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The Myth of Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater

by Robert Alan Goldberg
Yale University Press, 463 pp., $29.95

Goldwater: The Man Who Made A Revolution

by Lee Edwards
Regnery, 572 pp., $29.95

The Republicans’ capture of the House and Senate in November 1994, and the possibility of a lasting realignment in their favor as the new majority party, have made an accurate understanding of the evolution of the GOP indispensable to an understanding of modern American politics. The Republican right, savoring its victory, has its own triumphalist version of history. According to the prevailing view among such conservatives as Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, the long march toward the Republican revolution of November 1994 began in 1955, when William F. Buckley, Jr., founded National Review as the vehicle for conservatives who were at odds with the then-dominant liberal orthodoxy.

Crystallizing around National Review and organizations like Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative movement soon mustered enough strength within the Republican Party to nominate Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Though Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in a landslide, the conservatives strengthened their position within the GOP and found a new standard-bearer in Ronald Reagan, whose speech at the 1964 convention—“The Speech”—galvanized partisans of the right. Denied the nomination by the moderates who supported Gerald Ford in 1976, he came to power in 1980. The Reagan Revolution was completed in November 1994 by the Gingrich Revolution. In retrospect, Goldwater’s defeat marked the beginning of the realignment of the American political order from liberal Democratic orthodoxy to conservative Republican hegemony.

The right’s triumphalist version of recent political history, though it is plausible in some ways, leaves out far too much to be convincing. For one thing, it ignores the fact that, even before the founding of National Review in 1955, some of the intellectuals associated with it had been associated with Senator Joe McCarthy, whom Goldwater himself strongly supported. (Buckley and his brother-in-law Brent Bozell published McCarthy and His Enemies, a defense of McCarthy against his critics, in 1954.)

Even more important is the triumphalist theory’s neglect of regionalism in US politics. Today’s victorious conservatives seldom acknowledge what Kevin Phillips and other political analysts have been pointing out for years—that the chief factor in Republican presidential and congressional victories has been the conversion of the white South to the GOP, both in the voting for President, beginning with Eisenhower in 1952, and in the Republican conquest of both houses of Congress in 1994.

A more accurate account of the rise of the Republican Party must in my view take in a longer perspective, concentrating on the period between 1938 and 1994. FDR’s failed attempt to purge the Democratic Party of Southern conservatives in the 1938 midterm elections began the era of the “conservative coalition” of Republicans and Southern Democrats that dominated Congress between 1939 and 1958. It also inaugurated a half century in which more and more Southerners defected from the Democratic coalition in presidential elections. They voted not only for Republicans but for independent candidates like the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond in 1948 and George Wallace in 1968. From one election to another, Republican partisanship among whites in the South gradually grew to the point where Democratic voters were outnumbered in national voting.

The white South, having carried on an affair with the Republicans for two generations, at last married the GOP—or so it appears now, in the autumn of 1995. In this view, the shift of power within the Republican Party away from the once-dominant Northeast and Midwest toward the South and the West has been far more consequential than the founding of a magazine or the coalescence of ephemeral intellectual movements like the Old Right or the neoconservatives. Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, and Richard Nixon with the “southern strategy” he tested in 1960 and perfected in 1968 and 1972, contributed to the success of the Republican Party as much as Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater did.

Indeed, from this perspective, the Goldwater campaign of 1964 looks less like a new beginning than a recapitulation of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 race and a precursor of George Wallace’s 1968 campaign, from which Nixon and subsequent Republican presidents learned to mimic the covertly racist rhetoric of white Southern populism.1 Though conservatives would prefer to deny it, Goldwater’s failed campaign of 1964 should really be understood as an episode in the long-term partisan realignment of the South—a realignment based, primarily, on Republican exploitation of Southern white resentments of the legislation and judicial decisions conferring civil rights and economic entitlements on black Americans.

Two new biographies of Barry Goldwater, both by writers who were his supporters in their youth, provide a detailed portrait. Lee Edwards, who teaches politics at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., remains in the conservative movement as a senior editor at The World and I, a Washington, D.C., monthly that is one of several publications owned by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Edwards is also the author of a biography of Ronald Reagan, Reagan: A Political Biography.2 Robert Alan Goldberg has a different perspective.

My brother and I were the only students in our New York City high school to campaign for Goldwater for president…. During the 1960s, however, the struggle for civil rights and the war in Vietnam caused me to reexamine my views. I moved to the left politically and remain there today.

The difference doubtless explains why Goldberg occasionally criticizes his subject from the left while Edwards criticizes him from the right. 3

On the basic facts of Goldwater’s life and career, the biographers agree. Barry Goldwater was born into one of the richest families in Arizona. His grandfather, Michel “Big Mike” Goldwater, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, built up, with his brother Joseph, a successful dry-goods business in the Arizona territory of the late nineteenth century. His youngest son, Baron, Barry’s father, established in Phoenix one of the first modern department stores in the West. Though raised as a Jew, Baron Goldwater was married in 1907 in a Protestant service to JoJo Williams, an Episcopalian Republican born in Illinois, who traced her ancestry back to Roger Williams of Rhode Island. Their first child, Barry Morris Goldwater, was born in 1909, and grew up in considerable luxury.

A cook, an “around the clock” maid, a nurse, and a chauffeur staffed the spacious house on North Central Avenue. [Baron] showered gifts on the children, with Barry receiving sporting equipment and expensive model train and crystal radio sets. Baron also converted the top of the garage into a gymnasium, complete with boxing ring and punching bags…. There was even space on the property for a miniature golf course. “I guess I was a spoiled well-off kid,” Barry would later joke. “I’ve often told people that I was born in a log cabin equipped with a golf course, a pool table, and a swimming pool.”

An indifferent and undisciplined student, Goldwater was sent to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, where he had to repeat his freshman year. In 1928, he enrolled at the University of Arizona but dropped out at the end of his first year and joined the family business. He married in 1934, and devoted much of his time to his hobbies: flying, photography, camping, and tinkering with radios. He seems to have suffered a “mild nervous breakdown” in 1936.

Goldwater’s mother was a midwestern Republican and he tended to agree with her views. “I think the foundations of my political philosophy were rooted in my resentment against the New Deal,” he wrote. Like many other businessmen of his class, Goldwater loathed FDR and admired Herbert Hoover, whom he met through a mutual acquaintance in 1933 and with whom he corresponded occasionally thereafter. Another influence on Goldwater’s views may have been his wife, Peggy Johnson Goldwater, an heiress from Muncie, Indiana. A friend of Margaret Sanger, Peggy Goldwater helped to found the Arizona branch of Planned Parenthood in 1937. Her views on birth control, shared by her husband, were not unusual among well-to-do Republicans.4

During World War II Goldwater, in his thirties and extremely myopic, served in the Air Transport Command, delivering supplies to US troops in Europe and Asia. In the mid-1940s he drifted into politics, supporting “right to work” legislation and a proposal to create the Arizona Air National Guard (which became the first Air National Guard unit to admit black Americans). In 1949, Goldwater became a member of a Charter Government. Committee, a group that called itself nonpartisan and successfully backed the adoption of a citymanager form of government for Phoenix. It drew up its own list of candidates for city council elections. Goldwater and his friend Harry Rosenzweig, a jeweler, put themselves on the slate along with other members of the Phoenix elite, and they were both elected.

According to Lee Edwards, Goldwater was engaged in a selfless crusade against civic corruption in Phoenix, particularly prostitution and organized crime.

Although he had no intentions of devoting his life to politics and had no exaggerated idea of his competence to serve on the council, he was angry at the people who had betrayed the people’s trust. He liked to quote Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Edwards writes that when the reform ticket won, “vice took a beating.” Goldberg tells a somewhat different story:

More cynically, Charter Government candidates catered to public fears about the moral climate of Phoenix. Prodded by the Arizona Republic, they accused their opponents of corruption and of having ties to the criminal underworld…. Privately, Charter Government candidates acknowledged the hollowness of their allegations. “Down to real brass tacks,” said Charles Waters, “I don’t believe there was any [gambling or prostitution] to speak of. It was not a problem.” Barry noted similarly, “There was no connection with organized crime.” In line with these views, none of the allegations was ever substantiated, and no Phoenix official was charged with a crime.

While their defeated opponents may have been innocent of links with organized crime, Goldwater and his allies, according to Goldberg, themselves depended on donations from gangsters:

Less visible but vital was Gus Greenbaum’s work on behalf of the [Goldwater] ticket. Greenbaum, an associate of organized crime figures Meyer Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, ran a gambling syndicate in Phoenix. He and his brother Sam had been investigated by local authorities and found wanting. Said state Attorney General John Sullivan: “The Greenbaums must leave Arizona. Phoenix will not become a rendezvous for the type of gangsterism prevailing in Chicago as long as I am attorney general.” Gus Greenbaum was also a friend of Harry and Barry’s. When Harry Rosenzweig approached him for “support,” Greenbaum handed over a package of money and said, “You’ll get this every week till the election.” These funds would make up a significant portion of the nearly $18,000 the slate spent during the campaign….

Goldwater was aware of Greenbaum’s contributions but denied knowledge of his criminal activities. “He was a generous person,” Barry remarked. “I’m not a gambler, I didn’t know about that.” Years later Gus Greenbaum was murdered in a gangland-style execution in Phoenix. Then-Senator |Barry Goldwater was an honorary pallbearer at his friend’s funeral.

  1. 1

    For the influence of Wallace on Nixon and others, see the new book by Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 1995).

  2. 2

    Viewpoint Books, 1967.

  3. 3

    Here is Edwards’s description of Nelson Rockefeller in 1964: “Gone was the moderate eager to forge philosophical links with Goldwater and other conservatives. Here was a militant, uncompromising Inquisitor determined to destroy the dark forces of the radical Right and ultraconservatism within his party” (p. 178). The book is full of such tendentious and hyperbolic characterizations.

  4. 4

    Goldberg writes of the appeal of birth control in the 1930s to “Protestant, native-born, upper-middle-class, Republican women. In Phoenix, women like Peggy Goldwater, Florence Bimson, and Margaret Kober organized in 1937 the Mothers’ Health Clinic, which targeted Mexican-American women for assistance. They proposed birth control to raise health standards, produce only ‘wanted’ children, lessen the city’s relief burden, and weed out the mentally and physically deficient” (p.52).

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