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 …