The Magazine

Birth of the Right

The 1964 Goldwater campaign and its consequences

Apr 16, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 30 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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One revelation is how hard Johnson worked to woo big business into his camp, promising favorable rulings, appointments, and access in exchange for cash and votes. Others are the methods he and his minions used to undermine an opponent, who posed as slight a threat to Johnson's victory as McGovern later would to Nixon's. These include bugging telephones and using the FBI and CIA for campaign purposes. The professionally "thoughtful" Bill Moyers, now of PBS, proves to have been "the most ambitious and surely the most ruthless" in Johnson's camp. Perlstein credits Moyers for introducing into presidential campaigns the "full-time espionage, sabotage, mudslinging unit." Just as telling are the accounts of administration plans to escalate hostilities in Vietnam, even while they were decrying Goldwater as "trigger happy."

Readers familiar with how the press covered up the peccadilloes of the "charismatic" Kennedy, will learn how willing they were to do the same for the uncouth Johnson -- at least until he was safely back in the White House. Networks granted the president free time for "non-political" speeches, while reporters ignored his gaffes, drunkenness, and cavalier attention to nuclear codes in his care.

Certainly Goldwater's views accounted for some of this treatment. The rest resulted from the fatal sin he had committed: winning his party's nomination beneath the radar screen of the media. The process took five years and is a tale worth telling.

Perlstein's account would be more compelling were it not so marred by errors of fact that distract informed readers from his well-written narrative. He misidentifies New York attorney Robert Morganthau, has the Democrats take control of the Senate three years after they actually did, and has particular trouble sorting out Roman Catholic cardinals. (It was Cardinal Cushing, not Spellman, who put out a fire on Kennedy's inauguration stand; the Soviet antagonist Cardinal Mindszenty was Hungarian, not Czech.)

Perlstein traces the birth of the modern conservative movement to the fusing of disparate elements in the late 1950s that harbored grievances against the liberal status quo. Among them were southerners of various stripes, young activists galvanized by crusading intellectuals, and industrialists angered over federal regulations, high taxes, and militant unionism. The dean of Notre Dame's law school, Clarence Manion, forged a sizable network out of well-heeled and well-connected isolationists, anti-Communists, and anti-New Dealers. Frustrated over the hold eastern Republicans exerted over presidential nominations, he envisioned a new and viable Conservative party.

Goldwater, however, initially refused to run. He changed his mind in large part because of the dedication and commitment a special group was investing in him. Those were the young admirers of National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., who showed that conservatism could be both energetic and fun. They honed their political skills in the Young Americans for Freedom (founded in 1960), and, like the antiwar Democrats who came after them, they reasoned they could best advance their agendas through a presidential campaign. The combative and feisty Goldwater was their man.

It fell to political strategist F. Clifton White to weave together this ideology and activism. In an era when parties selected most of their delegates through conventions and caucuses, White and his disciplined troops clinched the nomination for Goldwater while he was polling only 14 percent among Republicans. Perlstein seems to think White did this by stealth, but concedes that "moderates" had determined nominees in a similar manner.

Once in command, Goldwater immediately distanced himself from White and others who had secured him the nomination, closeting himself with cronies from Arizona. Ambling across the country, Goldwater seemed to relish speaking his mind and telling off friendly as well as hostile audiences. Rarely did he tailor his message to his locale. Rather than develop a message, he voiced ideas -- tax cuts, block grants, a volunteer army -- once or twice, then let them drop.

There was one person, however, who seemed to grasp the ways in which Goldwater was missing opportunities, and that was Ronald Reagan. Reagan's stump speech on Goldwater's behalf, "Time for Choosing," proved the brightest spot in a dreary campaign as well as its principal fund-raiser (though Goldwater's palace guard tried to scrub it). Reagan's presence in the campaign has lured Perlstein to conclude that Reagan as president merely picked up where Goldwater left off -- though Reagan himself wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1965 that conservatives needed to change not only their messenger, but also their message.