The Magazine


Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Others professed to see a consistent libertarian theme in Goldwater's adoption of the abortion and gay-rights causes. As he himself wrote in a 1994 article for the Arizona Republic, "The conservative movement was founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please, as long as they don't hurt anyone else in the process." But in fact, Goldwater flip flopped shamefully on abortion, running as a pro-lifer in his 1974 and 1980 races, and then abusing his former antiabortion supporters after deciding he would not run again. And with gay rights, Goldwater was not in fact advocating the right to live as one pleases: He was arguing for a federal statute banning discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. Laws like that constrict the right to live as one pleases, by imposing new limits on the constitutional rights of freedom of contract and association. Back in 1964, Goldwater had treasured those freedoms so dearly that he was willing to countenance Jim Crow rather than compromise them. Thirty years later, he was prepared to cast them aside altogether for the sake of gay rights.

And yet perhaps there is a consistency here after all -- if not a logical consistency, then an emotional consistency. Goldwater, a whisky-drinking former fighter-pilot, never had much use for moralism in politics, and even less for clergymen. He hailed from a part of the country where political events began with a round of bourbon on the rocks, not a prayer. It is Goldwater's dislike of moralism that may best explain why today's Democrats find him so congenial. Compare their feelings about him with their feelings about Pat Buchanan. From a Democratic point of view, Goldwater was wrong on economics, but right on gay rights and abortion -- and was therefore a lovably cantankerous old cuss. Buchanan -- right on economics, wrong on gay rights and abortion -- is nothing less than the Face of Darkness.

Political bodysnatching is an old American tradition. After Ronald Reagan's invocations of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy, Republicans can hardly complain if the Democrats want to try the same trick on Goldwater. But it's hard to imagine that Goldwater himself would be pleased. After all, in order to squeeze your statue of Goldwater onto the same shelf as your bust of Clinton, you have to do more than forget the Arizonan's contempt for political dishonesty and verbal weaseling. You have to forget his radical rejection of the social-democratic consensus that gripped America in 1964 and his willingness to pay a horrific price in personal reputation to help break that consensus. You have to forget him. And, for all his weaknesses and mistakes, he was a man who deserves to be remembered.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.