Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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…and the Goldwater Revolution

On Principle, v3n5

October 1995

by Brian Janiskee

Lee Edwards, Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, Regnery Press, 572 pp., $29.95.

At this crucial moment for American conservatism, veteran movement conservative Lee Edwards has vividly portrayed the rise of Barry M. Goldwater and his significance for contemporary conservatism. It is astounding to meet young conservative activists, who know Newt and Rush, but know Goldwater only by his current outbursts on behalf of homosexual rights and President Clinton’s praise of him as a "saint." Edwards has given not only these puzzled conservatives but all friends of American conservatism and its critics as well a thrilling description of the triumph of a man driven by the idea of freedom. The book also serves as a sober warning about the need to ground that idea firmly in American founding principles.

Edwards’ finely-crafted tale begins with the Senator’s Grandfather, Michel Goldwasser, and his trek to Arizona (via London) in the mid-1800s to escape the persecution he faced as a Jew in Poland. The young Barry followed the family’s suit of patriotism and frontier toughness. The World War II cargo pilot served on the Phoenix city council and then won a stunning upset victory to the U.S. Senate in 1952.

From junior senator, Goldwater became the informal leader of the new "conservative" movement. In 1960 he collaborated with conservative journalist Brent Bozell in The Conscience of a Conservative, a work eventually selling 3.5 million copies. Edwards boldly evaluates the importance of Conscience in American political writing by claiming it is "rivaled in American political history only, perhaps, by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense." While Paine helped found America, Goldwater’s stunning defense of limited government was intended to perpetuate those founding ideals. He electrified a diverse audience of readers with trenchant arguments on behalf of freedom. Thus the man who never finished college became both a political and intellectual locus of a campaign against the bureaucratic state.

It is not surprising that a "Draft Goldwater" for president campaign arose, with author Edwards himself as a major participant. It was absurd to think that a junior senator from a state with only four electoral votes, who had no significant legislative record, and who was distrusted by party elites could become president. Surely the presidential nomination, all reasonable voices must agree, belonged to Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. After a vitriolic assault against Goldwater, waged by fellow Republicans, Democrats, and by the media, he claimed the prize, the right to run against Lyndon Johnson, who had taken the slain John F. Kennedy’s place. In that time of reckless speech and easy slander, Goldwater was assailed as fascist, racist, reactionary, and just plain nuts. Goldwater did not always help his cause. What was one to make of a politician who denounced tax cheats as un-American? Consider, moreover, the most famous words in the history of presidential
convention oratory: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" And hence Goldwater became tagged as a defender of the John Birch Society, Ku Klux Klan, and other extremist organizations. Edwards explains that Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa, who wrote the lines, was trying to turn Goldwater’s "detractors’ favorite epithet back on them." The statement’s philosophical pedigree can be traced through Paine’s Rights of Man to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. That is, a virtue is an extreme with respect to its contrary vices. Courage is a peak, beyond the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness; moderation can mean cowardice. Thus, ancient wisdom was present in full force at the birth of modern American conservatism.

The lesson of the campaign of 1964 was not the humiliating defeat but rather in the victory of 1968. In 1964 Johnson ran what was arguably the dirtiest presidential campaign in history: Goldwater as mad bomber, for example. In 1968 Johnson retired in disgrace. In 1964 Goldwater ran what was arguably the most principled presidential campaign in history. (The Goldwater campaign slogan was "In your heart you know he’s right.") In 1968 he regained a seat in the United States Senate and became The Conscience of a Majority.

Nor should we lose sight of how Goldwater changed party politics. The vindicating triumphs of conservative Republicans in 1966 and 1968 included Goldwater’s triumphant return to the Senate, and marked the liberal Rockefeller Republicans’ loss of moral authority. Goldwater’s stormy convention victory marked the dominance of the South and the West in Republican circles from which would arise its next conservative star, the triumphant Ronald Reagan.

In the brief final section, "Paradox," Edwards attempts to give an account of Goldwater’s recent stands favoring abortion and gay rights. Concerning the former, Edwards points out that there might be less to explain: his late wife Peggy had a lifelong association with Planned Parenthood. Edwards, however, does make a strong case that Goldwater has dissembled on the issue over the years, especially at election time; he supported, and then later opposed a Human Life Amendment. As for gay rights, Edwards states that "a major reason for Goldwater’s sudden, outspoken, pro-gay campaign was, as so often in his life, personal"; some relatives are homosexuals. Edwards finds it difficult to reconcile the Goldwater of 1994 with the Goldwater of 1964 who said "it is impossible to maintain freedom and order and justice without religious or moral sanctions." But abortion and homosexual rights were not even on the horizon in 1964.

Edwards’ task was to explain the place in history of Goldwater, sui generis, "one man, [who] more than any other, ignited the conservative revolution that altered the course of American politics." In closing, Edwards answers the question "Who was Barry Goldwater? He was a cradle conservative who opposed the Bigs of America Big Government, Big Business, Big Labor, Big Media."

But the deepest lesson of Goldwater is that it is reasonable to believe, in our hearts, that right makes might. Edwards reminds us that such a right is a precious and rare commodity: "From the heady perspective of 1995, it is difficult to imagine how small, how insignificant, how irrelevant conservatism was forty years ago." Edwards demonstrates, without a doubt, that there would have been no recognizable conservative movement in America today had it not been for Barry Goldwater. True, for all his integrity, he lacked the intellectual depth to carry conservatives back to their future the principles of the American Founding. But one imagines with horror the shape conservatism could have taken had George Wallace been the first to claim hold of the mantle of conservative leadership. Goldwater was a principled statesman, an eloquent defender of individual freedom, in a troubled decade that was ripe with opportunity for a populist demagogue. "Conservatives wi
ll never be able to repay their debt to Goldwater."

Brian Janiskee teaches public affairs at James Madison College of Michigan State University, where he is completing his Ph.D. in political science.

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