Catalyst for change

June 02, 1998|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

LOSER by a landslide, Barry Goldwater nevertheless has had a greater impact on American politics than any of the winning presidential candidates of the past half-century. A grandiose notion, perhaps, but consider:

Since he won the GOP nomination in 1964, liberal Republicans of the once-dominant Eastern establishment have become extinct; conservative ideology is triumphant as the country moves rightward; the GOP lock on the South has led to the Republican capture of Congress, and Democrats, having given up on the welfare state loathed by Goldwater, cannot seem to find White House winners outside the old Confederacy.

Yet when he died last Friday, at age 89, the former Arizona senator was very much in the historical shadow of Ronald Reagan.

In Goldwater's opinion, Mr. Reagan would not have been elected president in 1980 and 1984 had it not been for the political spadework of 1964. Instead, the old movie actor would still have been "chasing cows over the horizon."

But Mr. Reagan was something Goldwater was not. Mr. Reagan's "conservatism" consisted mainly of passing out goodies to the populace. Instead of government handouts favored by Democrats, Mr. Reagan doled out big tax cuts. And if the result was ballooning federal deficits, once a Democratic monopoly, Mr. Reagan shrugged.

A modest man

Not so with Goldwater. Though he was always modest about his own qualifications for the presidency ("I don't have a first-class brain."), he said he would never have permitted a $3 trillion national debt.

Just as he did not anticipate Reagan-sized deficits, he failed to foresee the rise of moral conservatism as a challenge to his libertarian conservatism, which, in his words, means that "government should stay the hell out of people's business." Late life, Goldwater became a sort of darling to liberals as he favored the pro-choice stance on abortion, defended gays and called the religious right "a bunch of kooks."

Back when he was running for president, such disappointments were strictly for the future. Knowing he was sure to lose to Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater seized the chance to do what he wanted.

To win the South, he played the race card, voting against the landmark 1964 Civil Right Act -- a law that could never have passed without liberal Republican votes. He suggested that Social Security might become "voluntary," an idea that scared old folks. He went to Tennessee and said the Tennessee Valley Authority should be sold. And he chose a wise-cracking New York congressman, William Miller, as his running mate solely to enrage LBJ.

Respect of the media

There was a feeling on the Goldwater campaign plane that the whole thing was one big lark. Those were the days, after all, before Vietnam and Watergate led to the animus between the press and public figures that we see today. While most reporters traveling with Goldwater were liberals, they liked and respected the candidate. And he them.

At one point he distributed gold-colored pins engraved with the words: "Liberal Eastern Press."

His press secretaries became heroes to reporters covering the 1964 campaign as they screamed at cops and berated political advance men to make sure the press bus was near the front of the motorcade.

And, once, in defiance of all Federal Aviation Administration rules, the old Air Force pilot took the controls of his campaign's 727 and put it into a steep dive to scare members of the Fourth Estate. He did.

When the 1964 adventure came to its inevitable end on election night in Phoenix, there was sadness even among those who disliked or feared the conservative revolution Goldwater had started.

He had the best campaign slogan of his generation: "In your heart you know he's right." His showstopper during his acceptance speech became part of the nation's political lore: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation . . . in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

"Hello, Barry" (to the tune of "Hello, Dolly") captured the lilt of a joyous but losing campaign. Now that this straight-talking Arizonan has left us, permit this old reporter to say, goodbye, Barry, it was so nice to have you around.

Joseph R. L. Sterne, a former Sun editorial page editor, is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Institue for Policy Studies. He covered the 1964 Goldwater presidential campaign.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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