Eric Rauchway: Liberals Love Barry Goldwater!? That's Not Right.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America.]

Liberals love Barry Goldwater, the late five-term Arizona senator who launched the modern conservative movement. In the HBO documentary Mr. Conservative, now out on DVD, Goldwater gets glowing praise from Democrats Edward Kennedy and Hillary Clinton; the new edition of Goldwater's 1960 The Conscience of a Conservative, the first volume to appear in the historian Sean Wilentz's series of works in American political thought, has a warm afterword by the liberal activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. This unseemly outpouring of liberal affection for a right-wing icon owes only partly to the socially accepted, but no less peculiar enthusiasm of American politicians for their late opponents (Ronald Reagan showed similarly odd affection for the safely long-dead Franklin Roosevelt). Mostly, it has to do with a fundamental misunderstanding of Goldwater, in whom the basic contradictions of Republican libertarianism were plainly visible from the start.

The charming CC Goldwater, Barry's granddaughter, edited the new printing of The Conscience of a Conservative, and she also produced and presents the HBO film, which bears the fetchingly honest subtitle, "Goldwater on Goldwater." The man who emerges from both is her man--fiscally conservative and socially liberal, staunchly opposed to the arbitrary concentration of power in the U. S. presidency and thus increasingly uncomfortable with the Republican majority he helped to forge. And it's true that Goldwater disliked the evangelical Christian tenor of today's Republicans, true that he became an outsider because, as Ben Bradlee says in the film, "he didn't care what the Republican Bible said." Goldwater even declared himself an "honorary gay" in 1994, standing up for sexual freedoms. So liberals can admire, as Clinton does, "his wonderful sort of Western ways and values," and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., can declare Goldwater "a man of principle."

In the 1970s, Goldwater put increasing distance between himself and the Republican Party. It started with Watergate, when he brought down the hatchet on Richard Nixon. Goldwater told his son's best friend, John Dean III, "that SOB was always a liar, so go nail 'im" in Congressional testimony. And it was Goldwater--rather gleefully, if Ben Bradlee is to be believed--who went to the White House on August 7, 1974, to tell Nixon he couldn't win an impeachment trial....

But the real separation between Goldwater and the GOP came when Republican operatives realized, as Richard Viguerie says in the film, "what we were missing [were] the social issues." When the Republican Party began closing the gap between church and state, Goldwater began edging away from the party leadership. In the film we see him saying, "the religious right scares the hell out of me," and suggesting of Jerry Falwell that "all good Christians should kick him in the ass." He supported the service of gays in the military and opposed limits on a woman's right to choose an abortion. For these reasons, one could say--and Walter Cronkite says it in the film--that Goldwater "became a liberal."

But one would be--and Cronkite is--wrong, unless mere personal dislike of Richard Nixon and tolerance of sexual independence constitute liberalism. Most of The Conscience of a Conservative constitutes an appeal to dismantle the federal government. Standing well to the right of Adam Smith, Goldwater writes, "The graduated tax is a confiscatory tax." He cites a tax rate for earners of $100,000 in 1960 that's 23 percentage points higher than it really was to help make his point; facts don't much matter in books like these. He conflates "radical" with "liberal." He advocates cutting welfare, agriculture subsidies, and laws permitting unionization....

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