- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

Though a hero to many conservatives, Barry Goldwater is likely to be relegated to a footnote in the annals of political history. His lopsided loss in the 1964 presidential election sowed the seeds for the rise of a political movement, but the late Arizona senator is often eclipsed by better-known figures such as William F. Buckley Jr. and former President Ronald Reagan.

J. William Middendorf II, a senior official in the Goldwater campaign, does a yeoman’s job of trying to bring the candidate to life for contemporary readers. “A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement” is part memoir, part political history and part case for the virtues of small government and individual liberty.

Mr. Middendorf provides a fascinating and well written insider’s account of Goldwater’s rise, complete with tales of personality disputes and a reluctant candidate. He avoids the tendency of many memoirists to say that “things would have turned out differently if they had only heeded my advice.”

The author contends that the conventional wisdom about the 1964 election, especially that Goldwater lost because he was too extreme, is wildly off base. According to the book, he was a victim of bad advice, of his own flaws as a candidate and of a dirty campaign by President Lyndon Johnson.

“The Senator Barry Morris Goldwater who seemed so bold, the leading conservative elected official in America who excited so much passionate support, was not always the Goldwater who showed up on the campaign trail. The former had the power of myth; the latter could have feet of clay,” Mr. Middendorf writes.

Though the author defends the candidate from the charges of being trigger-happy and against civil rights legislation, he does little to make the case that Goldwater had the temperament and stature to make him presidential.

Nevertheless, Goldwater rode the wave of the demographic shift from the North and Midwest to the South and West and helped make the Republican Party a distinctly conservative party.

Once the Republicans found in Reagan a more palatable and amiable messenger and built a political infrastructure, they took advantage of these demographic and ideological changes and came to dominate national politics for a generation.

It probably wouldn’t have happened without the Goldwater campaign.

That effort attracted many people who were passionate about their ideas and their candidate, but naive about the political process. Combine that with an undisciplined nominee and a strong pro-Democratic political climate and it is a wonder that Goldwater won even the six states that he did.

Although Goldwater enjoyed running for president, he conceded during a private meeting with his supporters that he could be a human time bomb.

“I am a clumsy idiot, with five feet and six hands,” he said.

Mr. Middendorf and other campaign staff members seem to have been kept at arm’s length from Goldwater, so the book is spare on personal details. Those looking for biographical information would do well to read the candidate’s 1988 memoir “Goldwater” or Robert Alan Goldberg’s 1995 book “Barry Goldwater.”

For history buffs and those who want to learn about the mechanics of a campaign, however, Mr. Middendorf’s book will be a welcome addition to their library. Those interested in a case study on the importance of grass-roots organizing and building up financial support from small donors will find it here.

Mr. Middendorf’s account of the nasty fight between his boss and then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller for the 1964 presidential nomination is especially well presented. The Goldwater campaign was quick to use Rockefeller’s recent divorce against him as evidence of his moral failings. Many of those same conservatives would later be more forgiving of other divorced politicians, including Mr. Reagan, Sen. John McCain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

That inconsistency not withstanding, Mr. Middendorf and his fellow Goldwaterites come across as intellectually honest and genuinely committed to implementing their view of the world.

Conservatives reading “A Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement” will find many reasons to pat themselves on the back and cheer themselves up after last month’s elections. Liberals will find much to envy.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for the Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He is the author of a chapter on the presidential campaign of Howard Dean that appears in the book “The Divided States of America.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide