A Long View: Goldwater in History

Barry Goldwater
Barry Goldwater; drawing by David Levine

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…

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