The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2017

Goldwater, Barry
Lee Edwards - 08/16/12
Lifespan: (1909–1998)

By running for president in 1964 as an unapologetic conservative, Goldwater altered the course of modern American politics. In doing so, he prepared the way for the conservative revolution that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and established conservatism as the dominant political philosophy in America in the last part of the twentieth century. During his thirty years as a United States Senator from Arizona, Goldwater also played a major role in key policy areas like national defense, U.S. intelligence, and labor-management relations.

Born in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1909, Goldwater was the eldest child of a prominent family that owned the largest department store in the city. He was raised an Episcopalian by his mother, but his great-grandfather, Hirsch Goldwasser, was born in Poland of Jewish parents. Something of a hell-raiser in his youth, Goldwater was sent to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia to learn discipline. In his senior year, the one-time rebel won the outstanding cadet award and was offered an appointment to West Point. Instead he returned home to attend Arizona State University and be near his father, who was seriously ill.

Goldwater left college and took over the management of the family business when his father died. In 1930, he joined the Army Reserve and received a commercial pilot’s license, beginning a flying career that extended into the 1980s. He became a world-class ham radio operator, once organizing a network of volunteer operators who provided radiotelephone communication between U.S. soldiers in Vietnam and their families in the U.S. He also spent much time with the Navajo and Hopi Indians of Arizona, whose causes he championed in the Senate.

During World War II, he served in the Air Transport Command and flew shuttle runs over the Himalaya Mountains in India, delivering arms, ammunition, and equipment to Nationalist China, with whose leaders and people he developed a special friendship. Restless after the war, Goldwater no longer found satisfaction in minding the family store and entered local politics.

In 1949, he was elected to the nonpartisan Phoenix City Council. Three years later, running for the Senate as a Republican, he challenged and defeated Ernest W. McFarland, the Democratic majority leader of the U.S. Senate, aided by the victory of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the head of the ticket.

A strong supporter of Arizona’s right-to-work law, Goldwater became nationally known during his first term for investigating corrupt union bosses like Jimmy Hoffa and challenging the left-wing politics of union leaders like Walter Reuther.

Goldwater crossed the ideological rubicon in 1960 when President Eisenhower proposed a domestic program that Goldwater called a “dime store New Deal” and when Richard Nixon made a deal with New York governor Nelson Rockefeller to obtain the Republican presidential nomination. Goldwater and other conservatives from the west and south vowed they would challenge the Eastern liberal establishment and take over the Republican Party.

Four short years later, they succeeded by nominating Goldwater as the GOP’s standard bearer against President Lyndon B. Johnson. Although the outcome of the 1964 campaign was never in question, Goldwater raised the critical issues that have determined American politics ever since, including the proper size of the federal government, law and order, social security and welfare, privatization, the need for a strong national defense, and a commitment to victory in any war.

Although Goldwater won only six states and 39 percent of the popular vote, he established the political fact that a conservative could win the presidential nomination. He raised public awareness of conservatism as a viable political philosophy and galvanized thousands of young people who set to work to put a conservative in the White House. They achieved their goal with the election of President Reagan in 1980.

Goldwater had not sought reelection to the Senate in 1964, but he ran and won in 1968, beginning a second career in the Senate that lasted until 1986. During those years, he rose to a position of unusual power, chairing the Intelligence Committee and then the Armed Services Committee under Reagan. He authored important legislation, especially the first reorganization of the Department of Defense in four decades.

Goldwater was an American original, a man of the west whose loyalties were to duty, honor, and country, a man of salty speech and humor who loved, as he put it, “to shoot from the lip.” He affected presidential politics more than any other losing candidate in the twentieth century. He laid a firm political and ideological foundation for the Reagan revolution and led a generation of conservatives to understand that theirs was a winning as well as a just cause.

Further Reading
  • Edwards, Lee. Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1995.
  • Goldwater, Barry. The Conscience of a Conservative. Shepherdsville, Ky.: Victory Publishing, 1960.
  • McDowell, Edwin. Barry Goldwater: Portrait of an Arizonan. Chicago: Regnery, 1964.
  • Perlstein, Rick. Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.
  • White, F. Clifton. Suite 3505: The Story of the Draft Goldwater Movement. With William J. Gill. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1967.
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