John Judis
John Judis

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Barry Goldwater’s Curious Campaign

John Judis
August 11, 1985

Fellowship Year

The past is a reflection of the present. Fifteen years ago Barry Goldwater was a forgotten man, his only claim to posterity that he was routed for the presidency by a vulgar Texan who was forced out of office four years later. But Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 have transformed Goldwater from a crank to a prophet and elevated his campaign for the presidency to a historic event that paved the way for the conservative realignment of the 1980s.

Barry Goldwater

But just as the shadow of defeat minimized Goldwater’s achievement, the bright sun of victory has tended to exaggerate it. There is by no means a straight line from the 1964 to the 1980 campaign. Like another seminal political event, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “balance the budget” campaign in 1932, Goldwater’s campaign achieved its larger impact almost in spite of the candidate’s and campaign’s intentions.

From the vantage of the Reagan years, one imagines a determined rock-jawed Goldwater, flanked by the militant conservatives of the ’50s, leading the charge against the regnant liberalism. But in 1964, Goldwater was an extremely reluctant candidate, probably the least ambitious man to seek the presidency in the twentieth century. And he was far from comfortable as the leader of the new conservative movement that had sprung up in the ’50s.

In spite of Goldwater’s explosive statement in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater and his campaign consistently distanced themselves from the editors of National Review, the major conservative publication of the day, and from the conservative leadership of the Draft Goldwater campaign. In 1967 and 1968, the centrist Richard Nixon would be far more friendly to National Review’s editor William F. Buckley Jr. than Goldwater or his campaign were.

And the major demographic achievement of Goldwater’s campaign–the Republican inroads in the South against a Southern Democratic opponent–did not stem from a conscious design on the hearts of white Southern Democrats, then bedeviled by the civil rights movement, but from Goldwater’s almost inadvertent and abstract opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

By 1960, Goldwater, who described the Eisenhower domestic program as a “dime store New Deal,” had become the political leader of the conservatives who read Human Events and National Review and who chafed under Eisenhower’s Spirit of Geneva. Goldwater’s book Conscience of a Conservative, written by aide and National Review editor Brent Bozell, had become a national bestseller. Stung by Richard Nixon’s pact with Nelson Rockefeller (the “Betrayal in Babylon”), South Carolina and Arizona Republicans nominated Goldwater for President at the 1960 convention in Chicago. In withdrawing his name, Goldwater offered a challenge for the future. “Let’s grow up conservatives!” he had said. “If we want to take this Party back, and I think we can some day, let’s get to work.”

By these words, Goldwater appeared to commit himself to a run for the presidency in 1964, but repeated attempts by conservatives to secure Goldwater’s pledge failed abysmally. At a private meeting called six weeks after the campaign by six close supporters, Goldwater refused even to discuss the possibility of a run in 1964. He refused again at a private meeting in Palm Beach in December 1961. At meetings in November 1961 and January 1962 with Clifton White, the organizer of the Draft Goldwater Movement, Goldwater earnestly attempted to discourage White. He made clear that he believed New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller would be the nominee in 1964.

According to Goldwater staff members, he only briefly warmed to the possibility of running for the presidency–during the summer of 1963 when President John F. Kennedy appeared vulnerable and when the Draft Committee had begun to make serious inroads among Republican delegates. At that time, he asked Phoenix lawyers Denison Kitchel and Dean Burch to come to Washington, DC to organize a campaign for 1964. But after Kennedy was assassinated, Goldwater lost interest again in running for president.

“The Kennedy assassination cut the heart out of Goldwater,” journalist Ralph DeToledano, who was close to Goldwater and eventually worked secretly for the campaign, said. “He kept telling people he’d run into in the elevator, including the AP (Associated Press) guy who lived in the same house, that he wasn’t going to run.”

Goldwater’s growing lack of interest in the campaign created consternation among his supporters. Members of the Young Americans for Freedom, which had filled Madison Square Garden to capacity for Goldwater, began petitioning him not to pull out. They were joined by Goldwater’s Arizona associates, some of whom threatened not to contribute to future Senate campaigns, and by conservative Republican Senators. Finally at a meeting in December with what had become his inner circle Goldwater gave in. In his autobiography, Goldwater summed up the decision, “I had planted the flag on top the hilltop; now I must defend that flag.”

Looking back on the campaign, former United Nations Ambassador Charles Lichenstein, who was the campaign’s Research Director, said, “I don’t believe Senator Goldwater ever really at some given moment decided he wanted to be president. It was always a kind of pulling him, not quite kicking and screaming, but with a fair amount of resistance.”

Goldwater called himself a conservative at a time when few politicians were willing to risk the opprobrium associated with that label. Even Ohio’s Robert Taft had insisted in his last years that he was neither a liberal nor a conservative. But unlike Texas’s John Tower, his contemporary in the Senate, or even Ronald Reagan, Goldwater had not acquired his conservatism through reading but rather through his experience as a small-town Western businessman and as a patriot in World War II. DeToledano calls him a “gut conservative.” Dean Burch describes him as a “pragmatic” rather than an “ideological” conservative.

Journalist Victor Lasky, a friend of Goldwater’s, depicts him as a “knee-jerk conservative Republican.” “He came out of a department store where he was a management type,” Lasky said. “He came out of the West. They had a different psychology than those of us who came out of the East. He never saw real poverty and that sort of thing. Instinctively, Western Republicans felt a lot of government stuff was unnecessary and burdensome.”

Lee Edward, now the editor of the Conservative Digest, and then the campaign’s Director of Information, described Goldwater as an “Arizona businessman with a strong Western independent streak favoring self-reliance, old fashioned get-off-my-back, out-of-my-pocket kind of spirit that you had in the frontier West.”

Goldwater’s famous suggestion to give him a saw and he would cut off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to the Atlantic had nothing to do with conservative battles against Rockefeller Republicans, but instead originated in the early 1930s when Goldwater went to New York as a businessman and couldn’t get New York banks to honor his Arizona checks. And many of his other statements–like the proposal to lob a nuclear device into the men’s room of the Kremlin–were not expressions of extreme political views, but rather the kind of frontier hyperbole that was characteristic of an Arizona politician.

Unlike many other conservatives, Goldwater also remained a loyal Republican. An internationalist, he backed Eisenhower rather than Taft in 1952. In 1962, he criticized New York Conservatives for setting up a Conservative Party. And after his 1964 defeat he would contribute more than any other politician to Richard Nixon’s nomination in 1968. This has led some conservatives like National Review publisher William Rusher to conclude that Goldwater was never a conservative. “At heart, Goldwater was, and remains a perfectly orthodox, budget balancing main-line Republican, whose heart beats in near-perfect accord with Jerry Ford’s,” Rusher wrote in The Rise of the Right.

During the campaign, Goldwater and his staff froze the two most prominent groups of conservatives out of the campaign. The efforts by National Review’s Buckley and Bozell (who had been very close to Goldwater) were spurned, beginning in September 1963, when after a meeting between the two and Goldwater’s aides, one of the aides told the New York Times that “the Goldwater-for-President ship has just repelled a boarding party from the forces who occupy the supposedly narrow territory to the right of the Arizona senator.” Buckley was even kept off the podium at a Madison Square Garden rally for Goldwater that National Review had helped to organize. The organizer of the draft Goldwater movement, Clifton White, was retained through the convention at San Francisco, but then relegated to running a “Citizens Committee” for Goldwater.

Goldwater later blamed the campaign’s rejection of these conservatives on his being more comfortable with his “Arizona friends” like Kitchel, Burch, and Richard Kleindeinst. But Goldwater’s explanation is incomplete. Goldwater resented the pressure that National Review and the Draft Committee brought upon him. “Goldwater always looked upon National Review and the Draft Goldwater Committee as pushing him a little farther and a little faster than he wanted to go,” Neal Freeman, who was then National Review’s Washington columnist, said. “Goldwater thought that White viewed him as a piece of merchandise,” Dean Burch explained.

Goldwater’s staff was moved both by political consideration and by professional competitiveness to freeze National Review and the Draft Committee out. Both Goldwater and his principal staff members had tried to move the campaign to the center. Goldwater had even tried to hire Nixon’s 1960 campaign manager Leonard Hall to run his campaign. It was only the bitterness of the convention that caused Goldwater to make his “extremism” speech and to select conservative William Miller rather than a moderate as his running mate.

During the fall campaign, Goldwater’s staff tried to steer him back to the middle, and they clearly saw any identification with National Review as an impediment. Kitchel later said, “We figured that National Review readers would all be with us anyway. And by keeping away from Buckley and Bozell and that crowd, we thought we could appeal to a lot of people who don’t like National Review–either because they don’t understand it or for any number of reasons.” Dean Burch added, “Buckley was considered at the far mad right.”

William Baroody, the director of the American Enterprise Institute (AET), played the most important role in keeping the National Review conservatives out of the campaign. According to DeToledano and others close to the campaign, Baroody rather than Kitchel was the real power behind the campaign. But he largely operated in what Lichenstein called an “informal back room” manner. And after the campaign, fearful that AEI would lose its tax exemption, he even further played down his own role.

Baroody was an “intellectual entrepreneur” who tried to bring expert analysis to bear on behalf of conservative issues and candidates. But he was also a political operator, who, well before 1964, had seized upon Goldwater as his candidate for the presidency. “He sort of looked upon Goldwater as his creation,” Dean Burch recalled. Out of what Burch called “professional jealousy,” Baroody saw to it that Buckley and National Review were kept out of the campaign. He not only made sure that Buckley did not appear with Goldwater; he also was probably responsible for the “boarding party” story in the New York Times. “Baroody was a king-maker, and he had the feeling that anybody but himself should be kept away,” said DeToledano, who ran a political intelligence operation directly for Baroody.

Actor Ronald Reagan


In the beginning of the campaign, Baroody alone of Goldwater’s close advisors really thought that he could win. Along with Senators Carl Curtis and Norris Cotton, he is credited with persuading Goldwater not to pull out in December 1963. After the disastrous San Francisco convention, Baroody also became the most determined to push Goldwater toward the center. When White’s Citizens Committee proposed that the campaign show on national television a promotional film done by California actor Ronald Reagan, Baroody initially vetoed the film. According the Lee Edwards, Baroody was concerned about Reagan’s criticisms of the social security system. “By this time Baroody was so spooked, he was overreacting to everything,” Edwards recalled.

Goldwater’s most significant achievement was probably the mobilization of a whole generation of young conservatives. The onset of the Vietnam War and the. meteoric growth of the new left has obscured the fact that in the early ’60s, the student right was growing as quickly as the left–and a large measure of this growth would not have been possible without Goldwater’s presence as the national leader of conservatism. At the May 12 Garden rally, the young conservatives gave Goldwater almost an hour-long ovation before he spoke–testimony to the depth of their affection and admiration for him.

In the election itself, however, Goldwater’s most notable contribution to the conservative future was his victory in four deep South states. Of course, Eisenhower had done well in the South, but not against a popular Southern Democrat. Goldwater established the pattern that would make possible Reagan’s electoral successes in the region. But he did so almost accidentally.

Goldwater’s showing in the South was largely the result of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but he opposed the Act for different reasons than many white Southerners did. Goldwater’s personal record on civil rights was as good as that of many liberal Democrats. As a Phoenix city councilman, he had been a member of the NAACP and championed the integration of the Arizona National Guard. But he was also an ardent proponent of states’ rights, another reflection of his Western background, and he saw the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a direct assault upon state prerogatives. He was very sensitive about his position. “He would have thrown anybody out of the office who suggested that we should solicit votes in what was perceived as a racist vote,” Edwards recalled.

But some Goldwater campaign officials, including Executive Director Richard Grenier, an Alabama native, wanted Goldwater to oppose the bill because it would help him in the South. Others were simply opposed to equal rights for Negroes. “One of the tragedies of the Goldwater campaign was that there were a hell of a lot of conservatives who really were racists,” Dean Burch recalled. “Goldwater wasn’t one of them. His analysis started from the point of view of political science not how are you going to keep these folks in their proper position.”

Goldwater’s strong showing in the South and respectable showing in the West presaged the Republican conquest of the Sunbelt, described in Kevin Phillips’ 1968 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, but his electoral coalition was missing the ethnic Democrats–disillusioned by taxes, crime, civic disorder and busing–who would eventually swell the conservative Republican ranks.

Goldwater’s failure to attract these voters was in part a result of his inability to overcome the anti-Eastern provincialism that haunted his campaign, but it was also the result of his unwillingness to speak directly on those issues that in a decade would bring these voters into the Republican camp. In 1964, black riots began to sweep Northern cities, but Goldwater refused even to mention them in his campaign. On July 24, 1964, Goldwater approached Johnson privately and agreed that neither candidate would try to exploit the issue during the campaign.

In the campaign’s last month, Goldwater personally vetoed the showing of a film Choice that Clifton White and Rus Walton (later a leader of the Christian right) had done for him. The film, produced under the banner of “Mothers for a Moral America,” featured shots of black rioters, beatniks, and bare-breasted women. It was precisely the appeal–if in more veiled forms–that Nixon would make in his campaigns for “law and order” and against “permissiveness” and that would undergird “New Right” electoral successes in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Goldwater rejected the film because he thought it would enflame racism. Looking back on Goldwater’s decision, Rusher regarded it as a rejection of what came to be the Republican strategy of uniting “social conservatives” with “economic conservatives.” “Here again,” Rusher wrote, “we see Goldwater shying away from the very insight that made his candidacy different from any other.”

Some of the most formative events of the 1964 election may have even taken place outside the compass of the formal campaign. White’s Goldwater draft movement brought together a generation of Republican conservatives who would never relinquish control of the party’s grassroots apparatus, even during the Nixon and Ford years. In West Tennessee, for instance, there wasn’t a Republican Party to speak of in 1960, but White recruited a young Tennesseean named Lamar Alexander and a cadre of activists, many still in their teens, who revived the Republican Party on behalf of conservative principles.

Reagan himself emerged as a promising politician during the campaign, but his most important appearance during the campaign was pressed by White’s Citizens Committee and resisted by the formal campaign. And his 1966 campaign for governor would be crafted by political consultants who had backed Rockefeller in 1964 and who were determined to avoid the pitfalls of the Goldwater campaign.

The 1964 and 1932 campaigns were both what political scientists call “critical elections.” In both cases, they presaged a transformation of party politics and coalitions. But there was an important difference between the two campaigns. In 1932, a candidate and a coalition emerged, but not a distinct politics–that would take another four years to develop.

In 1964, a politics already existed. One can find, for instance, in National Review and Human Events of the early ’60s the elements of both the 1980 Republican platform and of the “Southern strategy.” But the coalition had not yet emerged and the candidate was a reluctant champion of the cause. It would take fully 16 years for the right candidate and the full coalition to be joined with the conservative politics of the period.

In retrospect, it is not surprising that Goldwater found much that was unfamiliar and even unpalatable in the politics that he was said to have created. Goldwater, whose foreign policy views were much closer to those of Eisenhower and Dulles than the voters in 1964 were allowed to realize, had little patience with Ronald Reagan’s strident assault against Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1976.

Goldwater, the Arizona businessman, also cast a skeptical eye on the claims of supply-side Republicans who claimed that they could balance the budget by reducing taxes. And Goldwater, the Western libertarian of Jewish ancestry, repudiated the New Right’s social agenda and would reject the alliance between conservatives and Christian Fundamentalists.

Goldwater’s support for Ford in 1976 and his outbursts against the Rev. Jerry Falwell were not evidence that he had not been a conservative all along, but only that the man credited with being the political father of the conservative realignment was, like Roosevelt in 1932, an instrument of larger historical forces, the outcome of which he could neither determine nor control.

©1985 John B. Judis

John B. Judis, senior editor on leave from In These Times, is exploring the development of American conservative politics.