Political foes characterized, or more precisely, caricatured, him as a fool and an extremist, and, quite possibly, mad. He stoked this by saying things others dared not, among them, that America might be better off with one of its coasts sawed off and left to drift to sea. He called his presidential opponent “corrupt” and “power mad.” Those who did not side with him did not belong in his political party.
Among shallow thinkers, a vast and expansive group growing larger by the moment, the name of Barry Goldwater was brandished in 2016 to inspire flickering images of his ill-fated 1964 presidential campaign as a form of comparison to that of Donald Trump.
The country should have been so lucky.
It is a large leap to suggest that, without Goldwater, there would not have been a president named Trump, but it is credible to suggest that, without Goldwater, there would not have been presidents named Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Without Goldwater, Republicans might not have held the White House for 20 of 24 years ending in 1992.
Without him, Nixon might not have resigned in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal, setting a low-water mark beneath which only Trump could sink.
Goldwater lost spectacularly in his lone presidential run, having aimed rapid-fire rhetoric at both feet. He suggested that America, sliding deeper into the mire of war in Vietnam, apply low-grade atomic bombs to defoliate the jungle and expose enemy supply lines. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign responded by famously airing its “Daisy” television ads depicting a nuclear holocaust under Goldwater.
Few television-era presidential campaigns before Trump were more bitter than 1964. Goldwater described Johnson as “the phoniest individual that ever came around.” Johnson called Goldwater “a raving, ranting demagogue.” Both assertions were valid.
Johnson won by a landslide. Goldwater, who’d resigned from the Senate to run for the presidency, retreated to Arizona. He remembered his time out of public office as “four of the most satisfying years I have had as an adult.” Johnson’s flame was extinguished by the end of that period. He never ran again for public office. Goldwater returned to the Senate in 1969 and remained there until retiring in 1987.
His brand of conservatism, described in his landmark book “The Conscience of a Conservative,” fueled Reagan’s rise. Goldwater espoused traditional conservative ideals championed by William F. Buckley in his relatively new magazine National Review, focusing on small government, strong defense and individual liberty.
Although he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the 24th Amendment, ending racially discriminatory polling taxes, Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on constitutional grounds and concerns about federal government overreach. But those who know Goldwater’s story know he lobbied fervently and personally for integration, was a founding member of the Arizona NAACP and early supporter of gays in the military.
Those positions blended smoothly with his idea of limited government on the basis of maximizing individual liberty. This explains his sharp disdain for the rise of the Christian right within the Republican Party. To Goldwater’s mind, the infiltration of religion in politics was a sure means of killing an individual’s right to do as he or she pleases so long as it does not infringe on another’s rights.
Underscoring his concerns, while referring to Jerry Falwell, leader of the so-called Moral Majority, Goldwater once declared that “every good Christian ought to kick Falwell right in the ass.”
Not only did Goldwater fear religion’s impact on politics and democracy, he perceived the real motives of those leading the charge in the same fashion Christ did the money changers in the temple who’d turned His Father’s house into a den of thieves.
“When you say ‘radical right’ today,” Goldwater told The Washington Post in 1994, four years before his death, “I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
Well, it has happened and if it’s not goodbye to politics, it’s goodbye to civil discourse and reason.
Logic is the stuff of unbelievers.
This is how, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail editorialized this week, the stupormajority in the Legislature can claim to be the party of small government and local control while passing laws restricting the ability of local government to govern on the issue of COVID-19 response. It’s how science becomes the enemy and facts become not stubborn but moldable, changeable and disposable.
Gone since 1998, that “raving, ranting demagogue” Goldwater hardly would recognize the place he left behind, although his worst fears have bloomed. Neither would he recognize his party. He’d be cast among liberals, with whom he clashed throughout his career.
Not only are science and reason dead, but history, too. These are all whatever one’s proclivities declare them to be. Goldwater’s ostensible madness is nothing compared to the authentic madness in which some among us now live.