The Truth, Mainly - 06/15/1998

Goldwater's head cleared considerably over the decades
by Leon Satterfield

Barry was my man, but he'd have been a lousy president.

I know it's been more than two weeks now since Barry Goldwater died, but it's taken me that long to sort out my thoughts about him.

For about the last quarter century, he was my man. That is, I agreed with most of his outrageous opinions. You know the kind I mean:

•On his fellow Republican, Richard Nixon: "He came as close to destroying the country as any President has ever come." He was "the world's biggest liar," and "the most dishonest individual I have ever met."

•On his conservative disciple, Ronald Reagan, during the Iran-Contra flap: He was either "a liar or an incompetant."

•On abortion: "That's a decision that's up to a pregnant woman, not up to the Pope…or the religious right."

•On gays in the military: "You don't need to be straight…you just need to shoot straight."

•And (my favorite) on Jerry Falwell: "Every good Christian ought to kick Jerry Falwell in the ass."

Amen, brother.

Barry Goldwater's been my man since about 1974. Ten years after he ran for President. It took me that long to stop putting my fingers in my ears every time he opened his mouth.

He would have been a lousy President.

A national disaster. Maybe an international disaster.

There were two great issues in the 60s, peace and civil rights. LBJ was wrong on the first, right on the second. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were right on both.

The old model Barry Goldwater was wrong on both.

He was an enthusiastic Cold Warrior who as senator voted against the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. He liked to talk about using tactical nuclear weapons, and he publically joked about lobbing a nuclear missile into "the men's room of the Kremlin."

He scared hell out of me.

I know. The fear of Goldwater led to LBJ's 1964 landslide and the horrific Americanization of the Vietnam War.

(Best witticism coming out of the campaign: "They warned me not to vote for Goldwater because we'd get into a war," William F. Buckley said. "They were right. I voted for Goldwater and we got into a war.")

But even more than his nuclear pugnacity, Goldwater's vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would have made him an awful President.

He wasn't racist. He had long since integrated his Arizona department stores and the Arizona Air National Guard. He was as good a political friend as Arizona Native Americans ever had.

But his distaste for FDR's New Deal and his perception of an overreaching federal government clouded his humanitarian vision.

It was the year of the Mississippi Freedom Summer when the three civil rights workers, Goodman, Schwerner, and Cheney, were murdered in Mississippi. When they turned up missing on June 21, the county sheriff, Lawrence Raney, reckoned aloud that "they're just hid somewhere, trying to get a lot of publicity out of it."

When their bodies were found on Aug.4, Mississippi Congressman Arthur Winstead said "When people leave any section of the country and go into another section looking for trouble, they usually find it."

The FBI arrested 21 white Mississippians, including Sheriff Raney's deputy, Cecil Price, but a state court dismissed charges.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act became law on July 2. Barry Goldwater voted against it because he saw it as a violation of states' rights and property rights. Provisions of the act, he argued, were unconstitutional and "require for their effective execution the creation of a police state…."

What he didn't see was that, for black citizens, Mississippi was already a police state where even law enforcement officers could take part in racist atrocities and be ignored or excused by elected officials.

Like lots of others opposed to activist government, Goldwater was more concerned about limiting federal power than about working toward the goals set forth in the Preamble to the federal Constitution: "to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…."

Had he been as concerned with the other goals as he was with providing for the common defense, he'd have been a more plausible candidate. And I wouldn't have had to wait 10 years to admire him.

But that was 34 years ago. His head cleared considerably over the decades. Consider, for example, the stunningly cogent quality of his insight into what every good Christian ought to do to Jerry Falwell.

It's an quotation lyric in its simple profundity—the kind of gem we ought to engrave on Barry Goldwater's tombstone. He'd like that a lot.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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