United States Senator
Senator Barry Goldwater was a critical figure in the development of modern American conservatism into a major political movement, leading that movement to a position of ideological and political dominance within the Republican Party. As the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, Goldwater suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson, but Goldwater's campaign had a lasting impact on the G.O.P. and late-twentieth-century American electoral politics. His repudiation of the "me-too" Republicanism of the Dewey and Eisenhower eras in favor of a new ideological conservatism that combined concepts of small government, free markets, and a staunch anti-Soviet stance on foreign affairs came to define the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s under his political heir, Pres. Ronald Reagan.
Barry Goldwater was born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1909. His paternal grandfather, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, had settled in the Arizona territory and opened a dry goods business. Goldwater's father, Baron, converted to Christianity and ran a department store in Phoenix. Barry Goldwater graduated from the Staunton (Virginia) Military Academy as top military cadet in 1928 and joined the family retail business after his father's death in 1929. Despite his age and poor eyesight, Goldwater volunteered for the U.S. Air Force at the outbreak of World War II and saw active duty, rising to the rank of colonel by the time the war ended.
Following the war, Goldwater became involved in local Phoenix politics. In 1949, he ran as a Republican for election to the city council as part of a successful reform slate of candidates. The following year he raised his political profile even further by managing the successful campaign of Republican Howard Pyle for governor. Goldwater's emerging political career paralleled the transformation of Arizona from a sparsely populated desert state characterized by Western—largely Democratic—populism to a pro-business, pro-development, anti-federal government, Republican Sunbelt bastion. Rapid economic development and the immigration of white-collar businessmen and -women and retirees from the North and Midwest were the forces driving this transformation, the rise of Barry Goldwater, and the brand of small government, individualistic, conservative Republicanism that he came to represent. In 1952 Governor Pyle encouraged Goldwater to run as the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat (and Senate majority leader) Ernest MacFarland. Initially considered a long shot, Goldwater campaigned hard against the unpopular Truman administration and—with help from the presence of Dwight Eisenhower at the top of the Republican national ticket—won an upset victory.
Once in the Senate, Goldwater rapidly established a lasting reputation for integrity and forthrightness as the Senate's most determined advocate of free enterprise and states' rights, an uncompromising anticommunist (in 1954 he was one of 22 senators who voted against the Senate's censure of Joseph McCarthy), and an anti-Soviet hawk on foreign policy. Goldwater thus consistently opposed any extensions of the welfare state and stood firm against the political agenda of organized labor. On many of these issues he made common cause with the most conservative segregationist Southern Democrats, although Goldwater supported the relatively mild voting rights reforms in the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights acts. In 1958, Goldwater was comfortably reelected against MacFarland in a wretched election year for Republicans as 13 of his fellow Senate Republicans were defeated; the rising conservative forces within the Republican Party—including William F. Buckley's National Review—began to regard the outspoken and charismatic Arizona senator as a possible presidential candidate in 1960.
Goldwater's status as the national champion of Republican conservatives was confirmed by the publication in 1960 of his political manifesto The Conscience of a Conservative. This best-selling volume succinctly set out Goldwater's belief in expanding individual freedom as much as possible and the necessity for smaller government and free markets as the means to that end. Goldwater viewed Soviet communism as the greatest global threat to individualism, but he also believed that the expansion of the American domestic government since the New Deal posed a real, if more subtle, threat to American freedoms. As for the Republican Party, Goldwater was disappointed that the Eisenhower administration had done nothing to halt the growth of government and believed that a considerably stronger antigovernment approach was necessary to reestablish the G.O.P. as the majority party—even if that meant making common cause with Southern Democratic conservative segregationists.
At the 1960 Republican convention, Goldwater took to the rostrum to repudiate an effort to place his name in nomination against the certain nominee, Vice Pres. Richard M. Nixon. In that same speech, however, Goldwater launched a critique of Nixon's widely publicized agreement on the party platform (the so-called Treaty of Fifth Avenue) with New York's liberal governor Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller and put forth a rallying call to Republican conservatives to "take back the party." After Nixon's narrow defeat in the fall election, a clear opening appeared for Goldwater to lead a conservative challenge for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination. In 1961, New York attorney F. Clifton "Cliff" White and a group of like-minded conservative activists founded a Draft Goldwater committee that would become the foundation of a national conservative grassroots network committed to ensure Goldwater's nomination.
Goldwater was personally ambivalent about a presidential candidacy and concerned about the effect of a national campaign on his family. Of equal concern to Goldwater, however, was the strong possibility that the 1964 G.O.P. nomination would go to the liberal Nelson Rockefeller unless Goldwater threw his hat into the ring. Rockefeller's controversial divorce and remarriage in 1963 pushed Goldwater to the front of the pack of Republican candidates, and he began to relish the prospect of mounting a principled conservative challenge to the liberalism of Pres. John F. Kennedy, whom Goldwater personally liked and respected. Goldwater did not have a similar regard for Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded to the presidency after Kennedy's assassination in late 1963. Johnson, a moderate Texan, also posed a much tougher challenge to Goldwater in terms of electoral geography—Texas was part of Goldwater's Sunbelt political base—than the Massachusetts-based Kennedy.
By the spring of 1964, the efforts of Cliff White's grassroots organization in the various local and state caucuses that then selected most convention delegates took effect, putting Goldwater well on the way to winning the nomination. The emergence of a viable Republican organization in the South for the first time since Reconstruction was a tremendous asset, as the new Southern Republicans were solidly conservative and supportive of Goldwater. The Arizona senator was also strong in the Western and Plains states. Throughout the spring of 1964, the moderate, Northeastern, Republican establishment that had controlled the Republican Party for more than two decades made every effort to block Goldwater's seemingly inevitable path to the nomination, but the popular support and enthusiasm for the Arizonan among Republican activists was simply too strong. Rockefeller made one last effort to stop Goldwater by challenging him in primary elections. The New York governor succeeded in defeating Goldwater in Oregon, but Goldwater's large popular base of conservative support in southern California enabled him to win a narrow victory in the California primary and thereby secure the nomination.
The Republican convention, held in San Francisco in July 1964, was a somewhat rancorous affair, as Goldwater and his supporters were embittered by continuing efforts of party moderates to block his nomination and by the charges of extremism that Rockefeller and others had hurled at Goldwater. Repudiating the moderates, Goldwater chose a fellow conservative, Rep. William E. Miller of New York, as his running mate. Goldwater's acceptance speech ended with a direct attack on the centrist political approach of his Republican opponents rather than an effort to unite the badly divided party: "Let me remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"
The general election campaign was hardly the civilized debate on the principles of liberalism and conservatism that Goldwater had hoped for. Lyndon Johnson laid claim to the mantle of John Kennedy by getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed and presiding over a strong economy. While a majority of Senate Republicans voted for the act, Goldwater voted against it because he was convinced that several of its provisions unconstitutionally extended the power of the federal government. Goldwater campaigned hard as an uncompromising free marketeer and anticommunist, but the attributes that had made him so popular among Republican conservatives—candor, unbending conservatism, strong anticommunism—were easily manipulated by the Democrats to depict Goldwater as a hot-tempered extremist unsuited to the world's most powerful political office. The television ads "Daisy" and "Ice Cream Cone" (respectively depicting a little girl picking petals off a daisy and licking an ice cream cone with a voice-over countdown culminating in the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion) made the point effectively. Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Act and his widely publicized support for privatizing the popular Tennessee Valley Authority, as well as a careless comment he once made about sawing off the Eastern seaboard of the United States, reinforced the extremist image.
Barry Goldwater stands with Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California, at a Republican National Committee gala honoring new G.O.P. members of Congress on March 1, 1967. (Bettmann/Corbis)
On Election Day, Goldwater suffered one of the largest defeats in U.S. history, winning only 38.5 percent of the popular vote and carrying just six states (Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and his home state, Arizona) with a combined total of 52 electoral votes to Johnson's 486. In a cruel irony, Johnson's success in depicting Goldwater's boldly stated, small-government conservatism as "extreme" led to significant Republican losses in Congress that in 1965-1966 actually helped the Johnson administration put into effect the largest expansion of the American welfare state—including Medicare and Medicaid—since the New Deal. The subsequent woes of the Johnson administration in economic and social policy at home and in the Vietnam War appeared to vindicate Goldwater's warnings of the dangers of "big government" in the 1964 campaign; after 1964, Goldwater conservatism would remain as the predominant intellectual and political force within the Republican Party.
Despite the magnitude of his defeat, Goldwater was easily reelected to the Senate from Arizona in 1968 and became the elder statesman among Republican conservatives in that body. Goldwater played a key role in the Watergate crisis as a member of a group of senior Republicans who went to the White House in August 1974 to inform Pres. Richard Nixon that his prospects of surviving a Senate impeachment trial were minimal. Without Goldwater's support, even conservative Republican senators were prepared to withdraw their backing of Nixon, who soon departed from the presidency. After Ronald Reagan, Goldwater's ideological heir as leader of conservative Republicans, was elected president in 1980, Goldwater, as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, became a frequent critic of the Reagan administration's "undercover" support for the Nicaraguan contras.
Beset by worsening health, Goldwater retired from the Senate in 1987, but even in his twilight years the former senator sustained his reputation for outspokenness and integrity. Most remarkably, given his status as a conservative icon, Goldwater became increasingly critical of the increased influence of Christian conservatives within the G.O.P. following the election of Reagan in 1980. Indeed, he astonished many of his former detractors and devotees by announcing his support for legalized abortion and gay rights (encouraged by his gay grandson Ty Ross). His positions were less inconsistent than was immediately apparent, however, as Goldwater's ideology had always been grounded in individualism and limited government rather than social conservatism (decades earlier his wife, Peggy Goldwater, had helped to found Planned Parenthood in Arizona). On May 29, 1998, Barry Goldwater died at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, at the age of 89.
Despite his crushing national defeat in 1964 and the short-term renaissance of New Deal Democratic liberalism that it occasioned in the mid-1960s, Goldwater's presidential campaign exposed the contours of a future conservative Republican presidential majority based in the states of the South, the Sunbelt, and the Mountain West—a majority that Ronald Reagan would lead to victory in 1980 and that would hold on to the White House for the best part of the following three decades. The Goldwater campaign brought white, Southern, conservative Democrats such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms into the Republican Party and led to the emergence of the South as a major factor in national Republican Party politics. The Republican Party moved significantly in a conservative direction in 1964, with the hitherto dominant Eastern, liberal wing of the party becoming increasingly marginal in the following decades. Goldwater's conservative followers were widely derided at the time as a very minor or deviant political force, but their ideas about the role of the federal government in the economy had become the prevailing consensus in Washington by the 1990s—even the Democratic president Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of "big government." Goldwater may have badly lost the opening battle with New Deal Democratic liberalism in 1964, but the conservative Republican movement inspired by his candidacy would later win ideological and electoral victories.
- Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
- Barry Goldwater. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995. .
- The Conscience of a Conservative. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. .
- With No Apologies: The Personal and Political Memoirs of Barry Goldwater. New York: Morrow, 1979. ‥
- Goldwater. New York: Doubleday, 1988. , with .
- Barry Goldwater: Native Arizonan. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997. .
- The Agony of the GOP 1964. New York: Macmillan, 1965.
- The Decline and Fall of the Liberal Republicans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Suite 3505. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1967.
- The Making of the President 1964. New York: Atheneum, 1965.
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