Lost in the Movies: Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater

Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater

"One...two...three..." A little girl plucks the petals of a daisy. When she reaches the end, a freeze frame and a zoom in on her little face as a somber voice counts down. Cue the mushroom cloud. This notorious attack ad only ran once, but it got its message across. In 1964, word on the street was that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater was a warmonger. And if not that, then a bigot who opposed the Civil Rights Act. Or, at bare minimum, a radical outside of the American mainstream who declared proudly, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Today Goldwater tends to get a break from everyone: intellectual conservatives admire him as the founder of their movement, while liberals long for a man of the Right who considered abortion a personal matter and persecution of gays unseemly. Meanwhile, the Republican Party and the conservative movement is crumbling before our eyes. It's easy to hold up Goldwaterism as a noble principle from which the party has fallen, but as this movie reminds us, it's not that simple.

"Mr. Conservative," which ran on HBO a few years ago, is not the definitive Goldwater documentary. I was admittedly misled by the subtitle, "Goldwater on Goldwater," expecting lots of interviews with the Conscience of a Conservative himself. What it actually refers to is Goldwater's granddaughter, CC Goldwater, who produced and narrated the movie. There's an uneven quality to the structure, which tries to balance his political career with his personal life but tends to lurch from one to the other, without really illuminating the latter (apparently Goldwater wasn't a very warm father, but we don't really get specifics). The movie is most interesting when it focuses on Goldwater's ideology and the controversy it aroused.

For a couple decades, liberals have flocked to the Goldwater banner to proclaim that social issues need not be a part of the conservative agenda. They forget how frightening they found the man in '64. True, he didn't bring up abortion or gay rights, but he did vote against the Civil Rights Act. Though not personally prejudiced, he considered segregation an issue of states rights. His ability to view the issue so abstractly conveyed a complete lack of understanding to black voters, who abandoned the party of Lincoln forthwith. And Goldwater was a fire-breathing anticommunist who looked at nuclear weapons and shrugged, unimpressed by their threat. He suggested using nukes to defoliate the Vietnamese jungles (though this is not so much worse than what we eventually did there). John McCain has one of the best lines in the film when he remembers Goldwater telling him, "John, if I'd have been president, you wouldn't have spent all those years in a Vietnamese prison camp," to which McCain responded, "No, it would've been a Chinese one!"

Goldwater remains a fascinating figure. It seems to me that 45 years ago he was considered a throwback, an old-fashioned rock-ribbed conservative who didn't get civil rights, the postwar spirit of international cooperation, or the post-New Deal role of government in society. But as America soured on the idea of Big Government, Goldwater's sharpness, the clarity of his ideas began to sound refreshing. Put into the mouth of a charismatic actor, coupled with the celebration of traditional values, conservatism began to seem old and new at the same time. Economically, however, Goldwater was an old-fashioned fiscal conservative; his emphasis was on paying down the debt and balancing the budget rather than cutting taxes.

Much of the objection to Goldwater seems stylistic, a matter of emphasis. The substance of his views often sounds sensible knowing the overreach of the Great Society and the distrust in government bred by Vietnam and Watergate. Johnson's ideals may have been nice, but they're often pie-in-the sky and no thought is given to how cluttered and oppressive bureaucracy can become. He offers sentiments rather than ideas, and whatever the outcry at the time, the whole of Goldwater's famous quote is actually a defense of principle over expedience and mediocrity: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

But for all its vaunted individualism, moral clarity, and intellectual vigor, there's something exclusionary about Goldwaterism. James Carville notes that the Goldwater image, between the dancing girls and cheering crowds, was "very white...very suburban," he chuckles, "basically everything I didn't like!" Al Franken also plays the respectful skeptic, saying that his father turned to the Democratic Party for the first time in 1964 exclusively because of civil rights. Goldwater says that he is opposed to federal intervention because eventually, everyone will see the error of their ways and include everyone in society. He admonishes his audience to be patient, that eventually this will prove the prudent way to achieve equality. To which Franken responds, "When? In '67? '75? '83? What's supposed to happen until then?"

The truth is that abstract idealism alone, whether it fetishizes the principle of small government or the dream of a great society, is never enough. To someone with a comfortable background, treated fairly by society, sick of paying high taxes and hearing wish-washy sentiments, Goldwater's rhetoric must have sounded like a clarion call. To someone held by history at the back of the pack, frustrated by a lack of opportunity, Goldwater's scolding of government gave a free pass to all the interests outside of the public sector which are capable of holding people down. The modern Republican Party often achieves the worst of conservatism: the lack of empathy at its root, but lacking the clarity and principle of its conviction.

This spring's Republican primary was fascinating in the way it cleaved the party down the middle, letting the different segments of its base fall where they may. Giuliani was the crime fighter, the "law and order" candidate who lacked any connection to family values. Romney was an economic, big-business CEO type but despite tacking to the right lately, his governing record was that of a Rockefeller Republican. Huckabee gave an economically populist face to the Religious Right, clinging to "guns and religion" but feigning distaste for the hard-ass disinterest in the poor. Fred Thompson seemed to have the Goldwater image down-pat - the common-sense small-government conservative; but he lacked Goldwater's fire. (After all, the logical conclusion of disdaining government is to disdain running for a position in such.) And then there was John McCain.

McCain, who inherited Goldwater's Senate seat in 1986, has modeled himself in part on Goldwater's "maverick" image. And if he represents any particular wing of the GOP, like Huckabee with the Religious Right or Romney with the business sector, it is the military; Goldwater also remained a steadfast hawk to the end (his admonition for smaller government did not extend to defense spending). But while Goldwater's "maverickiness" stemmed from consistently hewing to his economically and socially libertarian, anticommunist values, McCain has proven an ideological maverick as well, voting with Democrats seemingly to spite his former rival Bush, then switching positions when he needed to secure the Republicans' nomination.

And McCain lacks Goldwater's ability to frame issues and ideology clearly: he is now running for president essentially without a platform. He decries socialism though he voted for the bailout bill; he cultivates the cultural resentments of a wing of the party he formerly decried as "agents of intolerance"; he tries to highlight his honorable opposition to Bush a half-decade ago while in recent years he's tacked back to the right to win over Republicans (rather unsuccessfully at that). The choice of Sarah Palin only exacerbates the schizophrenia of his campaign, adding an undertow of right-wing populism and vitriolic hatred of the left to a ticket that was ostensibly going to chase swing voters, independents, and centrists. This is not to suggest that McCain should have run as Goldwater; clearly, "maverick" aside, they do not share the same ideology.

But McCain could definitely use Goldwater's clarity of purpose and conviction. Say what you will about Barry, he lost by sticking to his convictions rather than abandoning them. On style, McCain did try. He took public funding (Obama did not, reneging on a pledge) and proposed a series of personal appearances with his opponent, as Goldwater hoped to do with Kennedy in '64 (I suspect such a positive, warm campaign would not quite have materialized, but it's a nice thought). Obama ignored the offer, and McCain seems to have used this as an excuse to launch a negative, scornful campaign - if anyone were to run a daisy ad in 2008 it would probably be him. Just as disconcerting is the fact that McCain runs on a grab-bag of right-wing ideas, few of which he seems to believe. Palin carries the torch with more conviction, but it's emotional conviction rather than the intellectual kind. The resulting mish-mash is certainly a disappointment.

I've noted that Goldwater is overrated ideologically; that he's not the retrospective moderate liberals would like to recast him as. Some of the party's confusion was stoked by him, along with some its bad manners - especially the intolerance of different thinking and self-righteous sense of ideological purity. But he ran on a series of ideas, not platitudes, and his conviction carried a certain dignity along with it. A reporter, shocked by Goldwater's speech at the convention, lurched out of his chair and proclaimed in disbelief, "Oh my God, Goldwater's running as Goldwater!" McCain's nomination speech, which focused on responsibility and ignored the petty partisan divisiveness the rest of the convention has fostered, was a promising start but he ended up not running "as McCain."

Two days ago, as if to hammer the final nail in the elephant-shaped coffin, CC Goldwater herself endorsed Obama. Now, on the basis of this movie I'd suspect she's a liberal Republican, if that, so the endorsement should be taken with a grain of salt. But it does bear a certain tragic, symbolic weight for McCain, as if Ms. Goldwater was saying, "Senator, I produced a documentary on Barry Goldwater: I knew Barry Goldwater; Barry Goldwater was my grandfather. Senator, you're no Barry Goldwater." Ouch.

And here's the ad for those of you who haven't seen it:

1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

Burr, that is an interesting assessment of the negative attacks and their success - and one I generally agree with (though when I read the top headline, I feard you had pointed me to a wingnut blog). Although I think economic desperation plays a part too - some of the attacks have been sinking in but people are more worried about other matters - like the woman who said something to the effect of, "I don't know about this terrorist group Obama was in, but I'm tired of paying for my health insurance." (wish I could find the exact quote - I think it was on Politico.)

I tried to convey the sense that Goldwater was not a bigot, but rather didn't "get it" - he didn't get the level of outrage and humiliation segregation engendered, and hence why a patient, supposedly prudent approach was not, in fact, prudent.

Thanks for dropping by; hope you stick around & offer thoughts on the upcoming movies/issues.

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