Going for Gold

Senator Barry Goldwater brought a new brand of Republicanism to American politics, writes Roger Hudson. 

Senator Barry Goldwater from Arizona wins the Republican presidential nomination at its 1964 Convention. In one play on his name, ‘gold coins’ rain down, while on the placards it is a chemical formula. His good looks and a good war in Burma give him immediate appeal. 

His new brand of Republicanism had its birth in William Buckley’s National Review magazine in the 1950s and matured in his own book The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), ghosted by Buckley’s brother-in-law. He was trying to supplant the New Deal orthodoxy, get away from McCarthyism and from the Eisenhower-era Republican identification with East Coast country club elites. He was anti-Communist but also anti-Washington, like many Arizonans, who felt too much of their state was national park or forest, Indian reserve or military base. Big government threatened liberty, whether through civil rights, social security, federal aid for schools, federal welfare, farm programs or the union shop.

Goldwater’s campaign had significant handicaps: it was conducted under the shadow of the Kennedy assassination the previous November and in the face of what has been called ‘the most one-sided and unfair press coverage ever deployed’ before an election. He was portrayed by commentators as inept and irresponsible, as determined to end social security and with a dangerous attitude to nuclear weapons. He did not help himself with his off-the-cuff suggestion that the Ho Chi Minh Trail be defoliated with low-level nuclear devices. 

Lyndon Johnson may have brushed him aside, but the election taught his new-style Republicans, including the 17-year-old Hillary Clinton, who campaigned for him, how to organise, how to fund-raise, how to compete. By computerising mailing lists of likely contributors, supporters raised $5.8 million at a cost of $1 million, big money in those days. Most importantly, Goldwater ran strongly in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina, signalling the end of the Democrat hold on the South, as white voters transferred their allegiance. 

Here was the basis for Nixon’s southern strategy, which got him into the White House after the traumas of 1965-68: defeat in Vietnam, riots at home, the counter-culture challenging beliefs, Black Power’s demands for civil rights and economic equality. The white working class was unsettled;  it sought Republican reassurance and, but for Watergate, there might have been no Democrat intermission later in that decade. Goldwater, meanwhile, went his own way.  When the religious right took over the Arizona Republican party in the 1990s, he endorsed the Democrat candidate for the House of Representatives.  

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week