EDITOR’S NOTE: This obituary ran in the June 22, 1998, issue of National Review.
In 1964 the fear & loathing of Barry Goldwater was startling. Martin Luther King Jr. detected “dangerous signs of Hitlerism in the Goldwater campaign.” Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, warned that “a Jewish vote for Goldwater is a vote for Jewish suicide.” And George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, saw power falling into “the hands of union-hating extremists, racial bigots, woolly-minded seekers after visions of times long past.” On Election Day Goldwater suffered a devastating defeat, winning only 41 electoral votes.
It was the judgment of the establishment that Goldwater’s critique of American liberalism had been given its final exposure on the national political scene. Conservatives could now go back to their little lairs and sing to themselves their songs of nostalgia and fancy, and maybe gather together every few years to hold testimonial dinners in honor of Barry Goldwater, repatriated by Lyndon Johnson to the parched earth of Phoenix, where dwell only millionaires seeking dry air to breathe and the Indians Barry Goldwater could now resume photog- raphing. But then of course 16 years later the world was made to stand on its head when Ronald Reagan was swept into office on a platform indistinguishable from what Barry had been preaching.
During the campaign of 1964, Goldwater was our incorruptible standard-bearer, disdainful of any inducements to bloc voting. He even gave the impression that his design was to alienate bloc voters. He didn’t mean to do that; he was simply engaging in acts of full political disclosure in an attempt to display the architectural integrity of his views, at once simple in basic design, and individualistic and artful in ornamentation.
But by the end of last month the cumulus clouds had all gone. On the weekend of his death it was clear from the public commentary that Barry Goldwater was now the object of nostalgic curiosity and–even–of affection, here and there self-reproachful. When someone about whom such dire things had been said
turns out to be as dangerous as your local postman, no meaner than a summer
shower, the conscience is pricked.
What finally lodged in the memory of most Americans, to be sure, wasn’t so much Goldwater the Conservative as Goldwater the individualist. He was never entirely imprisoned by ideology. In the last dozen years he had disappointed friends by declining to support constitutional amendments that would have reversed some of the decisions taken by the Supreme Court, decisions he once vigorously opposed. The public’s final impression was of a thinker–or, better, a commentator–given primarily to home-grown attachments and individualized formulations. He said what he said because he was what he was. And then too there was his personal way of living and acting. He was venturesome, proud, determined, a bit of a daredevil.
In 1969 he flew me, my wife, and a friend from Phoenix for a tour of the Grand Canyon, acting as pilot and tour guide, moseying high in the air over territory he knew so well, Indian country, mining country. Over there–”See?” he pointed–is where he once crash-landed an Air coupe. Bits and pieces of the airplane are still cherished by the Navajos as amulets, and as eternal proof that flying over their territory is forbidden by their earth god, a reverence for whom prevents them even now from permitting wells to be drilled. “They need to go three miles for water,” he explained. Seated on his right in the co-pilot’s seat was a tiny old woman right out of Grandma Moses, wearing a shawl, and working on a piece of crochet. What was she doing there? She was (we learned) one of the important women fliers of the past forty years, a test pilot and instructor of legendary reputation. She was there that day–and every day thenceforth that Goldwater would fly–because the insurance company, now that Goldwater was sixty years old, required a qualified co-pilot when he flew his Bonanza. So he had picked out “Miss Ruth,” who seemed about a hundred years old. She kept an eye on the instrument panel, even though the crocheting never stopped.
We were getting close to the airport and Captain Goldwater radioed ahead that he would be landing “in seven minutes.” I stared out over the horizon: there was no airport in sight. I told him I thought his exact 7-minute estimate pure conceit. He gritted his famous jaw and ostentatiously activated the stopwatch. Six minutes and 45 seconds later we are within a few hundred feet of the runway. He throttles way down to stretch out those 15 seconds. But Miss Ruth calls his game. Without turning her head she says: “You want to reach the field or you want to stall?” (“Shut up, Ruth! Your job is to tell me when we are on the ground.”) She parts her lips, a grandmotherly smile, and resumes her crocheting–she has made her point. Goldwater applies a little more throttle but arcs the airplane right and then left to consume the obtrusive seconds. At exactly seven minutes on the stopwatch the tires touch down. Miss Ruth continues with her crocheting as we taxi in. Goldwater looks back at his challenger, arches his brow, and says, “I told you seven minutes, didn’t I?”
He would rise early, at Be-nun-i-kin, the Navajo name given to his home. That morning he had spent two hours, as he regularly did when at home in Phoenix, patching calls from Vietnam soldiers to family and friends via ham radio, a lifelong avocational interest. After that he went to his desk and greeted his houseguest. Though it was only 8 A.M. the doorbell rang–it often rang, tourists cruising by to take a picture of the home and grounds of the defeated presidential candidate and, with any luck, of its owner. Goldwater ignored the bell, continuing his conversation, but instinctively sliding his chair back, out of the line of sight from the door. That way when Mrs. Goldwater or the maid opened it, the tourist wouldn’t spot Goldwater behind the desk. But this morning the large lady had her camera in hand and called out. “Senator Goldwater? Are you there? I want just one picture.”
“Okay,” Goldwater called out. “Just give me a minute so I can put on my pyjamas.”
From that desk, his secretary told me, he had dictated 24,000 letters the year before. The voluminous correspondence went on year after year until his first stroke, three years ago. It didn’t matter that he was no longer in the Senate, or contending for one more election. That, simply, was the way he lived, the way he reacted to people. The day after he died a stranger reached me. Did I know what charity Senator Goldwater had designated to receive gifts in his name? She wanted to do something, to give something, because thirty years ago, when she was desperate to hear from her husband in Vietnam, her phone rang early one morning. It was Senator Goldwater, patching in a call from her husband.
He was that way. He was the national figure, Mr. Conservative; but his private renown derived from his character, which even strangers coming to his door with a camera could instantly experience. He never changed, friendly but firm, a very grown-up man with a boyish streak. The guest who asked a provocative question could expect a very direct response, very different from weaving about in the air to postpone touching down.
He alarmed less and less, drew benevolent attention more and more. Even twenty years ago an old antagonist said it, with a nice turn–100 per cent ADA liberal Senator Hubert Humphrey to 100 per cent ACU conservative Senator Barry Goldwater: “Barry, you’re one of the handsomest men in America. You ought to be in the movies. In fact, I’ve made just that proposal to Eighteenth Century Fox.” I can guess Goldwater just smiled at the lovable, loquacious populist. But others, looking on, would venture that, back in the eighteenth century, Barry Goldwater would have been more at home at the Convention in Philadelphia than most modern liberals.