In 1964, Lyndon Johnson called Barry Goldwater a "ranting, raving demagogue who wants to tear down society." What would Johnson say now if he could see Goldwater being saluted as a "truly fine man" by the first Democratic president to win reelection since 1964? In his cynical way, LBJ would probably mutter something about the infinite human capacity for hypocrisy. And he'd be very largely right. But not entirely. By the end of his life, Goldwater had become to Democrats what Harry Truman is to many Republicans -- their favorite politician from the other party. That may seem like a strange end for the man on whom the Democrats unleashed the notorious "daisy" commercial, but it isn't really any stranger than the newfound Republican affinity for a man who once tried to nationalize the steel industry.
Much of the Democratic delight in Goldwater was the result of his proclivity -- lifelong, but increasingly pronounced in his last years -- for turning his sharp tongue on his own party. Goldwater had quotably cruel things to say about Richard Nixon, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and even his old friend and supporter Ronald Reagan.
But something more serious is going on. Despite his crushing 1964 defeat, Barry Goldwater exerted more influence on American politics than any other losing major-party presidential nominee of the twentieth century. Thirty-five years ago, Goldwater was condemned as a nut and extremist for advocating positions like school vouchers and privatization that today would qualify him for membership in the Democratic Leadership Council. The world has moved his way.
As a result, the hoary partisan debate over the role of government in the economy has become less contentious than it used to be. It would be ridiculous to say that liberals and Democrats have been converted to Goldwaterism. But it is true that Goldwaterite economics no longer excites the indignation and vituperation that it once did. The passion long ago leached out of the Democrats' commitment to the welfare state. Big government has become for them what farm programs are to Republicans: a necessary price of political survival, but hardly something one feels much enthusiasm for. And thanks to the end of the Cold War, the passion has leached out of the old liberal-conservative foreign-policy debate as well.
Where the ideological passion has drifted is to the spicy new issues of sexuality and morality. And there, of course, Goldwater in his last years aligned himself with the Democrats.
To be sure, some of the obituary writers attempted to find ideological consistency in Goldwater's late-in-life animosity toward social conservatism. The Washington Post explained that it was because Goldwater was a consistent "constitutional stickler" that he
refused to join the Republicans of the New Right when they began to press for legislation that would limit the authority of the federal courts to curb organized prayer in public schools or to order busing for school integration. He opposed busing and backed prayer in schools, Mr. Goldwater said, but thought it a dangerous breach in the separation of powers for Congress to be telling the courts what to do.
But of course, the Goldwater of the 1950s and '60s had been perfectly willing to attack the decisions of the courts and to promise to curb their power. In his 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater flatly denied the legality of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education:
Despite the recent holding of the Supreme Court, I am firmly convinced -- not only that integrated schools are not required -- but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education . . . I am not impressed by the claim that the Supreme Court's decision on school integration is the law of the land.
In those days, Goldwater understood that it was possible for the courts, just as much as for the legislature or the executive, to trample on the Constitution in order to aggrandize themselves, and that it is the duty of a constitutional stickler to denounce anti-constitutional measures from the bench every bit as much as anti-constitutional measures from Congress.
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.