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Conservatism as Phoenix | The Nation

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Conservatism as Phoenix

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Robert Welch was far from being the only crazy who rallied behind Goldwater. Others included the Texas billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt, justifiably designated by Perlstein as a "lunatic," whose Life Line broadcasts over 300 radio stations promoted such unique ideas as a cashocracy--the more money you had, the more votes you should get.

Robert Sherrill, who worked as a reporter in Washington during much of the Goldwater era, came to enjoy the Senator's sneer.

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Robert Sherrill
Robert Sherrill, a frequent and longtime contributor to The Nation, was formerly a reporter for the Washington Post. He...

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Roy Cohn was one of the most loathsome characters in American history, so why did he have so many influential friends?

But the movement was supported not so much by lunatic billionaires as by tough millionaires, guys like Roger Milliken, one of the wealthiest men in the South, who was willing to put his millions where Barry Goldwater's mouth was (and willing to lose millions on principle: "In 1956, when workers at his Darlington [textile] factory organized to form a union, Milliken shut it down permanently rather than negotiate").

We have had more lackadaisical aspirants than Goldwater for our highest political office. William McKinley is remembered for his stroll for the presidency in 1896, when he campaigned primarily from his front porch in Canton, Ohio. Goldwater was one of the most indifferent of modern times, though, and the reason for his indifference, as explained by Perlstein, is to me his most appealing quality:

He liked his freedom: flying himself to speeches, maybe dropping in at an Air Force base somewhere and begging a turn at the controls of the latest model, overflying Navajo country, poking around on his ham rig, listening to Dixieland jazz records full blast and then fussing with his trombone, or cranking up the air-conditioning full blast, building a roaring fire in his library, and settling in with a good Western....

He had no inflated judgment of his abilities. "Doggone it," he told the Chicago Tribune, "I'm not even sure that I've got the brains to be the President of the United States." He was, we are told, "horrified" when first urged to run, and for a very long time it looked like he would never show the slightest enthusiasm for the idea.

Meanwhile, without his knowledge, a new conservative machine was being put together to take over the Republican Party for the purpose of nominating him. For readers who are addicts of political maneuvering, or for readers who want a crash course in how it is done, Perlstein supplies one of the most fascinating accounts in the career of one Frederick Clifton White, the Machiavelli of grassroots organizing and a great master of "the black arts of convention trickery."

On October 8, 1961, he secretly called together twenty-two men to explain how they could seize control of the party and nominate Goldwater.

"When White explained that a convention could be won without the Northeast," writes Perlstein,

they understood that what he was describing was a revolution. No one had ever convincingly claimed that a Republican presidential candidate could be nominated without winning New York. He said 637 of the 655 delegates needed to win the nomination were likely already in the bag. Many Republican organizations across the country, he explained, withered from eight slack years under Eisenhower, enervated by the agonizing 1960 Nixon loss, weren't really organizations at all. If five people showed up for precinct meetings, it took only six conservatives to take the precinct over. Enough precincts and you had a county. Then a congressional district. If you got enough congressional districts, then you had a state. With just the people in this room and a network of loyal friends, they could have the Republican Party, as easy as pushing on an open door.... A single small organization, from a distance and with minimal resources, working in stealth, could take on an entire party. They didn't need the big fish, the governors, senators, mayors. They didn't need the little fish, the individual voters. They just needed enough middling fish.

That's the way it turned out. And the smoothness and stealth with which it was done left Eastern Republican establishment candidates--men like Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton and Henry Cabot Lodge--thinking they actually had a chance for the nomination, believing the meaningless public opinion polls that showed their popularity, spending zillions of dollars going after delegates White had lured into Goldwater's camp and who were fanatically loyal to it. The wildest spender and most impossible candidate was Rockefeller. His chances died when he divorced and later remarried in mid-campaign. That was a different era. "It was a time, according to Betty Friedan, when it was easier to find an abortionist than a minister willing to marry a divorcé." Catholic cardinals and influential Protestant ministers sometimes refused to appear on the stage with Rockefeller, or urged him to quit the race because of his divorce.

Perlstein's description of how these establishment white mice raced around the maze looking for an opening that didn't exist is surely one of the best farcical stories of modern politics. And part of the joke was the way the big Eastern press and its pundits kept predicting that Rockefeller or Scranton or Lodge would surely win the nomination. The Washington Post and New York Times, the Wall Street lawyers and the big Eastern bankers, were rooting for anyone but Goldwater. Vice President Humphrey predicted that "the big money in the East there, you know, will move in, as they've done before," and squash Goldwater at the convention. Lyndon Johnson, who had "seen 'em do it" before, agreed.

They didn't have a chance.

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