Barry Goldwater is best remembered as the unfortunate individual who was buried by Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential landslide. Many know him only as a footnote to Johnson’s record-setting victory. But Barry Goldwater was so much more than the historic loser in the up-to-that-time greatest landslide election victory in our history.
Barry Goldwater was born on January 1, 1909, in Phoenix, Arizona. His grandfather and father had founded and run a very successful mercantile enterprise then called Goldwater’s, Inc. After starting in southern California, the stores moved to Prescott in the New Mexico Territory, and later expanded to Phoenix. His mother and father met at the Goldwater’s store in Phoenix.
Barry was an indifferent student, excelling only in “high spirits, practical jokes, and athletics.” Little interested in schoolwork, he was very interested in Arizona history and geography. He became fascinated by the vast expanses of Arizona, the wildlife, the rugged expanses, and the Indian culture and lore.
Goldwater attended the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, and said it was “the best thing that ever happened to me.” His life took on new direction and discipline, and he became interested in the military. In fact, he considered a military career. When his father became ill, however, Barry decided to return home and enter the University of Arizona. His father’s death in 1929 ended his formal education and he dropped out of school to work in the family business.
Only twenty years old at the time, Barry started at the bottom of the business as a junior clerk and worked his way up. By 1946, he was the general manager of Goldwater’s. The next year, he became president of Goldwater’s. Under his direction, Goldwater’s was the top department store in Phoenix. His employees considered him an outstanding employer. He paid higher wages than the other stores, began the first five day work week for employees, and created hospitalization, insurance, and profit sharing plans for all employees.
While becoming on of the state’s top businessmen, Barry also became involved in two of his life interests, flying and politics. He earned his pilot’s license while keeping it a secret from his mother. She found out by reading a newspaper article about it. He also became involved in politics when he met his future wife, Margaret “Peggy” Johnson. The Johnson family was leasing a house owned by Carl Hayden, long time U.S. Senator from Arizona. Goldwater and Hayden formed a friendship, and Barry became more and more interested in state politics. Barry and Peggy were married in 1934.
With the coming of World War II, Barry volunteered for active duty in the U.S. Army Air Force even before Pearl Harbor. Over thirty years old, and with poor eyesight, he was not considered good material for the program. But with the help of Carl Hayden and the other Arizona Senator, Ernest McFarland, he was assigned to progressively better assignments, first as an instructor and then as a pilot ferrying planes to the combat zone. By the end of the war, he was a colonel. Although he took a demotion to captain so he could remain active in the Arizona Air National Guard, he eventually became a major general.
After the war, he returned to active politics. In 1946, the Democratic governor appointed him to the Arizona-Colorado River Commission. This put him in the middle of one of the biggest political disputes in the west, water rights. In 1947, he was instrumental in securing a new city charter in Phoenix, and recruited progressive candidates to run for the new city council. When one seat had no candidate, Barry reluctantly agreed to run himself.
In 1950, Barry and the new Republican state party chairman tried to find a candidate to run for governor. They chose radio personality and famous war correspondent Howard Pyle. No Republican had won the governorship since 1928, but Goldwater led a successful campaign, and Pyle was elected.
Two years later, Goldwater decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Democratic Senator Ernest McFarland was the majority leader of the Senate, the most powerful man in the Senate. It seemed rather hopeless for Goldwater to take him on in the election, but it was looking like a Republican year with Eisenhower at the top of the ticket, and the Democrats, in power since 1933, being unpopular. Goldwater ran a well-organized campaign. Eisenhower won the state by a landslide and Goldwater eked out a victory of less than 7,000 votes. Still, he had done the impossible, defeating the majority leader of the Senate.
Goldwater quickly became known in the Senate as a die-hard conservative. He supported Senator Joseph McCarhty’s crusade against communism in government. When McCarthy was later censured by the Senate, Goldwater was one of 22 Republican Senators who voted against the measure.
Goldwater also opposed foreign aid, except for military aid to allies, considering it nothing more than a bribe to encourage conduct and action desired by the United States. In addition, Goldwater opposed big labor, calling for anti-trust laws to be applied to unions as well as business. In his first year in the Senate, Goldwater worked to kill proposed amendments to the Taft-Hartley Act. In 1959, he worked to kill a bill proposed by John Kennedy and Sam Ervin that was backed by President Eisenhower. After being called to the White House to explain, he succeeded in getting Eisenhower to withdraw his support for the bill. The Landrum-Griffin Act was eventually passed instead.
In 1958, Goldwater ran for re-election in a re-match with Ernest McFarland. Although it was supposed to be a tough campaign, Goldwater won easily. It was a rough year for Republicans around the country, with large losses in both houses of Congress. Goldwater’s easy victory over a popular, well-known Democrat in a Democratic state made him suddenly one of the top Republicans. For a while, he was considered as a presidential candidate by party conservatives not happy with Nixon as a choice. But Goldwater never believed he had much of a chance. He agreed to allow his name to be placed in nomination at the convention, and then made a speech supporting Nixon and withdrawing from the race. This served to let Nixon know the conservative branch of the party was not entirely happy. Goldwater was not happy with the choice of liberal Henry Cabot Lodge for Vice President, but still worked hard for the ticket. In spite of his efforts, John Kennedy narrowly defeated Nixon in November.
John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater were on good terms, in spite of their political differences. Goldwater called for the use of more force in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was vehemently opposed to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He thought guaranteeing the security of the communist government in Cuba and removing American missiles from Turkey and Italy in return for the Soviets removing their missiles from Cuba was a retreat by the United States.
The issues seemed to be clearly drawn between Kennedy and Goldwater. Goldwater began to organize his campaign to capture the Republican nomination for President in 1964. He was clearly the favorite candidate of conservatives in his party. With the assassination of Kennedy in1963, Goldwater realized he had little chance against Johnson in the circumstances at the time. He told his advisors that he would drop out of the race, but the pleas and requests of his fellow conservatives changed his mind. There was always a tendency in Goldwater to fight for the principles he believed in, even when there was little chance of success.
In 1960, conservative Republicans felt they had no real choice. They were not happy with Richard Nixon, who they felt had sold out to the liberal wing of the party. When he picked liberal Henry Cabot Lodge as his running mate, they felt totally betrayed. At the convention, Barry Goldwater addressed them saying, “Let’s grow up, conservatives. If we want to take this party back, and I think we can some day, let’s go to work.”
In spite of Goldwater’s disappointment with Nixon’s choice of Lodge and the direction the campaign took that fall, Goldwater loyally supported the Republican ticket. The election went by a very narrow margin to the Democrats.
The conservatives began organizing right after the election. Starting in 1961, his followers began attending precinct meetings and building a grass-roots organization. By the time the convention came around in 1964, they had mustered enough votes to guarantee their candidate the nomination on the first ballot. By the time moderates like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller realized what was happening, it was too late to stop the Goldwater supporters.
Still, at the convention, Governor Rockefeller and Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania mounted an anybody-but-Goldwater campaign. However, Goldwater had the nomination locked up, and his supporters controlled the convention. Even so, the moderates at the convention trashed Goldwater, and provided the Democrats with plenty of ammunition to use against him in the general election campaign.
Goldwater was nominated quickly on the first ballot. Rather than reach out to the moderate wing with his selection of a running mate, he picked a very conservative, very obscure New York Congressman named William Miller, whose views were very close to his own. Goldwater explained his choice saying, “One reason I chose Miller is that he drives Johnson nuts.”
In Goldwater’s acceptance speech before the convention, he uttered one of the most famous campaign lines ever. He told the convention, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice no virtue.” One reporter hearing the speech cried “My God! He’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!” More moderate Republicans were disheartened.
Conservative Republicans had finally won and they campaigned without apology. They claimed that Barry Goldwater offered the voters “a choice, not an echo.” Their slogan was “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Goldwater announced “I find that America is fundamentally a Conservative nation” where “people yearn for a return to Conservative principles.” Goldwater’s stands against the welfare state, foreign aid, and a conciliatory foreign policy now became Republican policy.
The Democrats ran Johnson for a full term, calling for a continuation of Kennedy’s policies on civil rights, federal aid to education, and medical care for the elderly. They used Goldwater’s own statements against him, making Goldwater look like a racist warmonger. Goldwater’s own statements could be interpreted to mean he would use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, would end federal aid to education, or that he was a racist. Goldwater had a habit of speaking extemporaneously and in overblown rhetoric which did his cause irreparable harm. Goldwater paid for every slip of the tongue, as well as every extreme position he had ever taken. His verbal mistakes came to be called “shooting from the lip.”
Goldwater never worried about tailoring his message to his audience. He found you could indeed carry honesty too far. He told an audience in St. Petersburg, Florida, an area full of retired people, that Social Security should be made voluntary. In Charleston, West Virginia, a depressed area, he attacked the Equal Opportunity Act. In Knoxville, Tennessee, an area transformed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, he attacked public power projects. The St. Petersburg Times summed it up best with the headline “RIGHT CITY, WRONG SPEECH.”
When it came to foreign policy, Goldwater’s statements seemed even more dangerous. He wanted to break relations with Russia, get out of the United Nations, and use “low-yield” nuclear weapons in Vietnam. He also said he would like to “lob one into the men’s room of the Kremlin and make sure I hit it.”
Making him look even more reckless and dangerous was his explanation that “I wanted to educate the American people to lose some of their fear of the word ‘nuclear.’ When you say ‘nuclear,” all the American people see is a mushroom cloud. But for military purposes, it’s just enough firepower to get the job done.”
Goldwater quotes became a major feature of the Democratic campaign. In books, leaflets, newspaper advertisements and pamphlets, the Democrats used Goldwater statements, often lifted out of context, to show how ignorant, irresponsible, reckless or dangerous he was. One Republican complained that, “Every time he opened his mouth, he was campaigning for Lyndon.”
One Democratic TV commercial (Repudiated by Johnson and pulled from the schedule) showed a little girl plucking the petals from a daisy while a nuclear countdown was going on, and after the screen erupted in a nuclear explosion complete with mushroom cloud, the voice of Johnson was heard pleading for peace. Another commercial (also repudiated by Johnson and withdrawn) showed a little girl eating an ice cream cone, but the cone is poisoned with strontium-90, a voice in the background points out, “because there’s a man who wants to be President of the United States” who voted against Kennedy’s nuclear test-ban treaty with Russia in 1962.
Goldwater tried to take back some of his earlier statements. He said he no longer favored leaving the UN, that he favored extending Social Security benefits, and that he would not get into a war in Vietnam. But it was too late. Goldwater lost in a landslide of historic proportions. He carried only Arizona and five states in the deep South. Johnson won 61.1% of the popular vote, the largest up to that time. Goldwater’s loss was compared to Alf Landon’s in1936, when Franklin Roosevelt won 60.8% of the vote.
Goldwater’s term in the Senate ended in January 1965. He had not run for re-election since he was running for President. He retired to Arizona for the next four years. This was a period of rest and recuperation for Goldwater. In 1968, Carl Hayden announced he would not run for another term in the U.S. Senate, and Goldwater easily won the election to replace him.
The main issue during Goldwater’s first term back in the Senate was Vietnam. Goldwater always favored stronger military measures, and disagreed with both the Johnson and Nixon plans for the conduct of the war. He especially opposed the notion of limited force, feeling that it was wrong to ask military men not to win, not to use all the force at their disposal, to fight a war their leaders had decided not to win.
Goldwater became something of an elder statesman in the Republican Party. When Republicans finally decided that Nixon had to go, it was Goldwater who was sent to tell him. Goldwater, who had been a long-time supporter of President Nixon, felt it was impossible that an experienced politician such as Nixon would get involved in such stupid actions as Watergate. When the Watergate tapes made it clear that Nixon had been lying all along, Goldwater felt betrayed, and told Nixon that he no longer had support in the Senate. Nixon resigned, and Goldwater was re-elected in 1974 with his largest margin ever.
In 1980, Goldwater had a much tougher time getting re-elected. He was now 71 years old, had recently undergone surgery on his hips, and was in frail health. His opponent claimed Goldwater was too old and had missed too many votes. On election night, it appeared that Goldwater had been beaten. But two days later, after all the votes were counted, it turned out that Goldwater had been re-elected by a very narrow margin. Goldwater continued his independent ways, announcing in 1984 that he would not run again when his term expired in 1987.
Barry Goldwater served his country well and long. His reputation is based mainly on his 1964 campaign for President, which is unfortunate. Goldwater spoke without considering political consequences, and people always knew he meant what he said. (Today, we would consider that refreshing.) But the fact is that Goldwater would probably not have been a good President. He spoke and acted without always thinking things through, and his unbending, uncompromising nature would not have made for an effective administration.
He found his perfect place in the Senate, where his honesty and stalwart defense of conservative principles were exactly the attributes the people of Arizona wanted in their Senator. He was best in his role of opposition. He opposed every President during his career, both Republicans and Democrats, on civil rights legislation, foreign aid and policy, and federal aid programs to education, the poor and the elderly.
Goldwater was not opposed to equality or the rights of working people. He started insurance, hospitalization and profit sharing plans in his business. He insisted on racial integration in the Air Force units he commanded long before it became official policy. He opposed the government mandating such things, however. He always opposed the expansion of the power of the federal government, and its involvement in the personal lives of citizens. And of course, he always opposed communism.
The one thing people could always count on with Barry Goldwater was his honesty. He would do and say what he thought right, regardless of the consequences. He fought for the principles he believed in and never wavered. Had he been willing to compromise or to act according to his own personal political interests instead of his principles, he might have become President of the United States.