Good Man, Bad Ideas

Barry Goldwater (January 2, 1909 – May 29, 1998)

Politically, I’m left of Bernie Sanders and have been for many years. But, as a child growing up in Indianapolis, I was a Youth for Goldwater. I wore his campaign buttons on my buttoned-down shirts and put stickers for his 1964 campaign for President on my school notebooks. I even had a picture of Barry (with his clunky black horned-rimmed glasses) in my room.

I was a Young Republican because my parents were Republicans and I hadn’t lived enough or read enough to make up my own mind. I was anti-federal-government, anti-union, anti-tax, anti-welfare, pro-military, pro-business, pro-local-government because Barry Goldwater was those things. His 1960 bestselling book, The Conscience of a Conservative (where this and other rightwing stuffery was spelled out) set the basic conservative agenda for years to come and laid the groundwork for, among other things, libertarianism in its current form and the rise of Ronald Reagan.


One way to view the 1964 campaign is Goldwater (unwittingly, of course) as stalking horse for the later presidential bids of Reagan, whose GE-generated stump speech for him put Bonzo to bed for good and made Reagan himself a national figure. Goldwater stood no chance in the election – even my parents knew that – but his conservative ideas were provided with public familiarity if not always credence. And the frequent juxtaposition of the two men invited comparisons that left even Goldwater’s most ardent admirers wondering, “What if?”  Barry was awkward, bumptious, unpredictable, a little sweaty … although generally forthright. Ron was graceful, polished, full of faux outrage and pretend integrity, a better actor than when he was an actor … an optical illusion that “real folks” (including working-class traditional Democrat real folks) thought was real. Goldwater spoke off the cuff and often misspoke. Reagan read the script he was handed and well.

In my heart – even as a child – I knew Goldwater was wrong. And, yet, all these years – and changed opinions – later, I have affection for him. As Senator from Arizona, Goldwater did have integrity, currently in short supply among the populace and pretty much extinct among GOP elected officials. He said what he thought – out loud and in the presence of cameras and tape recorders – with little or no regard for the political cost.

Among his many sins in the eyes of the GOP party faithful, Goldwater harshly criticized his old friend Reagan (as President) over Iran-Contra and other foreign-policy matters. He advised President Nixon – in person and in public – to resign during Watergate and declined to attend the disgraced President’s funeral. When Moral Majority leader, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, was quoted as saying that “every good Christian should oppose Sandra O’Connor” for the Supreme Court, Goldwater replied that “every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.” It was Falwell’s balls that he suggested people kick, but the press cleaned it up for him.

Barry Goldwater also took to task his beloved military for restricting women and for racism. He was vehemently pro gay rights. “You don’t need to be ‘straight’ to fight and die for your country,” Barry famously said. “You just need to shoot straight.” And Mr. Anti-Government Conservative was in favor of stringent regulation of business regarding the environment and pollution.

Historian Rick Perlstein is writing a lively series of books on American politics during the second half of the 20th century. The first volume is entitled Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (2009). It’s a great, enlightening book about a fascinating time in our history. If you’re in the mood for something more admiring, you might try Pure Goldwater (2008), cowritten by John Dean – yes, that John Dean – and Barry’s son, Barry Goldwater, Jr.

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