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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2330

According to Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater’s resilient popularity is the result of his blunt, no-nonsense style, his citizen-politician image, and his advocacy of conservatism and anti-Sovietism. Goldberg believes that there is a more complicated man beneath the popular image. Yet the contradictions he finds are often merely refutations...

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According to Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater’s resilient popularity is the result of his blunt, no-nonsense style, his citizen-politician image, and his advocacy of conservatism and anti-Sovietism. Goldberg believes that there is a more complicated man beneath the popular image. Yet the contradictions he finds are often merely refutations of his liberal preconceptions rather than examples of Goldwater’s inconsistency. Goldberg’s liberalism and his position as an unauthorized biographer should serve as a caveat to readers. In choosing to point out Goldwater’s liberal shortcomings, he fails to define a good conservative. To his credit, however, this biographer can refrain from applying his liberal measuring stick and is thus usually able to analyze his subject’s philosophical and political thinking fairly.

Goldwater’s inspiration and reputation spring from his association with the western United States—the frontier. His grandfather, Michel Goldwasser, a Jewish tailor from Poland, founded a store in Prescott, Arizona, in 1876, and became a family legend who inspired Barry’s ideal of individual freedom and hard work. His father, Baron, successfully managed a branch of the family store in Phoenix. His mother was Josephine Williams. Religious in her patriotism, she taught her children respect for their flag and country and a sense of community responsibility, teachings that Goldwater followed for his entire life.

Born on New Year’s Day in 1909, Barry did not do particularly well in school and eventually entered the family business. The Goldwaters enjoyed a prominent position in the community. Goldberg, suggesting that this privileged background blinded Gold- water to the suffering of the less fortunate, particularly minorities, presents the picture of a young playboy, blithely unaware of social discrimination. He points out that friend Harry Rosenzweig was not allowed to join Barry’s fraternity because of restrictions against Jews, the implication being that Goldwater abandoned his friends in his quest for acceptance. Yet Goldberg gives insufficient weight to several examples of Goldwater’s personal integrity on racial issues: his threat to blackball all nominees to his country club if Rosenzweig were not admitted, his decision to employ black workers in his Phoenix store, his policy of desegregating the Arizona Air National Guard, his membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), his private contributions to the Urban League, and his well-publicized financial support of a lawsuit challenging the segregated Phoenix schools. Such actions are minimized by Goldberg, who measures achievement by the degree to which his subject resembles a liberal activist.

Goldwater’s response to discrimination directed at himself was also, in Goldberg’s estimation, inadequate. When he was made the butt of some anti-Semitic remarks at Staunton Military Academy, he did not make a formal public protest or feel himself a victim: “Barry’s confrontation with prejudice did not sensitize him or bring insight or spur action. Throughout his life he would accommodate the bigotry of others while personally distancing himself from it.” Goldberg’s conclusion, deriving as it does from the racial hypersensitivity of post-1960’s liberal thought, does little justice to Goldwater. That Goldwater did not exploit personal victimization or adopt the pretense of a heightened sensitivity to victimization as a means to advance his career is one of the more refreshing aspects of his life’s story.

What emerges from the early part of the biography is the portrait of a fine man who was flawed because he was not a liberal. Fortunately, the reader is treated to Gold-water’s words, a better measure of his principles than the biographer’s interpretations: “I am unalterably opposed to . . . discrimination, but I know that [the federal] government can provide no lasting solution. No law can make one person like another if he doesn’t want to. . . . The ultimate solution lies in the hearts of men.” As Goldwater remarked on another occasion, “Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society as such. It is to preserve freedom.” In a time when statistical disparities are used as justification for institutionalizing preferential racial treatment in universities, government, and Fortune 500 companies, these positions seem most sensible. Yet this biography shows little appreciation of their integrity and wisdom.

Goldberg shows his subject rooting himself in his community and region. Barry Goldwater found employment in the family business, eventually working his way through all the departments of the store. In 1934, he married Peggy Johnson, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and they eventually had four children. He became active in organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, Masons, Shriners, and Elks. A film he made of a boat trip down the Colorado River developed his reputation as an outdoorsman and rugged individualist who exemplified his native West.

Goldberg demonstrates how the Great Depression and World War II developed in Goldwater the consciousness of a conservative politician. Defiantly he befriended Herbert Hoover and voted for him when the rest of the country supported Franklin D. Roosevelt. He opposed relief programs because they fostered dependency, he expressed outrage at the government’s privileging of labor unions, and he objected generally to federal intrusion into community and individual life. As he wrote later, “I think the foundations of my political philosophy were rooted in my resentment against the New Deal.”

World War II also honed Goldwater’s political beliefs. His age and weak eyesight did not allow him to join the Air Force, but his affiliation with the officer reserve corps and love of flying secured him a job training, among others, Chinese nationalist pilots. Later, a shortage of American pilots gave him the opportunity to fly supplies over “the Hump”—that is, from India over the Himalayas to China—to relieve Chiang Kai-shek’s army. Goldberg effectively shows how these wartime experiences led after the war to a commitment to a strong military, especially air power, and to strong political support for Taiwan.

As Goldberg carefully shows, the issues that Goldwater rode from Phoenix city councilman in 1949 to the U.S. Senate and, eventually, to the 1964 Republican nomination for president were the issues championed by a fledgling conservative political movement. Along with William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of the National Review, publisher Henry Regnery, and the John Birch Society, Goldwater promoted limited government and the enhancement of individual freedom and opposed Communism and other forms of collectivism that he felt threatened freedom. Like other conservatives, he was profoundly influenced by Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (1944), which warned that the modern movement toward collectivism threatened to enslave free people. Goldwater contributed his own influential treatise to the conservative upswing with the best-selling Conscience of a Conservative (1960). It stressed the application of the wisdom of the past rather than untried panaceas and insisted on the dual power of individual freedom and responsibility rather than collective power: “I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.”

Emboldened by his collection of a couple hundred delegates in the 1960 Republican convention and buttressed by the grassroots support that he had earned from his faithful work as chair of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee in 1956, 1960, and 1962, Goldwater carved out a uniquely conservative political niche for himself and began planning for the 1964 election. He criticized both President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice President Richard Nixon for tacitly accepting the Democratic party’s expansion of government by not scaling back the welfare state. He complained of Eisenhower’s inflated budgets and believed that Nixon lost the 1960 election because he did not differentiate himself enough from John Kennedy. As alternatives, he proposed the “Platform of the Forgotten American,” complained about the division of the country into competing collectives, fought against entitlements for labor and minority groups, and opposed government interference with Americans’ freedom. His proposals for national defense were published in Why Not Victory? (1962) where he argued for American military superiority, a self-interested involvement in the United Nations, and a strong stand against Soviet adventurism in Cuba. He opposed the nuclear test ban treaty, stating, “I do not vote against the hope of peace, but only against the illusion of it. I do not vote for war, but for the strength to prevent it.”

Goldberg regards Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for the presidency a defining moment for the conservative movement. In spite of the ultimate failure in the general election, he points out that this campaign was the beginning of an era of conservative political power. Many who actively supported Goldwater—William Rehnquist, Sandra Day O’Connor, Patrick Buchanan, Robert Bork, Milton Friedman—later achieved positions of influence. Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush won five of the next six presidential elections relying heavily on conservative support.

Several problems hampered the 1964 campaign. The first was John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Goldwater had little respect for Lyndon Johnson and had little interest in campaigning against him. Yet he was basically held hostage, according to Goldberg, by his supporters, who refused to let him quit. A second difficulty was that the campaign was engineered by neophytes. Because Goldwater found it difficult to trust anyone outside his inner circle, he appointed fairly inexperienced persons to positions of importance in the campaign. A third problem was his unwillingness to reconcile with the moderate wing of his party. Challenged in the race for the Republican nomination by Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater not only defeated Rockefeller but also refused to accommodate his moderate-wing supporters on the platform, in the selection of a running mate, or in his acceptance speech. “I will not change my beliefs to win votes,” he announced, “I will offer a choice, not an echo.”

A fourth problem of the campaign lay in Goldwater’s impulsive answers to reporters and his adoption of uncompromising rhetoric. Although Goldberg acknowledges that Goldwater’s political opponents and the media willfully distorted his positions on an unprecedented scale, he also criticizes Goldwater for “breathing life in the caricature of recklessness that his opponents had drawn.” Perceived as irresponsible and trigger-happy, Goldwater even dismayed Eisenhower in his acceptance speech by adopting the famous line penned by historian Harry Jaffa that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Goldberg points out that the Democrats exploited every opportunity to defame Goldwater. Planned by Hubert Humphrey, Bill Moyers, Abe Fortas, and Clark Clifford, the negative campaign caricatured the Goldwater as a dangerous extremist, not to be trusted with the nuclear button or with the security of the elderly, the poor, and minorities.

Goldberg concludes that, even with the negative advertisements, Goldwater would have had an uphill battle. The assassination of Kennedy gave the American people an interest in continuing his legacy. Economic growth had been steady under the Democrats. In 1964, Johnson’s promises of new programs appealed to a public optimistic about government’s increasing role in society and as yet unable to fully appreciate the damage government could do to society’s infrastructure. Moreover, the Republicans were divided, Rockefeller and George Romney offering only lukewarm support. Goldwater’s run for the presidency had avoided “me-tooism,” but he also lost by a landslide. He only received 39 percent of the popular vote and only 52 electoral votes.

Defeat turned Goldwater into a private citizen again, but it would only be four years until he returned to the political fray, winning his third senate term on the coattails of Richard Nixon in 1968. The issues that concerned him in this portion of his career were Vietnam (he believed in a military solution) and his concern that recognition of Red China would cause the United States to break its treaty obligations to Taiwan. During Watergate, his loyalty to Nixon kept him from seeing his flaws, but he finally urged the president to resign his office. Goldberg demonstrates that Goldwater’s perceived honesty during the Watergate controversy, in contrast to Nixon, made him an icon for both the right and the left.

As a senator, Goldwater was never interested in the mechanics of legislating but used his position to propagate conservative ideas. In his long legislative career, he authored few bills because he had little patience with compromise. His frequent absences from roll calls and maverick behavior, in addition to ill-health in his later career, made him vulnerable in reelection races. In 1980, when conservatism seemed to triumph, he was reelected by less than 10,000 votes, a fact that embittered him. Ironically, as well, he seemed an outsider in Washington after Reagan’s inauguration, despite their ideological kinship. Not an admirer of the fortieth president, Goldwater complained of the extravagance of the inauguration and received few invitations thereafter. Nevertheless, he supported Reagan’s economic policies, and Reagan’s nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime supporter of Goldwater, was a bow in his direction, as was the prominent place afforded him in the 1984 convention.

After Goldwater’s retirement from the U.S. Senate in 1986, his personal life and political views underwent significant changes. His first wife had died before he retired, and Goldwater was remarried in 1992. Upon returning to Arizona, he accepted an invitation to teach a political science class at Arizona State University and pursued hobbies as an amateur photographer and ham radio operator. On the political front, Goldwater’s thinking became libertarian as he differentiated between ensuring privacy and dictating morality. Besides the esteem in which he was held by conservatives for carrying their banner in 1964, he won moderate and liberal support for his opposition to the Christian Right, his leadership of the effort to impeach Arizona Governor Evan Mecham, his support of abortion rights, and his support of a bill to make discrimination against homosexuals unlawful.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. October 29, 1995, XIV, p. 5.

Commentary. C, October, 1995, p. 62.

The Economist. CCCXXXVII, October 21, 1995, p. 90.

National Review. XLVII, October 23, 1995, p. 56.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, November 30, 1995, p. 22.

The New York Times Book Review. C, October 29, 1995, p. 38.

The Spectator. CCLXXV, November 4, 1995, p. 44.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, September 24, 1995, p. 5.

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