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The Conscience Of A Curmudgeon

Barry Goldwater: 1909-1998

TIME magazine

(TIME, June 8) -- Barry Goldwater liked to tell a story about his Uncle Morris, who ran the family dry-goods store in Prescott, Ariz., at the turn of the century. The town bluenoses, so the story goes, got word that one of Morris' salesgirls had once been a hooker, and a group of housewives descended on the store to demand that she be fired as an act of civic hygiene.

Morris listened quietly, then leaned forward and said his piece. "Ladies, I've been in this town long enough to know your families from the early days, and you'd be surprised to learn how a few of the women earned their living. Now go home and mind your own business."

The story, true or not, conveys the essence of how Barry Goldwater saw himself and how his admirers, liberals and conservatives, often came to see him too. Americans like their conservatives to be curmudgeonly--irascible, unblinkered, plain-talking tellers of uncomfortable truths, with a keen eye for hypocrisy. Curmudgeons are amusing, colorful and, most important, utterly harmless. Mr. Conservative's public career spanned 40 years, and for most of them he managed to be thought curmudgeonly--almost universally enjoyed, like a prickly old teddy bear you can't help hugging.

But it was not always so for Goldwater, who died in his beloved Arizona last week at 89. For the first dozen years of his career, from his arrival in Washington as the upset winner of a 1952 race for the Senate to his climactic run for the presidency in 1964, he was notorious for casting lonely and unpopular votes--against the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, for example, and against the Civil Rights Act a year later. For his offenses against progressive opinion, he was variously described as "dangerous," "psychotic," "Hitlerite," "fascistic" and a "rallying point for racists" whose election would lead to a "police state." Even now, in a political era supposedly debased by attack ads, the vilification of Goldwater in the 1964 campaign seems astonishing. We are used to politicians accusing rivals of heartlessness or racial insensitivity, but Goldwater's opponents made a weightier claim. They said he wanted to destroy the world.

President Lyndon Johnson's infamous daisy ad, in which a cute little girl pulled petals off a flower until the eruption of a mushroom cloud broke her reverie, was only one example. Fact magazine came out with a 64-page "psychological study," purportedly a survey of professional shrinks, that showed Goldwater was "psychologically unfit" to be President. The candidate's slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right," was transformed into a snicker: "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

How did the conservative psycho become the prickly teddy bear? Simple: Goldwater lost, and lost big--so big, in fact, that no one could seriously entertain the idea that he would ever become President or again be leader of his party. Declawed, he returned to Capitol Hill, where as one Senator among 100 he was free to make his caustic observations, to the general amusement of adversaries who not long before considered him deranged. Richard Nixon, he said, was "the most dishonest individual I have ever met in my life." Bob Dole, Goldwater's leader in the Senate in the 1980s, "doesn't have the leadership qualities that his job as minority leader requires." After Iran-contra, Goldwater said Ronald Reagan must be either "a liar or an incompetent." And Reagan had been the most famous Goldwaterite of all.

But there was no such thing as a Goldwaterite. There was only Goldwater, sui generis. When the conservative movement coalesced around his candidacy, in the early '60s, conservatives still called themselves individualists, and he understood better than they did that a movement of individualists was an oxymoron. He remained an individualist, and the movement passed him by. In his last years his libertarianism hardened. He came out for gay rights, including in the military, and opposed controls on abortion. When Republicans attacked President Clinton about Whitewater, Goldwater told them to "get off his back and let him govern."

Now it was conservatives who thought he was nuts. They spoke darkly of failing mental health, of incipient Alzheimer's, of the sinister influence of the new Mrs. Goldwater--a left-winger! A more likely explanation is that conservatives, like liberals, had always mismeasured him. As a presidential candidate, Goldwater traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to call for eliminating cotton subsidies; he went to Florida to advocate dismantling Social Security; in Tennessee he said he wanted to sell off the Tennessee Valley Authority. For such a man, it was not so long a leap to opine 20 years later, during the ascendancy of the religious right, "Every good Christian ought to kick Jerry Falwell in the ass." Throughout Goldwater's career runs the spirit of Uncle Morris, leaning forward and telling the busybodies, as his nephew would put it, to cut the crap. In his curmudgeon's heart, Barry Goldwater knew he was right, and more often than not he was.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: June 8, 1998

Fight To The Finish
The Conscience Of A Curmudgeon
Kinder, Gentler--And In The Lead
Smaller Pond
The Man Behind Prop. 227
The Notebook: Who Moves To The U.N.?

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