Trailblazing Icon of Conservatism Dies
Barry Goldwater, the blunt-spoken, charismatic senator and failed presidential nominee who hurled conservative rhetoric as surely as old-time gunslingers from his native Arizona fired bullets, died Friday in his suburban Phoenix home. He was 89.
Goldwater, who more than any other person was the catalyst who transformed the modern-day conservative movement from a lonely voice in the wilderness into a potent political force, died of natural causes, according to a statement released by his family.
The announcement, ending days of public speculation about Goldwater’s precarious health, added: “He was in his own bed, in his own room, as he wished, overlooking the valley he loved with family at his side. He died as he lived: with dignity, courage and humility.”
The ever-influential politician, who left the U.S. Senate in 1986 after more than 30 years of service, had been in poor health since a 1996 stroke that damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, which controls memory and personality. His biographer Jack Casserly said in September 1997 that the wizened campaigner suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Goldwater had successfully undergone triple bypass heart surgery in 1982.
Calling him “truly an American original,” President Clinton praised Goldwater on Friday as “a great patriot and a truly fine human being.”
Barry Morris Goldwater failed miserably when he sought the presidency in 1964, but the ideas and philosophy he articulated became a formula for victory when former disciple Ronald Reagan won the nation’s highest office by a landslide in 1980.
There were other factors involved in Reagan’s triumph, of course. But Reagan’s basic campaign theme was essentially the same one Goldwater had sounded 16 years earlier--cut big government, slash spending and taxes, hack away at the jungle of federal regulations and red tape, and bolster national defense.
“Barry Goldwater was Ronald Reagan’s John the Baptist,” is the way a friend of the senator once put it.
Nancy Reagan, speaking for herself and her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, issued a statement Friday expressing sorrow and remembering Goldwater as “a forward thinker who initiated a crusade that launched a revolution.”
“It wasn’t fashionable to be conservative back then,” she said, “but Barry was willing to defy conventional wisdom and inspire us as the conscience of the conservative movement.”
Goldwater had a habit of speaking from the hip, an impulsiveness that caused many voters to fear he was a trigger-happy adventurer who might start a nuclear war.
“They were afraid of me,” Goldwater wrote years later in explaining his overwhelming loss in 1964 to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Connecting With the Electorate
Despite his defeat, Goldwater exposed a deep vein of discontent in the electorate that subsequent conservative campaigners, particularly Reagan, exploited to woo vast numbers of voters away from the Democratic Party. Indeed, in his memoirs, “With No Apologies,” published in 1979, Goldwater maintained that even Democrat Jimmy Carter used Goldwater campaign issues to good effect.
“In 1976, Jimmy Carter picked up many of my complaints,” Goldwater wrote. “I truly believe he won that election because the people are sick and tired of federal control, federal taxes, inflation and the lessening of individual freedom. It is tragic that once he was elected, Jimmy Carter promptly forgot his campaign promises.”
It was an anomaly that Goldwater, the grandson of a Polish Jewish immigrant, a resident of a Western state and a man with scant political experience before entering the Senate, should have had such a profound impact on American politics.
When Goldwater arrived in the Senate in 1953, after riding to a narrow victory on the presidential coattails of Dwight D. Eisenhower, there were several nationally known conservatives already on the scene: Republicans Robert A. Taft (Ohio), William F. Knowland (California), Styles Bridges (New Hampshire), Eugene D. Millikin (Colorado), Bourke B. Hickenlooper (Iowa), Homer E. Capehart (Indiana), John W. Bricker (Ohio), William E. Jenner (Indiana) and Joseph R. McCarthy (Wisconsin).
Taft, the conservative hero of the day, died a few months after Goldwater arrived, and by the end of his first term, Goldwater was beginning to inherit Taft’s mantle.
However, except for a similarity in viewpoints, there was a world of difference between the two men. Taft, a Harvard University-trained lawyer, was an intellectual. Goldwater, who left college after one year to work in his family’s Phoenix clothing store, made no pretense of erudition.
And Goldwater had a quality that Taft lacked--charisma. Taft, balding and bookish, had a rigid personal dignity that made him appear aloof. Goldwater, with his silver hair and rugged features, presented the image of a confident frontiersman of the Old West.
He relished his reputation as a profane, whiskey-drinking, devil-may-care World War II flier and, with his gravelly voice, knew how to communicate with people in the street in a way Taft never did.
Goldwater’s speeches were visceral, particularly when he was attacking communism or big government, his favorite targets in those years.
His friends were often his fiercest political opponents, like President John F. Kennedy and former Washington Post Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee.
“He’s one of my best friends. . . . We fought like hell,” Goldwater said happily of Bradlee in a Times interview in his later years. “Hubert Humphrey was my dearest friend, and we used to fight like cats and dogs, but we always got along.”
In his later years, Goldwater mellowed, developing a tolerance for other viewpoints and even warm friendships with former adversaries such as Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.) and New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller. At the same time, he became increasingly critical of the conservatives of the New Right, whose major interests centered on such social issues as abortion, school prayer and busing.
But it was the early brand of Goldwaterism that appealed most to the staunch conservatives--those who had been embittered by the liberal policies of Democratic Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, by Eisenhower’s defeat of Taft for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, and by some of Eisenhower’s fiscal policies.
At one point, when Eisenhower sent a red-ink budget to Congress, Goldwater accused him of “running a dime-store New Deal.” This was greeted with hurrahs by Goldwater’s supporters, and he kept them cheering with freewheeling attacks in his speeches, interviews and magazine articles.
Goldwater’s breakthrough as a national figure began in 1959, when he agreed to serve a second term as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, an organization created to help elect GOP Senate candidates.
He said in his memoirs: “This second time around I visited almost every state, appearing before dozens of party conventions and smaller gatherings.”
That same year, 1959, after a rousing speech in Los Angeles, Goldwater was invited by The Times to write a column three times a week.
“Within a year 140 newspapers were buying and printing the column,” Goldwater said in his book. “The column generated tremendous mail response. . . . I didn’t see the column as a vehicle for political advancement. Now I realize this new constituency helped make me the Republican nominee in 1964.”
Seeking the Presidency
By 1960, enthusiasm for Goldwater had reached the point that several efforts were made to draft him for the Republican presidential nomination. Indeed, his name was placed in nomination at the national convention that year in Chicago, touching off one of the convention hall’s liveliest demonstrations.
But Goldwater, realizing that Vice President Richard M. Nixon was assured of the nomination, withdrew his name and pledged his full support to Nixon.
Even then, as Goldwater wrote years later, he had “misgivings” about Nixon’s dedication to conservative principles and thought that Nixon and his running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge, “were not the ideal candidates.” But he thought they were preferable to the Democratic ticket of Kennedy and Johnson.
Goldwater campaigned for Nixon in 26 states, an exercise that strengthened his base in the party and gained him even more adherents. Thus, when Nixon lost narrowly to Kennedy, Goldwater became the choice for the nomination in 1964.
Although Kennedy and Goldwater were warm friends, dating to their days together in the Senate, they agreed on practically nothing politically. By late 1963, Goldwater had all but decided that he wanted to run against Kennedy in 1964.
Goldwater later told of visiting the White House, and how Kennedy got up from his desk and said with a chuckle, “Barry, if you want this seat, I will give it to you.”
Kennedy was assassinated a short time later, and Goldwater said his death “removed much of the zest I had foreseen in a presidential contest.”
Despite strong doubts that he could defeat Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, Goldwater forged ahead.
The liberal wing of the GOP, or the Eastern Establishment, as the Goldwater forces derisively called it, had dominated GOP conventions since 1940 and confidently expected to do so again.
But times had changed. The liberals were the minority. Three liberal governors sought the nomination: Rockefeller, George Romney of Michigan, and William W. Scranton of Pennsylvania. But Goldwater was the victor.
Triumphant for the first time in more than three decades, GOP conservatives were ecstatic as Goldwater fired back at the liberals who had portrayed him as a right-wing extremist and warmonger.
“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater said to thunderous applause in accepting the nomination at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, adding, “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
He told a Times reporter in later years: “That’s a helluva good speech. It should be--I stole it from Socrates. I always said, if you’re gonna steal a speech, go waaay back.”
But Goldwater’s candidacy was doomed by what television had shown of the convention--the booing of Rockefeller and Scranton and the hatred many conservatives showed toward politicians on their left.
Goldwater himself said in his memoirs that the convention had cost him “whatever small chance I ever had to be president.”
He told The Times decades later that he knew even then that Johnson could not be beaten because “the country was not ready for three presidents in 2 1/2 years.” But he said far more important was wresting control of the GOP from the Eastern liberal wing and moving it west.
Goldwater looked back on the 1964 campaign as another turning point in American politics--the advent of telegenic mudslinging. He cited Johnson’s devastating political ad, which aired only once, that showed a little girl plucking petals from a daisy and then faded to the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb explosion.
“That blow-'em-up thing . . . it opened the door to real dirty advertising,” Goldwater said, “and Madison Avenue has grown fat on people running for president who are looking for dirty ways to approach the subject or approach their opponent.”
Goldwater’s landslide defeat sent him into retirement, because his Senate term also ended in 1964.
“The years from 1965 through 1968 were four of the most satisfying years I have known as an adult,” he wrote later. He returned to his home atop Camelback Mountain in the desert outside Phoenix and to his favorite pursuits--exploring Arizona’s open spaces, flying, photography and operating an elaborate ham radio in his home.
He had not rid himself of Potomac fever, however. When Arizona’s veteran senator, Democrat Carl Hayden, retired in 1968 at 91, Goldwater ran for his seat and won, returning to the Senate at age 60.
Goldwater’s return coincided with Nixon’s election to the White House.
Despite his known reservations, Goldwater loyally supported Nixon on most issues.
But that loyalty was badly strained by Nixon’s momentous “opening to China” in 1971. And it was stretched beyond the breaking point by Nixon’s handling of the Watergate scandal.
Unable to believe the president had lied, Goldwater refused for months to join the growing number of Republicans demanding that Nixon resign. But when evidence finally surfaced that the president had indeed lied, Goldwater had had it.
Nixon had “told one damn lie too many” and had to go, Goldwater told a meeting of Republican senators just before Nixon’s resignation, according to one who was present.
During that meeting, Alexander M. Haig Jr., then the White House chief of staff, called Goldwater.
“Haig wanted to know what the Senate would do if there should be an impeachment trial,” Goldwater wrote. “I told him I thought the president would be lucky if he got 12 votes. I said I would not defend the president.
“Haig thanked me for being so direct and said he would get back to me later on. I will always believe Richard Nixon was listening in on an extension.”
The next day Goldwater joined Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania and House GOP leader John J. Rhodes of Arizona in calling on Nixon at the White House. Nixon resigned the next day.
Years later, Goldwater, who once called Nixon “the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life,” did not attend Nixon’s funeral in Yorba Linda.
Criticism of the New Right
In his later years, Goldwater frequently startled people by saying warm things about Democratic politicians. At a private dinner with a group of reporters in 1977, Goldwater said that of all the politicians he had known, “the man I admired the most was Harry Truman.”
“I disagreed with him on most things, but you knew where he stood,” Goldwater said. Another, he said, was Humphrey.
“We have been political foes for years,” he said, “but I don’t know a person I like more. He would have been a good president.”
Goldwater said he would have chosen Gen. Colin Powell as a running mate for George Bush in 1988, adding that Powell had “the best brain in Washington on foreign policy.”
The publicly acerbic Goldwater grew gentler as an octogenarian, but he never mellowed beyond quotability. When news reports circulated in the late 1980s about a national political figure who had “shacked up with some girl,” Goldwater said: “Well, if they’re gonna apply that criterion, there’d be no politicians left.”
In his final years in the Senate, Goldwater surprised many of his old supporters by questioning the rhetoric of some New Right conservatives.
In a 1981 Senate speech, for example, he attacked religious fundamentalists such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority who threatened to campaign against politicians opposing them on such issues as abortion, school prayer and busing.
Although saying he shared many of their values, Goldwater declared that “their groups have little or nothing to do with conservative or liberal politics” and called them “a divisive element that could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system if they gain sufficient strength.”
Seven years later, in retirement, he was still railing: “The New Right--just like FDR had his New Left--they’re nuts. . . . They expect from conservatism some things that no political philosophy could or should deliver.”
Goldwater was born in Phoenix on Jan. 1, 1909, before Arizona became a state. His father, Baron, was the son of Michael Goldwasser, who fled from his Polish homeland at age 14 to avoid being conscripted into the army of Russia’s czar.
The grandfather, whose name was eventually anglicized to Goldwater, migrated with a brother, Joe, to California’s Mother Lode country during the Gold Rush, and they opened a saloon. They later moved to Arizona and went into the mercantile business, the beginning of the family fortune.
“My father made the Phoenix Goldwater store the leading fashion center of the territory,” Goldwater said in his memoirs.
Goldwater, the eldest of three children, took a lifelong interest in the well-being of the Southwest’s Native Americans. He said the Navajos gave him the nickname ChaLee, meaning “curly hair.” He called his home “Be-Nun-I-Kun,” which in Navajo means “house on the hilltop.”
Had he been around when the Army was wiping out Indians, the crusty Westerner said, “I would have been on the Indians’ side. The white man really--pardon the expression--screwed the Indians.”
He often said he inherited his love of Arizona’s open spaces and his religion, Episcopalianism, from his mother.
“It’s frequently been said that our first Jewish president would be an Episcopalian,” Goldwater used to tell campaign audiences in 1964.
A lifelong pilot, he chafed at the restrictions imposed by health problems. When he asked his doctor after hip replacement surgery if he would ever be “normal” again, the doctor asked how he defined the term.
“ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘if the last windstorm moved my TV antenna, normal would be getting a ladder, going up and fixing it.’ He said, ‘You’re never gonna be normal.’ ”
Goldwater was married in 1934 to Margaret “Peggy” Johnson of Muncie, Ind., and they had two sons and two daughters: Barry Goldwater Jr., a former California Republican congressman who became a Phoenix investment counselor; construction executive Michael Goldwater; and businesswomen Joanne Goldwater and Peggy Goldwater Clay. There are 10 grandchildren.
Peggy Goldwater died Dec. 11, 1985. More than six years later, shortly after his 83rd birthday, Goldwater married health care executive Susan Shaffer Wechsler, more than three decades his junior.
“The only thing I want them to remember me by,” the long-retired Goldwater told a Times reporter, “is, I was honest. . . . I have no regrets of my service. I did everything I could, and some of it was damn good and some of it wasn’t.”
Times staff writer Patt Morrison contributed to this story.