Barry Goldwater in 1941.
Phoenix would benefit from some heroic statues to enrich the streetscape. It's not as if we're lacking in heroes and audacious history. Instead, we get a dreary bronze of Barry Goldwater in Paradise Valley, unreachable by pedestrians but with an adjacent holy parking lot. Then there's the bleak terminal four at Sky Harbor named after Goldwater. And a street in Scottsdale. A newcomer might think the only history worth remembering, if badly painted, concerns the long-serving senator and 1964 presidential candidate.
Readers of this blog know better. But understanding Goldwater's place in Arizona is a daunting challenge. The magisterial biography remains to be written. And for most of his public career, Goldwater was a national figure. We must also contend with a good deal of nostalgia and hagiography concerning the hero. An example of the latter was a recent article in National Review about how Barry was a leader in Phoenix's school desegregation before the Brown decision. The former goes something like this: Barry was no Kook, he fought the religious right and one shouldn't conflate today's conservatism with that of Goldwater. Even I have been guilty. But the reality is more complex and interesting.
It thrived under him, becoming Goldwater's Department Store. Barry is remembered as a natural at the business. Charming and charismatic, too, he became a well-liked figure in the small city. As general manager of Goldwater's, he initiated a five-day workweek and improved benefits for employees in the mid-1930s. The store also became desegegated, although few if any blacks were hired and Goldwater's was the most expensive of the city's department stores. Barry was a man of wide enthusiasms, from photography and amateur radio to learning to fly. When the United States entered World War II, Barry was too old to be a combat pilot, but did serve in the Army Air Forces ferrying planes to theaters of war (eventually he would become a major general in the Air Force Reserve). When the Charter Government Movement cleaned up Phoenix politics in the late 1940s, Goldwater was a natural fit for "businessman's government." In 1949 he ran for City Council and won.
As a councilman, he supported Charter's agenda of civic improvements, including building a new public library, art museum and theater. Barry liked politics. More, he was bored with the department store business — and perhaps bored with Phoenix. He didn't want to become a legislator or governor. "Senator" had a nice ring. But he was a Republican in a Democratic state. Here, timing and demographics were on his side. The Korean War and "loss" of China to Mao made Harry Truman one of the most unpopular presidents in modern times. The Democrats held total national power from 1932 to 1948, and FDR's old coalition was fraying. Post-war prosperity created more middle-class voters who found the Republicans appealing. In Arizona, the population reached nearly 750,000 in 1950 compared with half a million in 1940; many were conservatives from the Midwest. In 1950, Republican Howard Pyle was elected governor in a campaign Barry worked on. He set aim on the 1952 senate race against Ernest McFarland.
"Mac" was the Senate majority leader, the father of the GI Bill and a beloved Arizonan. But 1952 was a very bad year for the Democrats — the wildly popular Dwight Eisenhower was running for president as a Republican and Barry unseated McFarland on Ike's coattails. The margin of victory was 7,000 votes. For the rest of the decade, he worked to build a robust Republican Party in Arizona. His legislative achievements were skimpy. He didn't go in for the worst of McCarthyism but neither did he vote to censure Joe McCarthy. He did catch the eye of three groups working to reconstitute a Republican majority in the wake of Herbert Hoover's disastrous defeat. One was conservative intellectuals led by William F. Buckley Jr., trying to create a modern conservatism as opposed to the anti-New Deal reaction that drove much of the right during the 1930s and 1940s. The second were adherents of the John Birch Society, a far-right fringe believing even Eisenhower to be a commie — but it was energetic as only fanatics can be, and thus valuable. Straddling the two were businessmen aggrieved by the expansion of government, regulation and taxes during the Roosevelt-Truman years.
Goldwater was appealing to each of these constituencies. He was a handsome Westerner, the idealized image of individualism, a tough talker against communism and big government and in favor of "freedom" and state rights. This appeal was cemented with Barry's 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, which continues to be an alpha text of the right. Although the book pivots off some of Barry's speeches, he didn't actually write it. The real author was Brent Bozell, the brother-in-law of Bill Buckley. An important question becomes how much Goldwater was an idea man of the right, vs. being the appealing merchandiser? By contrast, Ronald Reagan, despite his image as "just an actor," thought and wrote a good deal about conservatism and conservative governance.
By the early 1960s, then, Barry Goldwater had become largely untethered from Arizona. Not in the Fox News/carpetbagger way of wealthy Republican John Sidney McCain III. Goldwater still loved to roam the wild parts of the state and mingle with the Navajos and Hopis. He dutifully voted to support Arizona in its water battle against California. No one could question his credibility or authenticity as a native Arizonan. But Barry was already a national icon of the right and a bogeyman of the left. He was the showhorse senator. Carl Hayden was the workhorse. Goldwater's was sold to a national chain in 1962. Later, Goldwater would be pilloried for not supporting the anti-abortion movement and other causes of social conservatives. But he was never a social conservative. His first wife Peggy was a founder of Planned Parenthood in Phoenix. Barry liked running with a fast crowd, reveled in being a celebrity, enjoyed liquor and was a swordsman of note. Among that fast crowd were not just Hollywood entertainers but also Vegas and Phoenix mobsters, although Barry's direct connection to the mob has yet to be proven. He was as likely to be in Palm Beach as in Phoenix.
A meeting in Palm Beach in early 1962 gives some insight into Goldwater and Arizona. As recalled by Buckley, Barry arrived incognito to meet with some conservative intellectual heavyweights. Although warned not to ask him about his presidential ambitions — he had repeatedly denied them, although many believed he wanted to run against President Kennedy — Buckley at least wanted to nail down a Goldwater denunciation of the John Birch Society. Buckey writes:
But that, Goldwater said, is the problem. Consider this, he exaggerated: “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. Russell, I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs. Any of you know who Frank Cullen Brophy is?”
As everyone knows, Goldwater and the men behind him went on to take over the Republican Party from an exhausted Eastern establishment at the San Francisco convention of 1964 (an ironic foreshadowing of Jeanne Kirkpatrick's "San Francisco Democrats" speech 20 years later). In Phoenix, Eugene C. Pulliam of the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette declined to endorse the hero. At Kenilworth, only I and a girl wore Goldwater buttons ("In Your Heart, You Know He's Right"). LBJ buttons proliferated at his alma mater. And although Goldwater won only 38.5 percent of the popular vote and only six states, five of them were in the Deep South and the sixth, Arizona, had been claimed by the Confederacy. Yet Barry's drawing power was greatly diminished by the country's heartbeak over the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Before that, JFK's legislative agenda was going nowhere and Kennedy had been afraid of Goldwater's appeal to white voters. Richard Nixon took note and used the racial fears of whites and the Southern Strategy to good effect in 1968. Ronald Reagan gave an impassioned pro-Goldwater speech on the eve of the election, two years later was elected governor of California — you know the rest of the story.
Barry's allure among whites in the South was no accident. He opposed federal civil rights legislation, including voting rights and opening public accommodations. He spoke often of state rights. Later, Goldwater claimed to regret his votes and positions. His apologists point to his background in a small Western state. Perhaps. But Arizona, and especially Phoenix, had both blacks and segregation. And a man of the world such as Barry Goldwater could not have been ignorant of lynchings and other racist terrorism. In his otherwise plodding 1964 acceptance speech, Goldwater left this one for the ages (and his critics): "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!" LBJ's men effectively latched onto the first part of the quote, to stoke fears that Barry really would (to use one of my favorite Goldwaterisms) "lob one into the men's room of the Kremlin." But an equally pertinent statement is the second sentence, especially in the context of civil rights. Faced with centuries of injustice, Goldwater at best chose "moderation in the pursuit of justice." In other words, leave civil rights to the states. It is a damning legacy from which he cannot wiggle.
Goldwater's career is full of such unsettling questions, however much 'Zonies want to love him, liberals want to use him as a cudgel against today's right-wing loonies and he has been cast in bronze as a "principled conservative." Questions such as, what does his watchword "freedom" mean? Freedom to lynch and deny votes? Freedom from Medicare, which he opposed, and Social Security, which he wanted to privatize or repeal, to keep millions of seniors in poverty and ill health. The "freedom" of corporate personhood? The "freedom" to pollute the commons and send jobs to Asia? How, exactly, does conservatism address the needs of a modern society? What does the individual owe the commons and vice versa? If the government won't act as a counterweight against giant business interests, what will? And if an activist federal government is injurious to our liberties, does this include the one that funded the water projects upon which modern Phoenix was built?
Did he ever really think deeply about these issues? Or was he still deep down the Marlboro Man playboy, the small-town businessman who could work out desegregation with his friend Lincoln Ragsdale — suddenly faced with old age and the realization that the revolution he started had reached the inflection point where he would have been figuratively led to the guillotine?
Easy answers won't be found. Goldwater returned to the Senate after his 1964 defeat. He performed a substantial service to the republic when he went to the White House during Watergate (along with fellow Arizonan Rep. John Rhodes) and told Nixon that congressional Republicans would not protect him from impeachment. It showed more courage and independence than today's Republicans could muster. On the other hand, Barry never much liked Nixon, who had supported civil rights, funded the Great Society and established the Environmental Protection Agency.
Learn more about the history you don't know in the Rogue Columnist Phoenix 101 archive.