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12:00 AM, Jun 15, 1998 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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I first met Barry Goldwater in 1957, when I was a 26-year-old reporter for the Associated Press helping cover the Senate Rackets Committee's investigation of organized labor. I liked him immensely. He was a reporter's dream: friendly, funny, and oh so helpful, telling just about everything he knew, particularly if it might embarrass the Kennedy brothers -- Jack, a member of the committee, and Bobby, its chief counsel.

In 1959, my first full year as Senate correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, the committee's revelations had made labor reform a popular cause. Goldwater, as ranking minority member of the Labor Committee, was the Republican senator in charge of the issue. The Journal covered the great fight over labor legislation as the Sporting News covered baseball, so my relationship with Goldwater prospered. He liked the Journal, trusted me, and bestowed on me inside information about his strategy.

Goldwater was the first to admit that he was no legislative strategist. He delegated that to Michael J. Bernstein, Republican chief counsel on the Labor Committee, who liked to quote Hannah Arendt and Schumpeter and approached labor reform as a chess game. Bernstein's plan was to draft 100 amendments to Sen. John F. Kennedy's bill, none of which would have a chance in the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate.

But Goldwater's detailed explanations of these amendments would accomplish several things. They would slow down Kennedy's bill, intended to help carry him to the Democratic presidential nomination. They would highlight the need for basic reform legislation to fight corruption and ensure union democracy. And they would burnish Barry Goldwater's credentials as the emerging Mr. Conservative. Bernstein and the senator explained it all to me, and I had a big exclusive on the back page of the Journal.

But after just two or three amendments lost, Goldwater called it a day. No more amendments. Seated in the press gallery, I was stunned, and I rushed down to call the senator off the floor. What about my exclusive? What about your plans? "Oh," Barry told me, "it's just too much trouble. Anyway, I made my point." Bernstein could only shrug. For the first time, I entertained the possibility that Goldwater was not entirely serious about politics or government.

I became sure of it over the next five years, as we occasionally shared the bottle of Old Crow he kept in his office. He loved ribald jokes, political gossip, and gabbing about his ham radio. He resented union power, but wasn't particularly interested in blocking it. An Air National Guard major general, he showed greater commitment to taking the offensive in the Cold War, but he involved himself in the nuts and bolts of military preparedness rather than in grand strategy. And he wasn't at all interested in economics. I never heard him describe himself as anything other than a conservative, and certainly never as a libertarian.

One of Goldwater's strongest political views, oddly, was contempt for Dwight Eisenhower, then the only Republican elected president since Herbert Hoover. He called the Eisenhower administration "the dime-store New Deal." A few days before the 1960 election, from somewhere on the road, I telephoned Goldwater at his home in Phoenix. He made clear he thought Richard Nixon would lose because he had gone too far in courting the black vote and liberals, forfeiting a golden opportunity to sweep the South.

A few months after Kennedy's victory, Mike Bernstein prepared an ingenious document outlining how Goldwater could run for president as neither a stereotypical conservative nor a me-too moderate, but pointing to government schemes to appeal to "that dragooned and ignored individual, The Forgotten American." He meant Catholics, old-age pensioners, and labor-union members -- all disaffected from their ancestral home in the Democratic party. With Goldwater's approval, I revealed the plan (calling it the Goldwater Manifesto) in a Wall Street Journal front-page exclusive. It took only a few vitriolic conservative attacks on Goldwater for abandoning the true cause before he turned away from the plan -- and from Bernstein.

He often indicated to me that he didn't really want to be president or even to run. Once in 1963, when I told him he actually could be nominated, he replied, sincerely I think, "Oh, please don't say that!" In the end, he ran because a grass-roots movement had built up in support of him, because he was angry about Nelson Rockefeller's attack on him, and because he harbored genuine hostility toward the eastern Republican establishment.