The Magazine

THE LAST LAUGH

Jun 15, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 39 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Barry Goldwater was the sort of citizen-politician the Founders originally hoped would lead the republic. No one foresaw how far he would go, when in 1952, the proprietor of his family's department store and a second-term member of the city council of Phoenix, Ariz. (1950 population: 106,818), he decided to run for the U.S. Senate. He won by 6,725 votes. His opponent, Ernest McFarland, was the Senate majority leader, and McFarland's defeat opened the Democratic leadership post to a young Texas freshman, Lyndon Johnson. In the new, now-Republican Senate, majority leader Robert Taft talked Goldwater out of a seat on the Interior Committee -- important to Arizona -- and gave him one on Labor, where he was bound to arouse the opposition of the unions. He looked very much like a one-term senator; he seemed to have no ambition for a lifelong career in the Senate, much less any interest in one day running for president.


Goldwater's emergence as a national conservative leader was something of an accident. The year he came up for reelection, 1958, turned out to be heavily Democratic. The unions targeted him. But as throngs of young veterans moved to Arizona, the state was moving right. Goldwater beat McFarland handsomely, 56 percent to 44 percent, while prominent conservative Republicans were mowed down elsewhere -- William Knowland in California, John Bricker in Ohio. The one Republican besides Goldwater left standing with a big victory was Nelson Rockefeller. Within two years, Goldwater had published The Conscience of a Conservative and come forward as Richard Nixon's chief challenger from the right at the 1960 convention. There followed the draft-Goldwater movement and the 1964 nomination of the major-party nominee least ambitious for the presidency since Alton B. Parker in 1904.


To his opponents he seemed literally crazy. Goldwater helped inspire the brilliant historian Richard Hofstadter to write an essay, then a book, on the paranoid style in American politics. There were few murmurs of disapproval when magazine editor Ralph Ginzburg surveyed psychiatrists to find out what Goldwater's problem was. A committee obtained the signatures of 1,189 psychiatrists to a statement that Goldwater was not "psychologically fit" to be president. Respectable opinion was firmly of the belief that history moved leftward, that government grew ineluctably larger and more generous, and that, in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s wonderful phrase, conservatives had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century.


But Goldwater and his fans have had the last laugh. He was ridiculed for suggesting that Social Security should be made voluntary. Now leading Democrats call for radical reform. He was mocked for urging the sale of the TVA. Now the Clinton administration's TVA head seeks privatization. He was derided for saying that local governments should take on more responsibility. Two years ago a Democratic president signed the law defederalizing welfare. Wise men proclaimed that Goldwater's landslide defeat meant the end of conservatism. Instead, it was conservatism's beginning. It turned out that history does not inevitably move left, that an over-large government can indeed become incompetent and debilitating. Would all this have happened without Goldwater? Not in the same way or to the same extent. For he enabled conservatives to capture the Republican party and make it their instrument.


But Goldwater also did something else, which is less often noticed: He made the Republican party solidly internationalist, committed to waging and, in time, winning the Cold War. When he was elected to the Senate, conservative Republicans were still mostly isolationist. Robert Taft had voted against the NATO treaty. By contrast, the newly elected Dwight Eisenhower's chief ambition as president, Stephen Ambrose persuasively argues, was to cement the United States to the European alliance, to prevent another world war and stop totalitarian Russia from advancing.


Goldwater, with his enthusiasm for the Air Force and all things military, was with Ike. By the time he emerged from the 1958 election as the nation's leading conservative, the conservative movement was firmly committed to prosecution of the Cold War. The Republican split on foreign policy was over. There was nothing inevitable about this: Goldwater could have followed the line Taft took in the 1940s and that Patrick Buchanan has taken in the 1990s. But he didn't, and when the dominant voices in the Democratic party, sickened by their own administration's conduct of the Vietnam war, soured on internationalism in the 1970s and 1980s, the Republican party remained its champion.