Man of the West: Goldwater’s Reflection in the Oasis of Frontier Conservatism
Barry Goldwater was one of the most polarizing figures in the history of twentieth-century American politics. He was also one of the most significant. An icon of modern conservatism, a fierce champion of libertarianism, an uncompromisingly blunt communicator, and a martyr to those on the political Right, Goldwater—more than two decades after his death—still inspires a very specific (and highly effective) brand of politician. For better or worse, that brand is largely synonymous with the stereotypes, myths, and romanticized tropes of the geographic region from which Goldwater emerged into national prominence. As Arizona State University’s “Arizona Memory Project” puts it, Barry Goldwater was “the quint-essential Man of the West—rugged, independent, and fearless.”1
It is not hard to see where that description comes from, nor is it a difficult opinion to defend. Goldwater was certainly rugged, perhaps even grizzled beyond his years. He spoke plainly and unemotionally, though he was not immune to anger or expressions of righteous indignation. His words were typically uncensored and direct. [End Page 79] His politics promoted the value of hard work and self-help, or as Theodore Roosevelt would have put it, the “strenuous life.” For the most part, he also lived those values. He and his family oozed perseverance—the very essence of “bootstrap” ethics. His family’s roots in the West ran deep. His father owned his own business. His mother taught him how to shoot a gun. In 1940, he became one of the first individuals to successfully navigate the Colorado River, and his film of the experience made him a household name across Arizona. Thousands experienced the Grand Canyon for the first time through his eyes. He also nurtured relationships with Indigenous peoples across the region, capturing photographs that remain among the most compelling ever taken of the men, women, and children of the Hopi and Navajo tribes. He flew his own plane. He built his own house on Scorpion Hill, in Paradise Valley, overlooking Camelback Mountain, framed by cactus, wild brush, and the secluded, natural desert landscape. Throughout his life, Goldwater championed independence—for the nation, for his state, for his neighbors, and for himself. His politics was fiercely ideological, yet often grounded in the immediacy of local issues—everything from water reclamation to personal privacy to economic boosterism to national defense. He was not afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion, taking stands throughout his career that placed him at odds with members of his own party, not to mention his many political opponents. And when he died, his ashes were sprinkled into the Grand Canyon, along the same Colorado River he famously navigated some fifty-eight years earlier. His successor in the United States Senate was John McCain—a man who liked to call himself a “maverick.” If McCain was a maverick, then Goldwater was a self-contained libertarian stampede.2
At first glance, it would seem that Goldwater’s western bona fides are beyond dispute. On a more theoretical level, however, historians might very well question whether those bona fides reflected the West of history or merely the West of popular myth. The answer [End Page 80] to that question threatens not simply the legitimacy of Goldwater’s identification with the West but also the implicit association of his political worldview as inherent to that region, and by association, inherent to the national character. Upon closer look, however, how much of Goldwater’s reputation is based on the West of history as opposed to the West of myth? Does the region’s reputation hold up to historical scrutiny, or is it merely a tantalizing mirage, manufactured by popular culturists to reassure Americans of their country’s exceptionalism? Does Goldwater’s legacy, and specifically his influence on the rise of modern American conservatism, depend on the answer to these questions? If Barry Goldwater is “of the West,” then so is modern conservatism. Men can be from the North, the South, and the East, but rarely is someone identified as being of those places, at least not in the same way that someone can be of the West. To be a “man of the West”—as we often see Goldwater—implies a very specific set of masculine characteristics. It also imbues the region with an almost anthropomorphic, perhaps even godlike, ability to create.3
It may sound like an overstatement, but for the better part of two centuries, American conceptions of the West have been virtually synonymous with America itself. Americans have looked to the West as a land of opportunity, adventure, and salvation. They have oriented their conception of the region around a quasi-biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Novelists, songwriters, filmmakers, photographers, painters, and other artists have seared these ideas into our minds. No geographic region is more popularly connected to notions of rugged individualism, patriotism, self-defense, and absolute fearlessness than is the American West. It is a land of hopes and dreams, not to mention muscular masculinity, unyielding resolve, and a yearning to see the world in safe but misleading dichotomies: good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. As historian Hal Rothman once said of the West’s role in healing the American spirit after the Civil War, [End Page 81] and the revitalization of that spirit during the twentieth century: “The West healed the hole in the heart of the nation born anew. . .When Americans paid homage to their national and nationalist roots, they did not look to Independence Hall; they went West.” 4
Americans continued to romanticize the West and politicize its meaning throughout the twentieth century. This was especially true during the Cold War, when the simplicity of idyllic western life offered an appealing contrast to the nuanced messages coming from the technocratic liberal consensus that dominated factions in both political parties. Whether Hollywood realized it or not, the films and television shows it produced during the Cold War owed a tremendous debt to early western historians, Frederick Jackson Turner most notably. During the early 1890s, Turner introduced an argument that has continued to shape American historiography for better or worse ever since. Responding to questions about national identity Turner famously understood the West as central to the evolution of American democracy. According to Turner, the West taught Americans how to be self-reliant and dream big. The so-called Turner Thesis also underscored the virtue of meritocracy. In this framework, American democracy needed the West, and American exceptionalism dies without it. Between William F. Cody’s traveling “Wild West” shows, Teddy Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West, and virtually every John Wayne film ever produced, stereotypes about life on the frontier, and the virtues those collective experiences instilled, were fully incorporated into the public’s self-awareness and national identity throughout the twentieth century. As a result, Americans came to understand the West as the very embodiment of their collective, nationalist spirit. The West of lore was a land of savagery, saved by the manifest destiny of American civilization. It was a land of hardship and lawlessness, tamed by the gun, the great equalizer among men. Just ask Teddy Roosevelt, who was from New York, but became of the West through his famous retreats to the Dakota Badlands, defining manhood for generations. Or ask Ronald Reagan, the Illinois native who, with Hollywood’s help, became the nation’s most politically successful “cowboy conservative.”5 [End Page 82]
Turner’s view, however, no longer dominates the halls of academia. Instead, scholars of the “New Western History” have been questioning Turner since at least the 1980s, revising the historiography along the way. The West, they argue, was not a blank canvas upon which pioneers built a land of the free and a home for the brave. Rather, the West was a land of constant interaction and pervasive diversity—far closer to a conquered territory than a civilized wilderness. This brand of revisionism pivots on the question of whether the West was a process made manifest, as Turner famously argued in the late nineteenth century, or a place of conflict and fluidity, as historians like Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, Donald Worster, and others argued near the end of the twentieth century.6
Americans have typically been far more comfortable embracing a national history that celebrates “positive goods” as opposed to “necessary evils”—or worse, in this case, the invasion of Indigenous lands and the widespread denial of equal rights based on racial identity. Where patriotic adventurers see the West as a spiritual home, contemporary critics see tragedy, not triumph, conflict and oppression, not democratization and independence. By the end of the twentieth century, the way someone viewed the West became a virtual microcosm of how one viewed the country, with conservatives clinging to the traditions of Turner and progressives championing multicultural revisionism. In essence, the New Western History paralleled many of the political divides of the 1960s and 1970s. As scholars asked new questions and employed new methods to better reflect the nation’s forgotten margins, conservatives like Goldwater doubled down on the fundamental goodness of the nation’s history. They understood and promoted that history within the same binaries that would have been embraced by western pioneers long before, not to mention the historians whose views on the West dominated textbooks in public schools for much of the twentieth century. In doing so, conservatives built a movement, [End Page 83] in part, around the defense of American history as they saw it, as interpreted through a traditional lens. The West of simpler times appealed to those who feared the onrush of progressive reformism. Goldwater—the conservative, the libertarian, the anti-communist—was, in many ways, a natural fit with this mythical West that resurged into the national consciousness during the Cold War, just as Americans were reaffirming their nation’s intellectual, spiritual, and functional superiority to the Soviet Union. No wonder, therefore, that during this era, the “western” was, by far, television’s most popular genre, while Hollywood made millions telling tall tales of gunfights, cattle drives, and life on the range. Goldwater frequently compared the Cold War to the “Wild West.” That comparison seemed apt, as did his oft-used analogy that maintaining nuclear superiority was as important as always keeping your pistol loaded and handy.7
Goldwater’s saber rattling did not sit well with most voters in 1964, but it was precisely the kind of straightforward, aggressive approach conservatives wanted. Goldwater would not have emerged as a political icon of the Cold War Right apart from his gruff, plain-spoken, western ruggedness. These stylistic traits enhanced his stature among conservatives who desperately wanted to distance themselves from the so-called eastern establishment, which they viewed as conciliatory and effete. In contrast, Goldwater’s western bravado resonated with men and women who felt bullied and shamed by liberals, progressives, and moderates. In the conservative worldview, Goldwater met such bullies with a defiant squint into the western sun and an unwillingness to back down. They wanted a sheriff they could trust, and the man from Arizona fit the bill.8
One man’s hero, however, can be another man’s nightmare. As the Cold War consensus struggled to hold the line against the New Left of the Vietnam War era, western images associated with the “cowboy” became more and more difficult to defend. Critics saw “cowboys” as reckless, unsophisticated, and irresponsible. Political opponents decried Goldwater as “nuts” at the same time Stanley [End Page 84] Kubrick lampooned the Right in his 1964 comedic classic, Dr. Strangelove. Shortly thereafter, Lyndon Johnson took heat for comparing Vietnam to the Alamo. Four decades later, critics applied the same negative connotations to George W. Bush, disparagingly calling Bush a “cowboy” for his ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003.9
Clearly, something had changed. Those shaped by the New Western History saw the West as a land of contestation and oppression. In that analysis, they found evidence to support their claims that America had not lived up to its stated ideals. If conservatives feared that America’s best days were behind them, liberals and progressives viewed the past as a place of shortcoming and failure; America’s best, they hoped, was yet to come.10
Interesting though this constructed dichotomy may be, it may very well be more beneficial to chart a different course. Instead of framing western history around the question of whether Turner was right or not, one might discover more utility in acknowledging the West as a textured, multicultural place of contestation while simultaneously appreciating the role it played in democratizing the nation. These positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Barry Goldwater certainly believed that traditional western history was hardly a myth, and he cited his own family’s history as evidence of the fact, frequently noting his ancestors’ struggles against ethnic and religious persecution, as well as their perseverance and success. His grandfather, Michel Goldwasser, was born in Poland in 1821. One of twenty-two children born to Jewish innkeepers, Michel and his family were subjected to frequent persecution in a heavily anti-Semitic part of imperial Russia. As a teenager, he became part of a global Jewish diaspora. He moved to Germany, then to France—until the revolutions of 1848 convinced him to leave for England. There, in London, he met and married Sarah, a woman of Jewish descent. Two years later, like so many others across the [End Page 85] world, he moved (by himself, at first) to California, temporarily leaving behind his bride, in search of gold and prospects for a better life for his family. Unfortunately, he did not find gold, and life was not easy. Reunited with his family after two years on his own, Goldwater continued to struggle in his new homeland. As Jewish immigrants to the United States, they also continued to face discrimination and exclusion. Meanwhile, much of the American Southwest was an odd mix of lawlessness, entrepreneurial activity, and warfare. For decades, the American military fought Indigenous tribes across the region, including the Apache and the Navajo in parts of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Eventually, in the midst of this panoply of chaos, the Goldwaters settled in Phoenix, where they established their own business, grew older, procreated, and thrived. Barry Goldwater knew his family’s history, was proud of it, and identified with it.11
The Goldwater family’s experience in the West was not uncommon; neither was it universal. For every success story, there were dozens of failures and injustices, many of which were due to racial discrimination and widespread inequality, just as the revisionist camp has argued. Nevertheless, one can easily argue that Barry Goldwater reflected aspects of both the real, historic West and its mythic, imagined past. If so, Goldwater was of the West in the sense that his political career was rooted in the idea that he needed to defend certain values embodied in the region’s history from attack by liberals and progressives. He was also of the West in the sense that his family’s history lends credence to the entire concept of an American Dream, theoretically attainable to anyone from anywhere who was willing to sacrifice and fight for their families. Either way, Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was rooted in the West as he saw it, and it is impossible to discuss the history of modern American conservatism without mentioning Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was a constant political presence throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—a period of significant social, cultural, political, and demographic upheaval. Nevertheless, scholarly explorations into the rise of modern conservatism still trend toward a South-centric framework. In that literature, historians rarely depict Goldwater as a “man of the West.” Instead, they view him as a segregationist champion of persistent southern bigotry. A certain logic then dictates that if [End Page 86] Goldwater was a key figure in the genesis of modern conservatism, and his base in 1964 was the Deep South, then Goldwater was a racist, and so was (and is) the brand of conservatism he espoused.12
In self-defense, Goldwater always insisted that his own personal history of supporting civil rights through the Urban League, the NAACP, and other means—including his own family’s policy of non-discrimination in the Goldwater store in Phoenix—was more important than, for instance, his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Critics disagreed then, as they do now.13 Goldwater’s unwillingness to compromise or clarify his position in light of the backlash earned the admiration of his followers, but did not aid efforts to disassociate him from segregationist supporters making racist appeals ostensibly on his behalf, the Alabama Ku Klux Klan of 1964 chiefly among them.14 [End Page 87]
The best way to fuse these seemingly competing ideas about race, conservatism, the South, and the West is to accept Goldwater not as a man “of the West” but as a product of the postwar Sunbelt. Sometimes seen as an imagined place too big to exist in any kind of distinct way, the postwar Sunbelt was, if anything, a merger of the South and Southwest, fueled by sprawling suburbs, growing universities, and the attraction of new industries, technologies, and corporations. As much as he may be associated with the old West, Goldwater is as much “of the Sunbelt” as he is “of the West.” Cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta were typical of the new Sunbelt, but no city was any more authentically “Sunbelt” than Barry Goldwater’s home city of Phoenix. There, Goldwater worked with civic boosters, business developers, and corporations on policies designed to maximize industrial freedoms in an unregulated marketplace, and to help small-business owners and entrepreneurs like those of his own family.15
Like the mythical (and sometimes real) western heroes he and his ideology tried to champion, Barry Goldwater persevered beyond his crushing defeat in 1964. So did his ideas and his influence. Americans have long conflated the mythical West with Americanism itself. At the end of the day, whether he was an authentic “man of the West,” a racist southerner in disguise, or something entirely different and very modern, Barry Goldwater created a political career out of nothing. For better or worse, he championed ideas through a western lens because that is how he saw the world. Love him or hate him, Goldwater convinced millions of Americans that a successful future depended on an appreciation for a ruggedly individualistic and meritocratic past that, depending on who you ask, may never have happened. If all that is not straight out of the West, nothing is. [End Page 88]
SEAN P. CUNNINGHAM is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Texas Tech University. He is the author of Cowboy Conservatism: Texas and the Rise of the Modern Right (University Press of Kentucky, 2010) and American Politics in the Postwar Sunbelt: Conservative Growth in a Battleground Region (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
1. “Senator Barry M. Goldwater—An Arizona Legend,” Arizona Memory Project, Arizona State University Libraries, http://azmemory.azlibrary.gov/digital/collection/ahfgold (accessed May 13, 2019).
2. The most comprehensive biography of Barry Goldwater remains Robert Alan Goldberg, Barry Goldwater (New Haven, Conn., 1995). Goldwater receives biographical treatment in numerous other volumes, most of which use Goldwater as a lens for understanding political change during the 1960s and beyond. These include, among others, Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York, 2001). For an assessment of Goldwater’s worldview and value system, in comparison with other conservatives of the modern era, see Donald T. Critchlow, Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan (Philadelphia, 2018), 79–103, 131–147.
3. For more on Theodore Roosevelt’s “westernness,” see Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (Norman, Okla., 1992), 29–62; see also Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (New York, 1979; repr., 2001); Sean P. Cunningham, Cowboy Conservatism: Texas and the Rise of the Modern Right (Lexington, Ky., 2010). Among many good works on the power of imagery and media to manipulate perceptions, see Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York, 1961; repr., 2012). See also Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, 1985; repr., 2005); and David Greenberg, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (New York, 2003).
4. Hal K. Rothman, Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century West (Lawrence, Kans., 1998), 15.
5. The literature and history attached to this Turnerian view is vast. Among many excellent sources, including those referenced in the text, see Frederick Jackson Turner and John Mack Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays (New Haven, Conn., 1994). See also, among others, Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Norman, Okla., 1973; 2000); Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890 (Norman, Okla., 1985); Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation; see also Richard White, “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill,” in James R. Grossman, ed., The Frontier in American Culture (Berkeley, Calif., 1994), 7–66.
6. Ibid. See also Patricia Nelson Limerick, Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York, 1987).
7. See again Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation; see also Garry Wills, John Wayne’s America (New York, 1997); and Scott Simmon, The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half Century (New York, 2003); see also Goldberg, Barry Goldwater, 162; Perlstein, Before the Storm; Nancy Beck Young, Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle between Liberalism and Conservatism (Lawrence, Kans., 2019).
9. One of the best, and earliest, examples of this perspective on George W. Bush can be found in Michael Lind, Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (New York, 2003). Lind, like others mentioned later in this essay, sees Goldwater and Reagan in the same lineage of South-centric, segregation-oriented conservatism as Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and others.
10. The scholarship on liberalism and progressivism in the 1960s is abundant and excellent. Three such works include Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York, 1984); Gareth Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (Lawrence, Kans., 1996); and Randall B. Woods, Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson, the Great Society, and the Limits of Liberalism (New York, 2016).
11. Goldwater’s family history is chronicled effectively in Goldberg, Barry Goldwater, 6–23.
12. For more on conservatism, race, and the South, see among many, Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (New York, 1995); Kevin M. Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, N.J., 2005); Matthew D. Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, N.J., 2006); William A. Link, Righteous Warrior: Jesse Helms and the Rise of Modern Conservatism (New York, 2008); Steven F. Lawson, In Pursuit of Power: Southern Blacks and Electoral Politics, 1965–1982 (New York, 1987); and Edward H. Miller, Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy (Chicago, 2015). For a comparison with western politics and race, see Mark Brilliant, The Color of America Has Changed: How Racial Diversity Shaped Civil Rights Reform in California, 1941–1978 (New York, 2010); and Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York, 2011); for more on the development of conservative ideas in the early 1960s, in coincidence with Goldwater’s political rise, see among others Perlstein, Before the Storm; John Andrew III, The Other Side of the Sixties: Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics (New Brunswick, N.J., 1997); David Farber and Jeff Roche, eds., The Conservative Sixties (New York, 2003).
13. For examples, see Goldberg, Barry Goldwater, 89–90, 230–31. See also Perlstein, Before the Storm, 363–66, 376, 485–86. On Goldwater and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Perlstein suggests that Goldwater’s ideological opposition was shaped by discussions with future Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist, with whom he had previously disagreed when the issue at hand was local antidiscrimination laws in Phoenix; Rehnquist had opposed such laws, while Goldwater had supported them. Goldwater’s opposition does not seem to have been shaped, at least not overtly, by anything resembling a uniquely “western” sensibility, though it was later interpreted as such. See also Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (Shepherdsville, Ky., 1960).
14. See again Matusow, The Unraveling of America; and Davies, From Opportunity to Entitlement. See also Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman’s Crusade (Princeton, N.J., 2005); and Michael W. Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York, 2007); see also Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal & the Limits of American Politics (Princeton, N.J., 2016). Among others, see also, again, Carter, The Politics of Rage; Kruse, White Flight; Lassiter, The Silent Majority; Link, Righteous Warrior; for more on the so-called “Dixiecrats” of the 1940s, and their subsequent legacies, see among others, Kari Frederickson, The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2003); and Glenn Feldman, The Great Melding: War, the Dixiecrat Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism (Tuscaloosa, Ala., 2015).
15. For a synthesis on the Sunbelt region and its politics, see Sean P. Cunningham, American Politics in the Postwar Sunbelt: Conservative Growth in a Battleground Region (New York, 2014). For more detailed accounts of the relationship between economic development and politics in the Sunbelt, see also, among others, Elizabeth Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism: Phoenix and the Transformation of American Politics (Philadelphia, 2013); Philip VanderMeer, Desert Visions and the Making of Phoenix, 1860–2009 (Albuquerque, 2011); Michelle Nickerson and Darren Dochuk, eds., Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Space, Place, and Region (Philadelphia, 2011); Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, N.J., 2001). For more on Phoenix, see again Tandy Shermer, Sunbelt Capitalism; and VanderMeer, Desert Visions; see also Kirkpatrick Sale, Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment (New York, 1975).