January 11, 2006


The Goldwater Myth: He didn't become a libertarian until his twilight years (ANDREW E. BUSCH, January 11, 2006, Opinion Journal)

Goldwater articulated a view of the American Founding and America's purpose, as well as the nature of man, that was fundamentally moral, even religious, in character. In the introduction to his bestselling "The Conscience of a Conservative" (1960), Goldwater argued, "The laws of God, and of nature, have no dateline." Conservative principles "are derived from the truths that God has revealed about his creation." In the first chapter, he (and his ghostwriter, L. Brent Bozell) wrote:

The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man's nature. The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; but that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man's nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants. Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man's spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. . . . Man's most sacred possession is his individual soul. [...]

In his speech accepting the 1964 presidential nomination, Goldwater extolled "freedom under a government limited by the laws of nature and of nature's God." He warned:

Those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for Divine Will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.

Reagan and Bush later echoed this language.

Goldwater decried the general moral decline of the time. On the campaign trail, he asked, "What's happening to us? What's happening to our America?" His campaign ran several television spots on this theme, which he called simply the "moral issue." [...]

A fourth featured Goldwater speaking directly into the camera:

Is moral responsibility out of style? Our papers and our newsreels and yes, our own observations, tell us that immorality surrounds us as never before. We as a nation are not far from the kind of moral decay that has brought on the fall of other nations and people. . . . [The] philosophy of something for nothing, [the] cult of individual and governmental irresponsibility, is an insidious cancer that will destroy us unless we recognize it and root it out now.

Goldwater made morality the centerpiece of a 30-minute televised address that aired on CBS on Oct. 20, 1964. After citing George Washington's dictum, " 'Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,' " Goldwater said, "The moral fiber of the American people is beset by rot and decay," and pledged "every effort to a reconstruction of reverence and moral strength." [...]

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s "History of American Presidential Elections" included a scathing contemporaneous account from John Bartlow Martin: "Goldwater's moral strictures soon began to sound preachy; he almost castigated Americans for their wickedness. . . . Goldwater looked not only like the mad bomber, but the half-crazed moral zealot." Sympathetic observers would characterize his message differently, but what is clear is that Goldwater hardly eschewed moral, social and cultural themes.

Nor did he discuss these themes in outline only. He and his party took a socially conservative stand on a number of policy issues. The 1964 GOP platform endorsed a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's school-prayer decisions and to permit voluntary school prayer. In his CBS televised address, Goldwater asked, "Is this the time in our nation's history for our Federal Government to ban Almighty God from our classrooms?" He answered: "Ours is both a religious and a free people. Over years past we have encountered no difficulty in absorbing that religious character into our state institutions, while at the same time preserving religious liberty and separation of church and state."

Goldwater pointed out that his Democratic opponents ignored far more than just school prayer: "You will search in vain for any reference to God or religion in the Democratic platform." The Republican platform called for enactment of legislation "to curb the flow through the mails of obscene materials"; it criticized the Democratic administration and Congress for resisting tuition tax credits; and, not least, it emphasized the rise in crime as a moral issue, not merely a sociological one.

"The Conscience of a Conservative" devoted an entire chapter to education, anticipating its importance in the eyes of social conservatives. Goldwater paraphrased Dorothy Sayers when he wrote that Americans must "recapture the lost art of learning":

In our attempt to make education "fun," we have neglected the academic disciplines that develop sound minds and are conducive to sound characters. . . . We have forgotten that the proper function of the school is to transmit the cultural heritage of one generation to the next generation.

As a solution, he advocated a renewed emphasis on basic subjects, within the context of local control of schools. In "The Making of the President 1964," political journalist and election chronicler Theodore White wrote:

Goldwater could offer--and this was his greatest contribution to American politics--only a contagious concern which made people realize that indeed they must begin to think about such things. And this will be his great credit in historical terms: that finally he introduced the condition and quality of American morality and life as a subject of political debate. . . . Yet he had no handle to the problem, no program, no solution--except backward to the Bible and the God of the desert.

It's worth reflecting on this paragraph. Writing in 1965, White of course could not have predicted Goldwater's contribution to the long-term rise of conservatism. Nonetheless, this respected center-left analyst held that the Republican nominee's "greatest contribution to American politics" and his "great credit in historical terms" lay not in any impact he might have had on foreign or economic policy, but in the way he forced the "moral issue" onto the national agenda. White also had no difficulty identifying Goldwater's prescription: "the Bible and the God of the desert."

It should come as no surprise, then, that a number of veterans of the Goldwater effort later made names for themselves as leaders of the burgeoning grassroots movement of social conservatives. As Goldwater biographer Lee Edwards has pointed out, "almost all the leaders of the New Right . . . were drawn into politics because of [Goldwater]," figures like Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich and Morton Blackwell. For them, the transition was seamless.

Goldwater's move away from social conservatism came only in the twilight of his Senate career--and more starkly after he had left the Senate in 1987.

It's not like you have to look that hard to find a national Republican who was liberal/libertarian on social issues whose ideology the GOP strayed from--it just happens to be Richard Nixon, not AUH2O.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 11, 2006 9:17 AM

Just one little problem, Nixon wasn't conservative.

Posted by: erp at January 11, 2006 5:34 PM

erp, True, the EPA and wage and price controls come to mind, but don't forget Hiss and the congresswoman ( Helen Gahagan Douglas?). They never could get past those issues.

Posted by: jdkelly at January 11, 2006 6:03 PM

Nixon was anti-Soviet, not anti socialism.

Posted by: erp at January 12, 2006 6:29 PM

Nixon was pro-Soviet--the USSR afforded stability.

Posted by: oj at January 12, 2006 7:33 PM