Sen. Barry Goldwater – the last of the principled politicians

(U-WIRE) BOULDER, Colo. – I know my Democratic grandmother will spin when she reads this, but I feel quite sure that I and the rest of the country will miss Barry Goldwater more than we probably ever imagined was possible.

Goldwater, failed 1964 GOP presidential candidate, maverick founder of Western conservatism and straight shooter to the end, died recently at age 89. With him, I suspect, went one of the last icons of truthful politics in the modern era, as well as one of the most colorful men of this half-century.

Now, I write this knowing Goldwater’s politics full well. He opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even though his family’s department store was one of the first in the country to desegregate its work force.

Goldwater, whose Jewish ancestors fled the pogroms of 19th-century Russia, never ceased to seethe about the mere existence of communism and was a hawkish, anti-communist windbag of the first order to the end.

He also opposed welfare benefits and nearly every social program of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson years on his way to a merciless thrashing from Johnson in the ’64 election.

That campaign featured a legendary TV ad featuring a little girl pulling petals off a flower, while a voice counted down to a nuclear explosion. The ad, which ran only once, enhanced Goldwater’s reputation as a dangerous nut. In fact, his campaign slogan that year – “In your heart, you know he’s right” – was warped by Democrats and popular wit into, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

Nuts? Yes, about a lot of things. But balanced, perhaps, by his outspoken candor, adherence to principles and self-deprecating wit.

Whatever else you say about the man, you always knew he stood for something and you knew what that something was. Goldwater never used focus groups, political consultants or masters of the conventional wisdom to tell him how to package what he thought about issues.

He would speak to anyone about anything at any time, the way politicians used to before the age of spin doctors. He shook a lot of dry, chapped Western hands in his 40-year political career and he spoke in a voice that common people – Western or not – understood, even if they didn’t agree with it.

Today, every political event is contrived from the ground up – built by a circle of wealthy interests, polished by highly-paid consultants and delivered with all the slickness of modern media.

What we’re getting with all that is not more but less, both in terms of our candidates and our government. Men like Barry Goldwater, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey treated the American public to coherent, if not sophisticated, politics.

The nation won’t really mourn Goldwater because we’ve moved on to concerns that eclipse the importance of fallen statesmen. We’ve got hot entertainment stories to read – most of them about our current president.

And that’s too bad. Barry Goldwater was a give-’em-hell conservative who helped Richard Nixon out the door, stood against the religious right and campaigned for the rights of gays in the military. In him, we have not just a dead politician but a living memory of what political courage and principle used to look and sound like.

-Bronson Hilliard is a student at the University of Colorado.

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