'Mr. Conservative' was a loser of world-class proportions

June 02, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr.

A FUNERAL oration for Barry Goldwater:

Friends, Arizonans, countrymen, listen up and listen good. He was a flop as a senator and a flop as a presidential candidate, the defining essentials of his career. He was one of the least successful senators ever to serve so long. If you seek his monument, don't bother to look in the U.S. Code or U.S. Senate histories.

Part of the reason for that is that he was in the minority for 22 of his 30 Senate years. The Senate is a body in which chairmen of committees and subcommittees produce most of the results and get most of the credit. But the greater part of Goldwater's lack of success, as his hometown newspaper, the Arizona Republic, said in a laudatory obituary editorial, was this: "The truth is, Goldwater's forte was never legislative craftsmanship. He had little patience for it." The Senate is a body that rewards patience, concentration, determination, persistence and hard work.

As for his presidential candidacy, what a loser. When he ran as the Republican nominee against President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, he got the smallest percentage of the popular vote (38) of any Republican nominee except one in the history of the party. He also got fewer electoral votes. The one Republican who fared worse was Alf Landon in 1936, running against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Southern strategy

It could have been worse. Five of the six states Goldwater carried were in the Deep South. Most voters in those states went for him simply because he had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Had he received the same percentage of the Southern vote in 1964 that Richard Nixon did in 1960, Goldwater would have gotten only 35 percent of the national turnout, less even than Landon, and he would have carried at most three states: Arizona, Alabama and Mississippi.

It is often said of Goldwater that he was ahead of his times. Columnist William Buckley has said, "around him flowered a number of ideas that galvanized the '80s." It would be more to the point to say that nothing of substance that he stood for has taken root and bloomed.

Civil rights? Conservative Republicans today routinely vote for and speak out for the core elements of the 1964 act. Social Security? Goldwater wanted to make it totally voluntary. Even those who want to change it today argue only for a small part of payroll taxes to be earmarked for private decision-making in regard to investment.

Goldwater has been called a Moses and a John the Baptist, but he did not lead his party anywhere or prepare the way for a conservative president. Richard Nixon actually moderated his conservatism on the campaign trail in 1968 and 1972 and in the White House. The groundwork for Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory was Reagan's 16 years of campaigning which began in 1964.

A Nixon friend

One thing offered in praise of Goldwater is the fact that he helped push Nixon to resign the presidency during the Watergate scandal. He did, but Goldwater stuck with Nixon longer than most Republicans, just as he had defended Sen. Joseph McCarthy till the bitter end in 1954.

Failed senator, failed presidential candidate, failed idea man, failed pathfinder -- how could such a man be so revered today? Here are three reasons:

One, people believe he believed what he said and said what he believed. He was the right's Sen. Bulworth, raised above Hollywood satire and farce; or, perhaps, he was its "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," transformed from liberal to conservative populist idealist.

Two, he was as good a human being as he was bad a politician. He was, columnist Garry Wills once wrote, one of the very few men to run for president without "losing his hold on basic decencies."

And three, even if hopelessly simplistic, Goldwater's views are attractive. He was a true Westerner, which Americans have always idealized and admired. He was more John Wayne-ish than Mr. Reagan ever was. Gore Vidal interviewed Goldwater at his home in the early 1960s. He compared the senator's political bTC philosophy to the backdrop for their meeting, the Arizona desert.

Just as beautiful. And just as empty.

Theo Lippman Jr. has been writing about the Senate since 1961.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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