Goldwater sparked right revolution

Only a few moments in American history have shown how costly an honest opinion can be. One such moment was the 1964 presidential race. In a landslide election, the late Barry Goldwater lost his bid for the presidency because he dared to speak his mind.
Regardless of the consequences of his opinions, Goldwater always stuck to his guns. Up until Friday, when the five-term senator from Arizona passed away, he represented a uniquely individualistic point of view.
Throughout his political career, however, Goldwater illustrated how the voice of one individual, no matter how unpopular or misunderstood, could leave a lasting impact on the way our country thinks about liberty.
Goldwater’s influence was wide, appearing in both President Clinton’s proclamation that “the era of big government is over,” and President Reagan’s efforts to slash the power of the federal government and give it back to the American people.
You might have loved his determination to build the foundation of modern government or found his political beliefs outlandish. Nevertheless, the neo-conservative spokesman gained the respect of supporters and detractors alike.
He was elected senator from Arizona in 1952. From the earliest days of his career, he voiced opposition to “the superstate and to gigantic, bureaucratic, centralized authority.” Goldwater was in sync with President Eisenhower’s public warnings about corporate militarization, but no matter how prophetic, he was branded a radical of outspoken unreliability.
He nonetheless articulated what a growing base of supporters had tried to tell Washington for years, appealing to the interests of common U.S. citizens who felt threatened by the increasing intrusion of government into private lives.
His views attracted resistance from the entire political spectrum and in the media. However, his belief in the exercise of liberty was spelled out in his openness to discuss political differences with all of his opponents.
His attacks on the powers of the modern state were revolutionary. Goldwater was the original punk rocker, an anti-establishment savior.
Ultimately, many of the political figures with whom he had the greatest disagreements were both those whom he respected and who respected him the most.
Goldwater befriended his political opponent, John F. Kennedy, and hoped to run against him in the 1964 presidential election. The two had even discussed the possibility of touring the country, fashioned after the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
However, when Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Goldwater lost interest in the presidency. He knew he didn’t stand a chance against Lyndon Johnson, but accepted the Republican nomination anyway.
In his acceptance speech he uttered the words that would haunt him throughout his campaign.
Reflecting on his passionate belief in the primacy of constitutional freedoms, Goldwater told the crowd of Republican delegates, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Many Americans coupled this statement with earlier references to a nuclear strike as a possible solution to the situation in Vietnam, believing that should Goldwater be elected, nuclear war would be imminent. A highly controversial television ad for the Johnson campaign reinforced the notion by dramatizing the vaporization of an American girl during a nuclear attack.
Goldwater’s speech further damaged his campaign, ultimately guaranteeing his defeat. Yet, he stood by his words with ironic wisdom. He stated that the speech was a true reflection of how he felt about America, but confessed, after seeing the Johnson television ad, “If I hadn’t known Goldwater, I’d have voted against the s.o.b. myself.”
Years later, Goldwater continued to address some of the lingering issues of his famous — or infamous — acceptance speech.
In what were his final days as senator, the elder spokesman had come to be respected as the founder of the new right.
In a nationally televised interview, Goldwater was asked what would have been different about the outcome of the Vietnam War had he been elected in 1964.
Maybe Goldwater knew the futility of the speculative question; maybe, he was just a grumpy old man. His answer was short, ironic, and true to form, “I suppose Hanoi would be a swamp right now.”
Many historians have speculated about what Goldwater really meant by this and what the repercussions would have been. There would have been no Watergate. The Cold War would have subsided sooner. Tens of thousands of American soldiers would have been spared. Domestic strife and violence would have been minimized.
Looking back after 23 years of U.S. embargoes, Hanoi had turned into a wasteland anyway.
At any rate, this was the quintessential Goldwater at work in all of his opinionated, shocking style.
He returned to the Senate in 1968. Because of President Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate fiasco, Goldwater proved key in bipartisan efforts to remove the disgraced Republican.
In the 1980s, the country transformed from Johnson’s Great Society to the Reagan administration’s principle of a more limited federal government. Goldwater remained outspoken, sticking to a purist interpretation of the Constitution through his retirement from the Senate in 1987.
In his later years, he stood at odds with newer additions to the Republican party. He voiced support for a woman’s right to choose in the abortion debate and sided with the Clinton administration on the issue of gays in the military. In 1993, he wrote, “You don’t have to be straight’ to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight.”
He died without the fanfare of lesser accomplished personalities, but ranks in the upper echelons of American political thinkers.
If there is a hereafter, Goldwater may be scolding Satan for letting Nixon off easy, or even commiserating with Lincoln about the press during those nasty 64 elections.
We, the living, are left with his legacy. He reminded us that courage and determination are essential in standing up for honest beliefs, however right or wrong they might be judged.
While the late Sinatra simply sang about doing things “my way,” Goldwater actually did and said everything his way.
In his years as the spokesman for neo-conservative thought, he reminded everyone that our beliefs in individual freedoms are empty if we cannot stand up for what they mean. Whether you see the world through the eyes of a politician, a student, or any one of the billions of other perspectives out there, right, Goldwater would insist, makes might.

Gregory Borchard’s column appears every Thursday. He welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]