact that his prospects were greatly underrated after the New Hampshire primary worked in the end to his advantage. But what must not be discounted—quite aside from the Senator’s own charisma—is that his arduous speech-making labors of the previous four years have paid off partly in putting innumerable Republican workers around the country in his debt, but largely in recruiting and inspiring a corps of fanatical workers such as no other candidate could mobilize. Above all, up to the moment of the convention in San Francisco, his equivocations and contradictions had done him more good than harm. The ideas of Goldwater I brought him his army of true believers, and the softer and more dazzling dialectics of Goldwater II suggested that he was not really in fact one of the cranks but a genuine conservative leader flexible enough to conduct a winning campaign.

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