In his heart, he still knows Barry Goldwater was right

Review Politics

October 29, 2006|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater's Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement

J. William Middendorf II

Basic Books / 303 pages / $26.95

Barry Goldwater actually won the presidential election of 1964, columnist George Will once quipped, but it took sixteen years to count the votes. Although he carried only six states and 36 percent of the popular vote, Goldwater was the Moses of the Reagan Revolution, Will implied, and his campaign provided a primer on how a "movement conservative" could get the Republican nomination and win the presidency.

An investment banker, member of the "Draft Goldwater" team, and then treasurer for the campaign, J. William Middendorf II agrees that the election of 1964 constituted a turning point in American politics. He remains deeply invested in the movement and the moment. A memoir, based on notes Middendorf took at the time, A Glorious Disaster provides some new information about the campaign. Middendorf reveals, for example, that Walter Judd, the 10-term congressman from Minnesota and an icon to anti-communists, was second choice to New York Congressman William Miller, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who became Goldwater's running mate. And he elaborates on the pioneering efforts of conservatives to enlist volunteers, encourage small donations and compile mailing lists of likely supporters.

With the exception of fundraising, however, Middendorf stood outside the inner circle. Consequently, on campaign strategy, he speculates more than he specifies. Even after 40 years, moreover, Middendorf seems more interested in settling scores than in explaining how conservative insurgents engineered a hostile takeover of the Republican Party - or why the GOP was able to regroup so quickly after the election night debacle and win five of the next six presidential contests.

Like Goldwater, Middendorf believes that extremism in defense of liberty is a virtue. Americans to his left all look alike to him: They are enemies of individual rights. "People with whom I disagree," Middendorf proclaims, "believe that earning a profit means abusing workers and that employing hundreds of people is a form of exploitation." By 1962, he was convinced that unless conservatives aroused themselves, President John F. Kennedy would "go all the way to socialism." Middendorf "didn't understand - then, or later" why members of the John Birch Society "were deemed to be such a threat to democracy." And so he found nothing radical - or objectionable - in Goldwater's policy agenda: Make contributions to Social Security voluntary; privatize the Tennessee Valley Authority; give the NATO commander authority to use tactical nuclear weapons; repeal the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty so that the United States could test new weapons; and revisit the "unconstitutional" provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Middendorf admits that Goldwater was an inept campaigner, with a tendency to shoot from the lip. But he blames neither the messenger nor the message for the landslide loss. The lesson of 1964, he emphasizes, was that "the Democrats appealed to emotion and ... [w]e appealed to logic." Goldwater's positions were in the mainstream, Middendorf maintains. He was poorly served by the "Arizona Mafia," especially Denison Kitchel, who supplanted F. Clifton White and William Rusher, the experienced professionals who spearheaded the "Draft Goldwater" crusade; sabotaged by a cabal of Republican liberals, led by Nelson Rockefeller; and finished off by Lyndon B. Johnson, who enlisted the FBI and CIA to bug Goldwater's headquarters, hotel rooms and campaign plane, distorted his rival's record and rhetoric, and portrayed him on the stump and in television ads as preposterous and dangerous.

If Goldwater's message had gotten through, Middendorf suggests, unpersuasively, the senator from Arizona might have won. Middendorf cites limited spot polling indicating that many undecided voters switched to Goldwater after viewing Ronald Reagan's speech, "A Time for Choosing." But Kitchel feared that Reagan's speech, which asked voters to preserve for their children "the last best hope of man on Earth" or "sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness," exposed his candidate's vulnerability on Social Security. Middendorf thinks "skilled political minds" should ponder whether the outcome would have been different had Reagan's speech been introduced earlier and used more extensively during the campaign. He's also willing to entertain the possibility that if the election had been held in April 1965, Goldwater would have become the 37th president of the United States.

Barry Goldwater did present "a choice, not an echo" in 1964. But no Republican - and certainly not a right-winger - could have bested Lyndon Johnson in that year. The lasting accomplishment of Goldwater's "glorious disaster," most observers now agree, was moving the center of gravity in the GOP from Eastern Establishment moderates to conservatives in the Southwest and West. Movement conservatives would not dominate American politics, however, until liberalism imploded in the 1960s and '70s and politicians attracted voters with a social agenda that included opposition to abortion, secularization, women's rights, homosexuality, drugs and flag-burning. It was an agenda that Barry Goldwater, a libertarian, didn't much like.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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