Giving voice to the right movement

June 02, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Barry Goldwater not only represented Arizona politically, but also he reflected it physically. The geometry of his face -- the planes of his strong jaw and high forehead -- replicated the buttes and mesas of the Southwest, and the crow's-feet that crinkled the corners of his eyes seemed made by squinting into sunsets.

He was called "the cheerful malcontent." It takes a rare and fine temperament to wed that adjective with that noun. His emotional equipoise was undisturbed by the loss of 44 states as a presidential nominee. Perhaps he sensed that he had won the future. We -- 27,178,188 of us -- who voted for him in 1964 believe he won. It just took 16 years to count the votes.

A different radical

It is commonly said that the '60s began as a decade of dissent in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement in Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus. Wrong. It began in Chicago in 1960 when Arizona's junior senator strode to the podium of the Republican convention and growled, "Let's grow up, conservatives. If we want to take this party back, and I think some day we can, let's get to work."

The residue of dissent on the left has long since gone to earth on campuses, there to nurse frustrations and fantasies. Dissent on the right rose to power.

Goldwater's candidacy captured his party for conservatives, sealing for them victory in an internecine struggle that had simmered since 1912, when a former Republican president, Theodore Roosevelt, challenged an incumbent Republican president, William Howard Taft. TR represented what today are called "moderates," Taft the conservatives. Since 1964, no one opposed by the party's conservatives has been nominated for president.

Goldwater lacked reflectiveness but also lacked malice and pomposity. The man who said, "I haven't really got a first-class brain" enjoyed telling of the time he tested a speech on his wife, Peggy, and a few of her friends. They were unenthusiastic. "So I said, 'What the hell is the matter?' and Peggy said, 'Look, this is a sophisticated audience. They're not a lot of lamebrains like you, they don't spend their time looking at TV westerns. You can't give them that corn.' "

He gave people his 100-proof opinions, which did not originate in focus groups and were not mediated by consultants. He casually told a columnist, "You know, I think we ought to sell TVA," and then shrugged off the howls of dismay: "You either take Goldwater or you leave him."

In 1964 an extraordinary grass-roots movement, energized by National Review magazine, took him to heart and to the Republican nomination in San Francisco, where he scandalized polite society by saying that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. Hearing this, a journalist exclaimed in disbelief, "He's going to run as Goldwater!" What a concept.

Losing cause

He was one of the creative losers -- William Jennings Bryan was another -- of American politics. Which means that neither he nor Bryan were really losers, having left larger marks on the nation than many a winner has done.

Thrice Bryan sought and lost the presidency as the Democrats' nominee, but in the process gave voice -- and what a voice it was -- to a rising anxiety about private-sector power concentrated in entities of industrial capitalism: corporations, banks, trusts and especially railroads, which held the prairies, from which Bryan sprang, in their thrall. He was midwife at the birth of the modern Democratic Party, creator of the regulatory state as a major power.

Goldwater gave somewhat raspy voice to a growing anxiety about the incontinent growth of government and its pretensions. This Westerner's platform could have been sung in four words: "Don't fence me in." Goldwater's message was as new as the booming cities of the Sunbelt and as old as the philosophy of the founder who lived at Monticello. In 1980 Goldwater's message was given wings by Reagan's mellifluous voice, which had first been heard by a broad political audience in October 1964 in a nationally telecast speech for Goldwater.

In retirement Goldwater lived in Phoenix in a house built on a hill to which he, as a boy, rode on horseback to sleep under the stars. He never really left home.

In 1949, when he decided to give politics a fling, he wrote to his brother, "It ain't for life and it may be fun." It was to occupy a good portion of his life, but at no point did it absorb all of his life, and it was a lot of fun, for him and for we few, we happy few, who joined his parade.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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