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  • Man of the West: Goldwater’s Reflection in the Oasis of Frontier Conservatism
  • Sean P. Cunningham (bio)

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...


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pp. 79-88
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