Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort
Barry Goldwater loved ham radio and liked to fly airplanes, was a fine photographer, had a lifelong subscription to Popular Mechanics, inherited a share of his family’s department store, and as a retailer became celebrated as the creator of “antsy-pants,” men’s boxer shorts imprinted with drawings of ants crawling this way and that. He was a man’s man, a guy’s guy, a regular fellow. Big, handsome, square-jawed, quick to smile, easy to like. A straight-from-the-shoulder talker who’d rather tinker with his old souped-up car than go to a black-tie dinner.
Make him a presidential candidate running against the shrewdest politician who ever cut a deal, and you have a movie by Frank Capra: Mr. Goldwater Runs for President. Capra’s Goldwater of course would have won. American innocents were Capra’s specialty, and they never lost. Whether they went to whorish, thieving Washington like Mr. Smith or went to town playing the tuba like “pixillated” Mr. Deeds, they prevailed. In Capra’s America innocence could never be defeated.
The real Goldwater was not quite so innocent as that. He surely knew all along that he was going to lose to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Anybody who ran against Johnson was probably going to lose that year, because Johnson held a nearly unbeatable hand. People who watched Goldwater campaign suspected, however, that he was a little too resigned to losing, that maybe he really didn’t want to win. One afternoon while campaigning by train in the Middle West he climbed into the engineer’s cab, took control of the locomotive, and hauled his own rented train across the prairie. That was not what a man did who had “fire in the belly,” as the reporters called the consuming lust for presidential power; it was Goldwater the Popular Mechanics subscriber extracting at least one boyish adventure from this miserable experience.
Long afterward Goldwater wrote that he had been “better equipped, psychologically” for military life than for politics. “If I had my life to live over again, I’d go to West Point,” he said in his autobiography. Well, he was nearly eighty when he wrote that and maybe losing touch with the man he had been when young. The evidence suggests he would not have flourished under military discipline. As a young Republican senator he once attacked a Republican president, a five-star general named Eisenhower, for operating “a dime-store New Deal.” Such insubordination spoke of a man more passionate about politics than discipline.
Perhaps he was one of those politicians who are born not to command but to preach crusades. He was a good talker, but not much for doing. “Lazy” was the judgment of reporters who covered him in the Senate. When he talked, though, audiences cheered and opened their checkbooks.
The gospel he preached was “conservatism.” Forty years ago it was a word no politician had spoken, except with contempt, since the age of the Hoover collar. Nowadays of course politicians fling it about with the same reverence accorded “home” and “mother,” but by the late 1950s Goldwater was saying “conservative” with a bravado that unnerved many Republicans and roused many more to a fresh passion for politics. His 1964 campaign was to bring the word out of shame and darkness. Despite his humiliating defeat, “conservatism” soon became the battle cry of shrewd and angry political newcomers who gutted the old Republican Party and rebuilt today’s model on a foundation of Sunbelt millions, old-time religion, and white Southern solidarity.
Rick Perlstein’s richly detailed history, Before the Storm, makes it clear that Goldwater was pathetically and sometimes comically out of his depth as a presidential candidate. We revisit the fiasco of his acceptance speech and his choice of upstate New York congressman William Miller, a man unknown outside the party and unloved within, as his vice-presidential candidate. Instead of trying to heal wounds created by the nasty struggle for the nomination, Goldwater goes along with a convention eager to shoot the wounded. This ensures an enduring party split while treating a na-tional television audience to a hair-raising spectacle of conservatives as a dangerous mob howling at Nelson Rockefeller.
Finally, in an act of supreme folly, he refuses to give control of his campaign to F. Clifton White, the brilliant political technician who has got him the nomination, and hands it instead to some unqualified friends from back home in Arizona.
Only a liberal with a heart of stone can take pleasure in Goldwater’s anguish: he was a decent man trapped by events in the wrong job. Six years later, Perlstein notes, Goldwater described his 1964 role in a way suggesting he thought of himself as a victim of history:
Very early in the [1960s] I found myself becoming a political fulcrum of the vast and growing tide of American disenchantment with the public policies of liberalism…. It is true that I sensed it early and sympathized with it publicly, but I did not originate it…. I was caught up in and swept along by this tide of disenchantment.
As Perlstein observes: “There it was: controlled by events, following others’ call, a horse to be ridden.”
But there was no other horse available. The point to remember about Goldwater is that he was all there was. In 1964 Ronald Reagan had not yet reinvented himself as the most charming politician since Franklin Roosevelt. Except for Goldwater, not a single conservative Republican was a remotely plausible presidential candidate. Inept he may have been and lacking in guile, but he was at least presentable. The Senate had a large group of conservative Republicans until the 1958 elections, when the spread of television campaigning tempted them to show themselves on camera. Their audiences must have found them painful to the eye, for nearly all were turned out of office, and Democrats took the Senate by a landslide.
Judging a politician by his looks may be absurd, but the fact is undeniable: a nifty profile and a cheerful countenance carry great weight with American voters. Conservatism in those years seemed to afflict its leaders with hard and angry faces. Goldwa-ter was the exception. He had the smile of a genial neighbor. When he became angry it was not the silent fury of the John Bircher who believed President Eisenhower was a crypto-Communist; it was the exasperated cry of a man telling the world he’s mad as hell with bureaucrats interfering in his business and he’s not going to take it anymore.
Perlstein’s book begins with the people who recognized Goldwater early in the game as the only possible candidate and set out to snare him. Clarence Manion, the disillusioned New Dealer who had become dean of the Notre Dame law school, gets a great deal of attention. So do William Rusher and William F. Buckley, founders of the National Review, which was to become the intellectual showcase for Goldwater-style conservatism.
The tempting of Goldwater is told in detail. Goldwater resists, then only pretends to resist, then finds he has a taste for the thing, gradually starts to relent, but protests and protests as every manipulation moves him deeper into the campaign. L. Brent Bozell, Buckley’s college classmate, rushes to patch together a book from Goldwater’s old speeches. Goldwater, having left college after his freshman year and lacking both the skill and the appetite for composition, cannot be expected to write his own book, and a conservative candidate needs a book expounding his conservative ideology. Bozell gets it written. Titled The Conscience of a Conservative, it becomes a best seller.
Whether the book is more Bozell than Goldwater is unclear. Perlstein says Goldwater “skimmed Bozell’s manuscript and pronounced it fine.” Read today, it speaks with an innocent brashness rare in American politics. It assumes that American society is in a dangerous decline because Republicans as well as Democrats have lost respect for the Constitution and refuse to take the simple, if radical, steps necessary to make America whole again.
The conservative’s goal, it states, is to provide “the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.” And so, for example, the conservative would abolish farm subsidies, thus freeing the farmer to share the same free-market challenges that other Americans face. The conservative would abolish the graduated income tax and restore equality by taxing everyone, pauper and Croesus, at the same rate. The federal government would stop “profligate” spending projects, including social welfare, education, public power, public housing, and urban-renewal programs.
While Goldwater always personally endorsed school desegregation, his book maintained that the Supreme Court had no constitutional power to order it since education was the exclusive province of state and local governments.
In foreign policy, the book foresaw Soviet communism winning the cold war because a “craven fear of death” had entered the American psyche. America was easily bullied because it was too afraid of nuclear war. Here came a burst of bellicose prose of the sort Democrats would gleefully exploit: “We must—as the first step toward saving American freedom—…make it the cornerstone of our foreign policy: that we would rather die than lose our freedom.”
That Goldwater won the nomination despite this assault on the status quo may simply mean that Americans don’t take campaign books seriously enough to read them closely. Whatever the case, its unorthodoxies did not raise serious problems for Goldwater until the nomination was well in hand.
In Perlstein’s telling, the hero of the nomination campaign was F. Clifton White. It was White who first saw that the Republican nomination was available for the taking by whoever could master “the occult process” by which Republicans chose their candidates and their “Rube Goldberg– like system” for selecting convention delegates.
White was less interested in ideology than in the calculus of practical politics. A quiet back-room operator from upstate New York, he received his elementary political education in the 1940s while being outmaneuvered by Communists during a struggle for control of a veterans lobbying group. He became fascinated by the mechanics of acquiring power through democratic process. Why he signed on to elect Goldwater is unclear. Maybe he simply wanted to see if he could pull it off.
White’s strategy assumed a force of Goldwater supporters more passionate about “saving Western Civilization” than about getting patronage rewards, Perlstein writes.
Their work would begin at the dewiest grassroots level, recruiting and training candidates to stand for election to the precinct conventions; those people, in turn, would select delegates to county conventions; these, finally, would choose the national convention delegates.
States that wanted favorite-son nominations were to be encouraged.
A favorite-son delegation could become a powerful Trojan horse if all the members were really gung-ho for Goldwater. Sometimes it paid to look weak. That made you more intimidating once you proved yourself strong.
It was just as Clif White learned from the Communists—and also from John F. Kennedy’s Irish Mafia, who had started working the precincts shortly after the 1956 [Democratic] convention. A single small organization, from a distance and with minimal resources, working in stealth, could take on an entire party.