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Conservatism as Phoenix | The Nation

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Conservatism as Phoenix

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But neither did Goldwater. The convention was his last hurrah. If nothing else destroyed him, President Kennedy's assassination would have. When Richard Nixon heard about the shooting in Dallas, he called J. Edgar Hoover: "What happened, was it one of the right-wing nuts?" It was the question asked everywhere. And why not? After all, Dallas was--next to Orange County, California--perhaps the nation's main gathering place for nuts. On the morning of the day Kennedy was shot, a full-page newspaper ad and radio programs, both paid for by H.L. Hunt, warned Dallas residents that the President coming to their town was a Communist collaborator and that his next move would be to revoke the right to bear arms, thereby depriving residents of "weapons with which to rise up against their oppressors."

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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Whether he liked it or not, Goldwater was branded as the candidate of nuts like that. A Gallup poll showed his approval rating dropping sixteen points.

The second blow from the assassination was that now Goldwater's opponent would be Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who, despite his having betrayed Southern racists by pushing new civil rights laws, was still popular enough in that region to loosen the stranglehold Goldwater had on it when his opponent was Kennedy. (As it turned out, though, Goldwater did win the five meanest Dixie states, and Mississippi with 87 percent of the vote.)

What decent politician, you may reasonably ask, would even want to win some parts of Dixie? Since this is a social as well as a political history, Perlstein will vividly remind you of just how rotten parts of America could be in those days: Birmingham, where black protesters were put seventy-five at a time into cells built for eight; Mississippi, where a jury acquitted Byron de la Beckwith of shooting Medgar Evers, though the defendant's fingerprints were on the murder weapon; Mississippi again, where three Klansmen admitted four bombings but were released on suspended sentences. The judge ruled they had been "unduly provoked" by "unhygienic" outsiders of "low morality."

Aside from the assassination, the primary reasons for the hopelessness of Goldwater's campaign were two: (1) the positions he took, and the kind of people who liked him; (2) the stupidity of the Arizona Mafia, of which he was the don.

Regarding the first reason, a Louis Harris poll showed that voters disagreed with Goldwater on eight out of ten issues. Goldwater opposed federal civil rights legislation, and this gave a lot of people the wrong idea. George Wallace (who received 43 percent of the Democratic vote in the Maryland primary that year) offered himself as a running mate, but Goldwater, who opposed forced segregation as much as forced integration, "thought Wallace was a racist thug." During the Birmingham riots, Goldwater said, "If I were a Negro I don't think I would be very patient either."

His remarks about military matters kept building up and falling over on him. For years, Goldwater had been growling, "To our undying shame, there are those among us who would prefer to crawl on their bellies rather than to face the possibility of an atomic war." He told a convention of the Military Order of the World Wars in October 1963, "I say fear the civilians. They're taking over." During test-ban hearings, "he boasted that America's missiles were accurate enough 'to lob one into the men's room at the Kremlin' (if they could be counted on to get into the air first)." He said battlefield nuclear weapons were nothing to get hysterical about; they were just like "a bullet or any other weapon." Eisenhower and Rockefeller had said the very same thing without attracting criticism, but that last point was the sort that Goldwater's opponents--and especially the press, which generally blanched at the thought of him in the White House--could interpret as showing he was a violent extremist, perfectly willing to blow up the world.

Although events would show that Johnson was the man to worry about right then, White House propagandists--and Perlstein says this was especially true of Bill Moyers, "surely the most ruthless...of LBJ's inner circle"--developed the image of Goldwater as The Nuclear Madman with great effectiveness. The press also grossly exaggerated the threat embedded in Goldwater's most famous remark, that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" (which Perlstein correctly points out was no different in tone from some of President Kennedy's most admired rhetoric). The Washington Post, for example, wailed, "If a party so committed were to gain public office in this country, there would be nothing left for us to do but pray."

Goldwater had cause to complain about the press favoritism shown Johnson, whose campaign trail was marked by occasional drunkenness and interviews riddled with contradictions, incoherence and obvious lies. Attending reporters wrote nothing about such lapses. On one campaign flight, "in order to squeeze as many VIPs into his plane as possible, he booted onto an accompanying plane the military aide who kept the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist that contained the codes to launch a nuclear strike. That plane nearly ended up crashing. Reporters looked the other way."

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