He Won the Future

March 28, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

PHOENIX — Phoenix.--Looking down on his valley and back on his career, Barry Goldwater, who 30 years ago was en route to a creative defeat in the presidential election, has no regrets. Nor should he. He lost 44 states but won the future.

Today his walk is slower, his emotions are mellower and his features, after 85 years of squinting into Southwest sunsets, are more than ever a craggy map of Arizona. But he is content. He should be. He catalyzed conservatism's breakthrough.

The protests of the 1960s did not begin at Berkeley. The most consequential protest came from the right, beginning at the podium of the 1960 Republican Convention in Chicago when Arizona's junior senator said, ''Let's grow up, conservatives! If we want to take this party back, and I think we can some day, let's get to work.''

In 1912 civil war erupted among Republicans when a former GOP president, Teddy Roosevelt, challenged an incumbent GOP president, the conservative William Howard Taft. Having failed to win the nomination, Roosevelt ran a third-party campaign, finishing second to Woodrow Wilson, ahead of Taft. The two factions, conservatives and ''moderates,'' fought until 1964, when Goldwater's nomination sealed the conservatives' ascendancy. No one strongly opposed by them has been nominated since then.

As is usually the case, cultural ferment preceded political transformation. In 1953 Russell Kirk published ''The Conservative Mind,'' which introduced a generation raised on Rooseveltian liberalism to the disturbing thought that Kirk's title did not constitute an oxymoron. William Buckley's National Review was launched in 1955. His ''Up from Liberalism'' was published in 1961. Three years later conservatism made the transition from a cultural critique to a political force on a national rather than merely local scale.

Just as William Jennings Bryan lost three presidential elections but brought invigorating new elements into the Democratic Party, Mr. Goldwater precipitated the Republican reorientation that would produce victories in five of the next six elections. Furthermore, in one of history's odd caroms, he inadvertently hastened the crisis of liberalism by giving it an opportunity for overreaching.

LBJ's landslide broke the rough balance in Congress between liberals and a coalition of conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats, a balance that had existed since 1938. For two years liberalism was unconstrained. It is still trying to rehabilitate its reputation.

Senator Goldwater remembers receiving, while campaigning, a draft of a speech to be delivered on a nationally televised campaign broadcast. He said to aides: It's good but doesn't sound like me. Get Ronald Reagan to deliver it.

And the torch was passed. Mr. Goldwater cared more about carrying the torch of conviction than about capturing power. Asked today if he ever really burned to be president, he says, ''Not exactly.'' Besides, after November 22, 1963, he felt that the Republicans' 1964 campaign was bound to be futile. But he felt impelled to make the race because of the support of young people. He could not then know that they included Hillary Rodham and Sam Donaldson, both of them then at the apogee of their political wisdom.

Theodore White wrote that Senator Goldwater offered ''a contagious concern. . . . He introduced the condition and quality of American morality and life as a subject of political debate.'' That subject recurs regularly in American history. Mr. Goldwater's contribution was to freshen the argument with strong doses of Sun Belt individualism and an optimism deriving from the exhilarating experience of whirlwind change.

When Barry Goldwater was born in Arizona territory, as it then was, 10,000 people were scattered across the valley where today Phoenix is the hub of a metropolitan area of more than 2 million. At age 4 he was ringbearer in a wedding that waited for the fast-pedaling Western Union bicyclist to bring word that statehood had been achieved and the couple would be the first married in the 48th state. At age 10 Goldwater rode his horse up into the hills and slept on the spot where he later built the house in which he now lives.

Today Mr. Goldwater is comfortable in his role as the Republicans' ranking curmudgeon, expressing views (pro-choice on abortion, for gays in the military) that exasperate some conservatives but should not surprise any who have heard his consistent libertarian message about government: When in doubt, get it out of people's lives.

Thirty years ago he was the cheerful malcontent. Still is. When he got to the famously defiant passage in his convention acceptance speech -- ''Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!'' -- someone in the press gallery exclaimed, ''Good God, he's going to run as Goldwater!'' Always did. In 1949, when he decided to dabble in politics -- he was dragooned into running for the city council -- he wrote to his brother: ''It ain't for life and it may be fun.'' Sure was.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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