- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2006

Blood supposedly runs thicker than water, but when it comes to political legacies, blood certainly seems to thicken the head.

If it accomplishes nothing else, “Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater,” a documentary about the late Arizona Republican senator and totemic 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, should serve as a cautionary tale about the philosophical capriciousness of shared DNA.

The movie biography, which airs Monday night at 9 on HBO, was produced and narrated by Mr. Goldwater’s granddaughter, CC Goldwater. And, in fairness, it’s a heartfelt, searching piece of portraiture, full of interesting revelations about a complex man. (I had no idea, for example, that he had a passion for photography that equaled his love of aircraft.)

Somewhat disappointingly, “Goldwater,” a standard-issue, talkings-heads affair, dotted with archival footage, has nothing fresh to offer in terms of style. Its budget of nearly $1 million — quite healthy for a TV documentary — might have been put to more creative use.

Dominating it, moreover, is an agenda that can be summed up with this question: Would my grandfather really have nuked that little girl in the daisy commercial?

It’s a tone, first and foremost, of defensiveness — and directed, one assumes, at polite, proper progressives, in whose eyes Miss Goldwater, a self-described independent, clearly seeks to overhaul her grandfather’s flinty conservative image.

Yes, the learned conservative commentator George F. Will — who, while a graduate student at Princeton University, pulled the lever for Mr. Goldwater in ‘64 and hasn’t felt as gratified since — is here to explain how American political history from 1964 to 1980 is an unbroken arc of conservative ascent.

But “Goldwater” is glaringly short on George Wills and long on “friendly adversaries” (in the words of the press notes that accompanied a review copy of the film) such as Democratic strategist James Carville; Air America radio host Al Franken; dean emeritus of the liberal media establishment Walter Cronkite; and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Mr. Goldwater’s most liberal Senate colleague.

Sure, he may have talked openly about defoliating North Vietnam with nuclear weapons, but he wasn’t such a monster, goes the revisionist consensus. Look how he hated the religious right and privately loathed Richard Nixon.

He was gracious. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton tells of receiving a box of hot sauce from Mr. Goldwater after he learned she was a “Goldwater girl” in ‘64.

He was a statesman-gentleman. There’s speculation — it’s comic relief here — that, had Mr. Goldwater run for president against his friend John F. Kennedy in 1964, the two would have had Lincoln-Douglas-style debates and traveled on the same jet.

OK. Fine.

But “Goldwater” gives the game away when it conveniently rejects whichever planks of the limited-government platform it disagrees with. Take the senator’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There, according to the documentary, Mr. Goldwater was plainly wrong, both morally and on the facts. Yet, on abortion and homosexuals, it rhapsodizes about Mr. Goldwater’s broad-mindedness.

Sorry. This does not a maverick make. If you had one of those think tanky graphs that expand on the simplistic left-right spectrum, Mr. Goldwater’s libertarian politics were remarkably consistent.

Not unlike his more successful legatee, President Ronald Reagan, he held fast to a few principles — essentially, that the federal government should stay out of people’s personal lives, but still be strong enough to kick the commies in the groin.

Later in his career, he took the same laissez-faire view on abortion and homosexual rights (issues, Mr. Will notes, that didn’t figure on the national agenda in the 1960s) that he took on economic entrepreneurship.

Let’s be clear: When Barry Goldwater stood on the rostrum of the Republican National Convention in San Francisco and said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he was being brave. He was bucking centrist complacency — including eight years under the Republican accommodationist Dwight Eisenhower — that took ever-bigger government and international communism for granted.

In the spirit of National Review magazine’s founding credo of “Standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop,’” Barry Goldwater confronted the morality of statism when to do so was highly unfashionable — not to mention politically suicidal: Sitting President Lyndon B. Johnson beat him by 16 million votes.

Conversely, to say, in 1993, that the military’s ban on homosexuals was “dumb” earned you a round of applause from those mavericks who run the New York Times.

Miss Goldwater may gain personal comfort from the knowledge of her grandfather’s social libertarianism — and any truthful account of Mr. Goldwater’s public life should acknowledge it. But in the history of 20th-century American politics, it is little more than an interesting footnote.

We can’t say we didn’t have ample warning of the likes of “Goldwater.” Ron Reagan perhaps began the trend — that of leveraging the family name to rewrite history and earn credibility in politics. While eulogizing his father in 2004, the young Mr. Reagan lobbed a thinly veiled insult at President Bush, whom he accused, in so many words, of “wearing his faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage.”

Miss Goldwater’s minor sin was to isolate and magnify a very real aspect of her grandfather’s politics. Mr. Reagan has been more subtle in his ever-so-indirect selective appropriation of his father’s legacy as sanction for his own opposition to the war in Iraq and support for embryonic stem cell research.

Politics, it seems, is just like your local neighborhood: It’s all you can do to keep your children from running with the wrong crowd.

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