Tuesday, October 31, 2006


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I had the chance to watch "Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater" on HBO, and I have to say it was an eye-opener. Before this, I only knew Barry Goldwater as Lyndon Johnson's opponent in the 1964 election. There are election adversaries and there are election adversaries, and most would be forgotten. In fact, Barry Goldwater would live in the election's shadow because he lost in that election by the greatest margin in American history. But when you look at his life, you realise that his losing in that election was both the least and most important event in his career. Least important because there were so many more remarkable facets to the man, and most important because the 1964 election was one of the decisive elections in twentieth century American history; Johnson won, and soon mired the country in Vietnam. If not for any other reason, Goldwater should stand out from other election adversaries because the history of his country might have been quite different had he been elected president.

Barry Goldwater was remarkable because even though he is credited with the resurgunce of the conservative politics movement in America, as early as 1963, the man himself predicted that history would look on him as a liberal. He was a conservative in fact, and redefined the word in a way that would not be familiar to most of his successors today. If being a conservative meant standing up staunchly for everything that your constitution defined, most importantly including individual freedom, then Barry Goldwater may have been one of the last conservatives in the country. Here was a man who spoke his mind and fiercely supported libertarian values, no matter what political category his outspoken comments and his opponents would classify him. Here was a man who supported gay marriage, who supported abortion, who supported every kind of individual choice, and more importantly, who had the guts to admit that he had been wrong earlier in denouncing these freedoms. I really thought that he should put the conservatives of today to shame, and he would, if only they had a soul.

Goldwater came from Arizona, and in the words of a later senator, was Arizona. He would travel alone all over the state in his cowboy boots and hat, and had an uncanny knack for flying every kind of plane. He was an amateur radio operator, and amusingly had a serious interest in UFOs. He was an expert photographer, and was one of the few people who the native Indians of the land allowed to visit and photograph. He was a US senator for all of his adult life, and when he retired, was a grand old man of politics who was respected so much, that not even conservatives would dare to speak against him. He campaigned hard for the 1964 election. He was wrong about nuclear weapons though, when he said that "in a few years, they too would be called 'conventional weapons' ".

His conservative policies and recommendations were roundly criticised, and Johnson's team engaged in a spirited campaign against him. To malign him and his party, an advertisement was produced by them showing a little girl holding a flower with a nuclear countdown going off behind her. This, they said, was the kind of world which Barry Goldwater was dangerously espousing. The ad went too far, and Goldwater threatened to sue Johnson unless it was removed, which it was.

Goldwater lost the election by a landslide margin, and one wonders what America would have been had he won. But he never lost heart or spirit, and continued to be the most respected republican senator in the country. His writings and speeches influenced many later politicians, including John McCain, and Hillary and Bill Clinton. It is a testament to his honesty that all his life, he was held in high regard by republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals.

First and foremost, Goldwater was for protecting national sovereignity and individual rights. First came rights, then came party affiliations. It would have been wonderful if that definition of 'conservative' had endured. But when Reagan swept in with the predecessors of Bush's neo-cons, Goldwater predictably clashed with their anti-abortion and anti-gay rights agenda. Pithily and presciently he said, "The religious right scares the hell out of me". His own grandson turned out to be gay, and he wholeheartedly supported his induction into the army, and admitted that he had been wrong in opposing the inclusion of gay people in the armed forces earlier. As the religious right and the new republicans marched on, Goldwater became estranged from them; yet his stature was such, that he continued to command their respect. It is interesting how many modern day conservative republicans want to stifle their republic for abstract ideals about the republic itself. For Goldwater, being conservative was about obeying the dictates of the constitution. He was ready to fight, march on, but also withdraw and honestly apologize, if that was a necessay condition for defining conservative and upholding the constituion. His definition was a fine definition indeed.

Goldwater naturally would have been sad to see the decadent nature of republicans agendas since then. But he would have been even sadder to see how the country is being divided over political affiliations. He would have thought it the greatest tragedy that being conservative no longer has much to do with either defending the rights on which America was based, nor on defending America herself. He was correct; the religious right should scare the hell out of any proud American. Unfortunately, it does not, and that's more the reason for another Goldwater to take charge of the republican party, and scold them and again guide them onto the right path. But that's the problem; Barry Goldwater was brutally honest, and today, dishonesty is a required virtue in politics. Goldwater was also a true American patriot, at a time when the word had not yet been subsumed in the The Patriot Act and so was still innocent. For him, love of country reigned supreme, above conservatives and liberals. And yet, he may have been the last true respectable conservative.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw the documentary too, and I have to say Goldwater was probably the most intellectually honest politician of any day and age. People panned him for his opposition to civil rights but even that opposition had more to do with his opposition to federal interventionism rather than a racist nature. You may argue for or against his views but they were pretty principled views which had nothing to do with fake populistic tendencies. He would have made a great liberal and as he said it himself during the waning years of his career, he probably was one.

5:15 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

I agree!

5:43 AM  
Anonymous Rege said...

Yup, gawker briefly touched on the subject, but I would like to ask you about Goldwaters stand on Civil Rights. It is true that Vietnam was a false step for the US and LBJ was responsible for it (although JFK started it). However, LBJ was also responsible in a large way for the success of the Civil Rights Movement. He deeply believed in it and supported it. If Goldwater had opposed Civil Rights, even if it were due to Federal vs State Rights issues, the US would have been very different and for the worse, I would have to say. In my mind, on balance, LBJ's presidency was a net positive for the US. the hurt of Vietnam has more-or-less already subsided, but the benefits of Civil Rights will live on for eternity.
Sometimes, things like the basic dignity of 1 in 7 americans is more important than squabbles between state and federal rights.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Yes, you are right. Goldwater's record was a bit tarnished when he came to civil rights, but as Gawker pointed out, even there one cannot accuse him of being racist as such. Also, LBJ recognised that getting the black vote would be an important issue in the years to come. The passing of the civil rights act was a landmark event for sure, as politically motivated as it was for LBJ. As far as Vietnam is concerned, Johnson became so adamant that one can make a good case about him sacrificing American lives mainly to maintain America's image; many think that JFK would have withdrawn advisors from Vietnam had he lived. In any case, LBJ's successor was much worse in many other matters!

1:17 PM  

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