EDITOR’S NOTE:National Review is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. Throughout the month, NRO has been running pieces from the archives to help take a trip down memory lane. This piece appeared in the July 6, 1998, issue of National Review.
In 1964, the fact that all the fourth-graders in Pinegrove Elementary School in Irondequoit, New York, except me were for Lyndon Johnson reflected our parents’ opinions, not ours. But there was one other person in class who was for Goldwater–the teacher. Though Miss Bevier didn’t seem young to me then, she must have been in her early or mid twenties, which made her prime Goldwater material.
John F. Kennedy is usually portrayed as the first, and brightest, leader of the young in what would be a long decade of youth (1960 – 1975), but this is a mistake. He was stylish and sexy (so was the Rat Pack). Women wanted to sleep with him and, it turns out, many did. But that is a flack’s idea of youthfulness. The Kennedy circle was also insouciant (pushing Arthur Schlesinger Jr. into that swimming pool). The truly young–aged 15 to 25–were too serious for such hijinks, and their tribune in the early Sixties was Barry Goldwater.
The conservative movement, when it was first moving, was to a great extent a youth crusade. Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk, in their very different ways, collected young acolytes. Thirtysomething William F. Buckley Jr. had wholesale appeal, and Ayn Rand’s bestseller status was based on young readers–especially young women readers, for whom she offered self-aggrandizement leavened with submission. But the conservative who packed Madison Square Garden was Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater was better looking than Kennedy. Even now, those pictures of him in the flight suit of an Air Force Reserve major general are startling in their virility. But Goldwater’s hold on the young was rhetorical and intellectual. Charles G. Mills, now a Long Island lawyer, was a senior at Yale in 1962 when Goldwater came to campus on a Chubb Fellowship, a Yale program for visiting solons. Perhaps Yale’s intention was to exhibit him as a two-headed calf.
If so, it failed. Goldwater, Mills remembers, packed Woolsey Hall”–a deep, barn-like structure–with people standing all around the upper levels.” His topics: his grandfather catching an Indian bullet, which had to be cut out without anaesthesia”; the necessity to use force to prevent the Communists from overrunning Vietnam and Indonesia”; the outrageous extensions of the Federal Government.” Goldwater also observed that presidential elections were usually won by the taller candidate, so that eliminated the newly elected Sen. John Tower.
Goldwater’s popularity among undergraduates, Mills recalls, shocked” older campus liberals who thought you had to be old to be conservative.” He didn’t play well with graduate students, either, perhaps because of their longer exposure to older campus liberals. The political-science faculty, trying fancy footwork, argued that Goldwater was a Jeffersonian classical liberal and that true conservatives should embrace FDR.” On Goldwater’s last day as a Chubb fellow, he, I, and about four other undergraduates walked along Library Street, talking about the political hopes of conservative Republicans. He was an excellent teacher both in this setting” and to a standing-room-only crowd.
In 1964 Mills headed Monroe County Youth for Goldwater-Miller in upstate New York. (Little did he know that I lived in his bailiwick.) The ‘adult’ Goldwater campaign was divided into two camps that detested each other. I was one of the few people in the county who spoke to both.” Some things never change.
What explained the pull? Lack of pretension, obviously: the easy self-confidence that was part personal, part Western. But there was also the shock and sweep of Goldwater’s message. Conservatives whimper about political correctness today, in the academy and in Hollywood. But in the Fifties and early Sixties, everywhere was Hollywood and the academy. Most people, then as now, had no opinions. But everyone who had them was a consensus liberal, satisfied that the state had solved its own, and society’s, contradictions.
Joe McCarthy had raised hell and blood pressures without challenging this consensus, for he only said that Communists were traitors and liberals were stupid. Goldwater said they were wrong. This is a dramatic difference, all the more so considering when he said it. Goldwater was branding the modern state outrageous” before the Great Society, and criticizing establishment foreign policy when liberals were still anti-Communist–albeit in a meliorist, containment mode.
Young people’s susceptibility to bold critiques is not automatically worthy of respect. Then as now, the young lack experience and knowledge. The only benefit of their condition is that, undistracted by mental freight, they can often distinguish between sincerity and mere sloganeering. The liberal establishment of the late Fifties and early Sixties had become complacent and inert–and ultimately helpless, as witness its collapse in the face of race riots and foreign-policy failure only a few years later. Goldwater, by contrast, was ardent and urgent.
The late Sixties produced a second wave of young rebels, whose interests were primarily behavioral and aesthetic. They had considerable political effect–lose a country, gain a restaurant–but their main interest was getting high and getting laid. Boogie Nights was born in the Summer of Love. Now it’s playing at the White House. The first rebellion had better goals, and better leaders.
After Goldwater died, I got a message on my answering machine from another old fan, the man who has cut my wife’s hair for thirty years. He had been at Madison Square Garden, and he had cast his first vote for Goldwater. ( How could he lose? I’d seen all those people.”) I left a message on his machine: Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”