Today's conservatives have lessons to learn from Barry Goldwater


WASHINGTON -- The conservatives of this generation could learn from Barry Goldwater, who died at 89 recently.

As a longtime senator from Arizona and the Republican nominee for president in 1964, Goldwater was as militant in his dedication to conservatism as anyone in American politics today. But there were some significant differences in the way Goldwater played politics.

The most important was the fact that Goldwater always saw those who disagreed with him on issues -- and there were many -- as adversaries who were wrong in his eyes but not as enemies who were morally flawed. Indeed, he spoke out publicly against those who would impose their morality on others. This is a sharp contrast with the social conservatives today who call those who disagree with them on abortion rights murderers and unfit for leadership in their party.

Consistent principles

There was also a consistency in Goldwater's attitudes that present-day conservatives do not display. His position on government was essentially libertarian, meaning that he wanted the government kept out of as many decisions as possible.

That view lay behind his opposition to those who today would ban abortions and deny the rights of homosexuals -- while damning government interference in many other facets of American life.

As a product of that consistency, Goldwater earned the respect of leaders of both parties from all across the ideological spectrum. Thus, when it came time for Republican leaders to tell Richard Nixon that he was facing impeachment, the one man who had to be there to deliver the message was Barry Goldwater.

It is true, of course, that Goldwater had some personal qualities that compromised any chance he might have enjoyed of winning the presidency. The most obvious was his penchant for advancing radical ideas that seemed frightening at the time. He was the candidate who sort of offhandedly suggested at one point that Social Security might be made voluntary and at another that the Tennessee Valley Authority might be privatized.

Goldwater's love affair with all things military also frightened voters of the era. It should not be forgotten that he was nominated for president during the height of the Cold War, only two years after the Cuban missile crisis had brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of war.

It was no surprise that voters were spooked when he talked of "defoliating" Vietnam and delivered this famous pronouncement in his acceptance speech at San Francisco: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." It was no surprise when Lyndon Johnson buried him under a landslide; Goldwater won little more than one-third of the vote and only six states.

In fact, Goldwater's image was so hawkish that he almost lost the nomination. Nelson A. Rockefeller, the progressive Republican governor of New York, had defeated him in a primary in Oregon and was leading in the critical test in California going into the final weekend. Rockefeller was riding a tide of television commercials depicting himself as the candidate of the "mainstream" and Goldwater as the voice of the "extremists."

On the final weekend, however, the Rockefeller strategists made a fateful decision to sit on their lead. They surrendered hundreds of options for television time and essentially went off the air. Goldwater's managers seized the openings to show spots of him talking calmly while twirling his horn-rimmed glasses and seeming to be anything but a frightening extremist -- reassuring enough that he won the primary and clinched the nomination.

Setting the stage

When the votes were counted in November, the Goldwater debacle was first seen as a catastrophe for the Republican Party. But by defeating the leader of the party's "Eastern liberal establishment," as it was known then, the conservative senator from Arizona had set the stage for less frightening rightist candidates in less frightening times.

Goldwater played out a long career in the Senate before his retirement in 1986. As the years passed, he seemed to grow ever more mellow in his attitude and ever more outspoken in his views. Latter-day conservatives sniffed in disapproval.

The real change, however, was in the way politics was being played. By the time Barry Goldwater left the stage, the politician who spoke his mind was a rare bird, highly prized.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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