Barry Goldwater was the favorite candidate of every correspondent who appreciated a good story. I covered his 1964 presidential campaign for the old National Observer, the late, great Dow Jones newsweekly, and he never let us down. He was blunt, irreverent and unpredictable, often mocking the press caricature of him as a reckless gunslinger from the Old West. He was great copy.
Early in the campaign he stepped up to the microphones and stuck his finger through an empty frame of his iconic black eyeglasses and wiggled it at the row of reporters. (I distinctly remember that it was his index finger.) “Sometimes the photographers get a bit of glare bouncing off the glasses and it gives you a particularly weird look,” he said, “and these glasses are for the photographers. There’s nothing there in the frames to reflect the lights.” He was a fine photographer himself and he understood technical perils of the trade, both for the photographer and for the subject.
The mockery was unimaginative and unrelenting. Fact magazine, now mercifully no longer with us, sent a questionnaire to 12,356 psychiatrists — who knew there were so many? — and asked them whether they thought Goldwater was mentally fit to be president. Only 2,417 responded, and of those 1,189 said what the publisher, Ralph Ginzburg, wanted them to say, that he was unfit. Not one of them had ever interviewed him. It was a particularly outrageous stunt, which said more about the witch doctors than about the candidate, and it accurately reflected the tone of the ‘64 campaign.
Before and after the disastrous ‘64 campaign — he carried only his native Arizona and three states of the Deep South — Goldwater said some of the pithy things the reporters loved him for, whatever they might have been thinking about the politics that were just slightly ahead of his time. Once, discussing nuclear bombs and the frustration of the West with the relentless persistence of the Evil Empire, he suggested that “let’s lob one of them into the men’s room at the Kremlin.” He once called the cautious Eisenhower administration “a dime-store New Deal.” He said “sometimes I think the country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea.”
He said some important prescient things, too, insights that would become home truths for the conservative renaissance that was soon to follow. “We as a nation,” he said in the ‘64 campaign, “are not far from the kind of moral decay that has brought on the fall of other nations and peoples. I say it is time to put conscience back in government.”
Our paths crossed again not longer after 1964. I had flown up from Vietnam where I had gone back to the war after the presidential campaign, for a few days in Hong Kong. I noticed a small item in the South China Morning Post that Goldwater and his wife, Peggy, had been in Saigon, too, and were stopping at the Peninsula, the iconic hotel where all roads in Asia eventually cross. I left a note inviting him to breakfast. He was as cordial, blunt and irreverent as always.
The conversation turned to airplanes, one of his very favorite topics, and World War II, when he had been a Ferry Command pilot, ferrying supplies for the Republic of China “over the Hump,” errands over the Himalayas that took the lives of more than a few American pilots. He flew as well between America and India, via the Azores and North Africa.
“We were flying a C-47 out of Agra,” he said, “and we lost an engine on takeoff. I thought for sure we had bought the farm. But the engine spluttered back to life, and the plane forgave me, as the C-47 had so many pilots before and after me. But in those few seconds when it looked like we weren’t going to make it, and we were closing fast straight for one of the most recognizable treasures of the world, all I could think was, ‘I’m going to be remembered as the jerk who destroyed the Taj Mahal.’”
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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