Tons of stuff must have been written by now as to which establishment Republican figure eventually will stand up against extremist conservatives—as opposed to watching the Republican brand swirl down the toilet in the 2016 presidential election cycle. I’ve simply not cared enough to do much research on the subject. Fact is, it seems less likely all the time that any Republican will find the courage—or perhaps even discern the need—to do that.
My overall lack of interest hasn’t changed. What has grown within me, though, is the description by William F. Buckley, Jr., of a 1964 meeting with Barry Goldwater at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida—in particular, of Goldwater’s essence as a man, which Buckley managed to capture.
The scene needs a brief setup. Goldwater had already been asked, and had declined, to run for president that year “at least five times,” according to Buckley. It didn’t help matters much that Goldwater’s greatest supporter to make the historic attempt for the White House had been the John Birch Society, which at the time was widely becoming recognized as a rather looney anti-communist endeavor under the leadership of a man named Robert W. Welch, Jr. (1899–1985). As Buckley described in the March 2008 edition of Commentary magazine:
“Goldwater was in Palm Beach visiting, incognito, with a sister-in-law who was resident there. He arrived at our hotel suite at about 11:00 in extravagantly informal garb, cowboy hat and dark glasses, a workman’s blue shirt, and denim jeans, together with his beloved Western boots. He did bring along a weather-beaten briefcase, though I never noticed his opening it the whole day.
“What followed was an hour of general discussion on the policies of President Kennedy and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. [The conversation moved on to the John Birch Society and] it was quickly obvious that this was the subject Goldwater wished counsel on.”
Other participants at the meeting painted Welch as a man disconnected from reality, who claimed President Eisenhower had been a secret Communist agent. Welch’s outlandish claims were a weight on the back of “responsible conservative political thinking,” Goldwater was told, and his hobby horse—the John Birch Society—must be renounced by anyone with any influence on the conservative movement.
All eyes turned to Buckley.
But that, according to Goldwater, was the problem! Buckley went on to write:
“Consider this, [Goldwater] exaggerated: ‘Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society…I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs. Any of you know who Frank Cullen Brophy is?’
“I [Buckley] raised my hand. ‘I spent a lot of time with him. He was going to contribute capital to help found [my publication] National Review. He didn’t.’ Brophy was a prominent Arizona banker.”
Again the group pleaded their case to Goldwater that mainstream Republicans needed to excommunicate the John Birch Society from the conservative movement.
And Barry Goldwater, the very image of the self-made, American, rugged individualist, whined: “You just can’t do that kind of thing in Arizona. For instance, who on earth can dismiss Frank Brophy from anything?”
The men left the table at the Breakers Hotel with a plan. In the next issue of National Review, Buckley wrote a 5000-word excoriation of Welch and the John Birch Society, and soon—as other elements of the plan were initiated—the society itself became a historical footnote.
Fortunately or unfortunately, as you may care to choose, Goldwater ran for president in 1964 against Lyndon Johnson and lost by a landslide; Republicans in that cycle lost many seats in both houses of Congress. Goldwater was replaced in the Senate by John McCain in 1987, and died in 1998 at the age of 89.
So, no, Buckley and his National Review, despite their role in undermining the John Birch Society, did not succeed in elevating Barry Goldwater to the presidency. And, if anyone were in the position of being able to undermine the far right, there’s no guarantee which political party will take the presidency in 2016. But Buckley is dead—died in 2008 at the age of 82. And who might take his place in at least trying to shake a little moderation into Christian extremists (if they like to say Islamic extremists, I have no problem reciprocating)? David Brooks? George Will?
As I noted, my interest in the Republican brand ebbs, as I’m no expert in keeping up with it. What intrigues me about this story is the mental picture of Barry Goldwater—so manly, so conservative, and so afraid of an Arizona banker. Tickles my cockles, whatever they are. And makes me think that it’s way past time to think about election reforms.