Strange Last Respects

Article excerpt

Barry Goldwater turned out to be a nice guy after all.

Barry, we hardly knew ye. It seemed you had changed so much. When you died, any number of folks on the other side said they admired you, even Hillary Clinton and Frank Rich. Hillary praised The Conscience of a Conservative, and said she also was committed to "individual responsibility." (Yes, she really did say that.) Frank carried on about your gay grandson, and thought it wonderful that one of your daughters once had an abortion. Whatever your earlier sins, it seemed they had been forgiven. A few die-hards still disliked you, but generally there was a truce. You hadn't meant the awful things you said, and it may be there had been a misunderstanding. As the New York Times obituary said, Barry Goldwater often "heard his own words outside of their political context," and was convinced the press had distorted them. The Times seemed to be suggesting the press had never distorted a thing; apparently, Barry, you just hadn't known what you were saying.

Nonetheless, none of the obits even came close to describing the fear you once inspired in newsrooms. Reporters who covered you in 1964 liked you personally, but there was a feeling your presidential campaign had to be stopped. Everyone thought it was run by brownshirts, and fascism was in sight. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw "dangerous signs of Hitlerism," and as Daniel Schorr reported on CBS that strange year, a Lieut. Gen. William Quinn had even invited you to visit "Berchtesgaden, once Hitler's stamping ground." In fact, the Times liked that one so much, it put it on the front page the next day.

Who knew then that General Quinn would turn out to be Sally Quinn's father?

Meanwhile, many of your obits mentioned the "daisy" commercial, although they were confused about who made it and what it said. Actually it had been made by Tony Schwartz, and Bill Moyers had little to do with it. Media consultant Schwartz lived in what was once a Pentecostal church on West 56th Street in Manhattan, and while he was thought of as an eccentric, he was awfully good at his work. The daisy commercial was meant to awaken latent fears about you, and it did. Schwartz acolytes and fans all gave the '64 equivalent of highfives when they saw it. The beauty part was that it never even mentioned your name. Instead it showed a little girl plucking the daisy's petals, and counting up to ten. Then we had a freeze frame, while an announcer counted down from ten to zero. At zero a big mushroom cloud filled the sky, while Lyndon Johnson intoned about "how we must either love each other, or we must die." Well, that was rich-Lyndon and love one another, but everyone still got the message: You were nutty enough to plunge the world into nuclear war. Political columnists said it was rude to say that, and the commercial was withdrawn, but almost to a man the same columnists warned that if we did vote for you, we would end up fighting a big land war in Asia. In a way, of course, they were right: 21,178,i88 Americans did vote for you, and we did indeed end up fighting a big land war in Asia.

So a question now, even if none of the obituary writers and commentators raised it: What would have happened in Vietnam if you had been elected president? After all, Johnson's incremental approach was a disaster, while you had said we should "win or get out." No one who mattered then in Washington or in the media dared pay attention, however. You were supposed to be an extremist. Subsequently the war went on for years, and lives were lost for no reason. It would be nice to think now that a lesson was learned from that, but much of the commentary about you showed that was not the case. You were a nice guy, but you still had been an extremist.

Or as Ken Bode, the moderator of PBS's "Washington Week in Review," described you: "Fast, quick trigger-finger, yes, quick to shoot." Bode was agreeing with Robin Wright of the Los Angeles Times, who remembered you had talked about using tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam (actually, you had said they could be used for defoliation) and that you had a "reputation as someone who operated on the edge. …