Contrary to His Claims, Senator John McCain Is Not a Goldwater Conservative

Arizona Senator John McCain recently completed a "biographical" tour of the country in an effort to keep his name in the media as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, given the fact that Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are currently consuming much of the newsroom oxygen. McCain ended that tour in Prescott, Arizona.

A Prescott newspaper noted the symbolism of McCain's final speech at the historic Yavapai County Courthouse. This was the location where McCain's Republican predecessor, Barry Goldwater, started all his bids for office. McCain likes to refer to himself as a Goldwater Republican. Accordingly, the McCain campaign welcomes and invites editorials like that of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, which found him to be "in the mold of Barry Goldwater, a principled conservative, not a kleptocratic opportunist."

In truth, however, "kleptocratic opportunist" is a pretty good description of John McCain, and certainly more accurate than one describing him as fitting into the Goldwater mold. I say this because I knew Senator Goldwater virtually from the time of his arrival in the Senate until his death, and I have just completed a book with his son (and my longtime friend), Barry Jr., which is based on a previously-unpublished private journal kept by Senator Goldwater. We call the book Pure Goldwater.

The Nature of Goldwater's Principled Conservatism

After discovering Senator Goldwater's journal, we decided to assemble it for publication in 2008 because this historic and iconic figure -- while not perfect -- is a wonderful example of a public servant. As Lee Edwards, a Goldwater biographer now at the Heritage Foundation, said at an event for the book, the material is important not only because it fills in gaps about the Senator, but also because it fills in information about our political history.

Our book is a collection of Senator Goldwater's thoughts, more a scrapbook than an autobiography, yet it presents a clear picture of his conservatism in development and in action. Goldwater, simply stated, drew on the wisdom of the past and applied it to the present in a fashion that protects individual freedom and liberty. Most importantly, the fundamental principle underlying his conservatism was his unyielding belief that it is the duty of public officials to be honest and truthful.

As history shows, Goldwater did not merely talk the talk, he walked the walk. There are few politicians -- and Goldwater was proud to use that term to describe his public service -- who left the playing field with the well-deserved reputation for widely-acknowledged integrity of Barry Goldwater.

By calling himself a Goldwater Republican or Goldwater conservative, John McCain invites the comparison, but that is an error on McCain's part, for closer examination shows that he is not in the mold of Goldwater, notwithstanding his claims (or wishes) to the contrary.

John McCain Vis-AfA -vis Barry Goldwater

While out promoting the Goldwater book, I read Matt Welch's McCain: The Myth of a Maverick. (Only after I completed this nicely-done analysis did I realize it had been published by Palgrave Macmillan, which also published Pure Goldwater.) In reading Welch's work, I was impressed by the striking differences between these two men, as was Welch. In the following discussion, I have combined my personal knowledge regarding Goldwater with what I have learned from Welch's books to offer an overall assessment.

To begin, Welch reports that McCain seeks to use the federal government to generate greater patriotism and expand the nation's greatness, while Goldwater -- knowing the folly of empire and excessively large government -- sought to maximize individual liberty and local autonomy.

Welch notes, too, that McCain has no problem whatsoever being a nasty if not a devious s.o.b. when he sees doing so as necessary to serve or accomplish a greater cause. Goldwater, on the other hand, rejected all incivility and dishonesty in public service, and refused to take the low road; for him, the ends never justified any means. McCain, we learn from Welch's book, has wanted to be president since returning from Vietnam, while Goldwater was drafted to be the GOP standard-bearer. Stated a bit differently, McCain's oversized ego provides him strength, while Goldwater curtained his natural strengths by always acting with great humility.

No wonder, then, that when McCain sought to suck up to Goldwater, Goldwater declined to embrace this very different politician. Welch points out that "McCain has spent much ... time puzzling over Goldwater's lack of embrace." Indeed, McCain stated in his memoir Worth the Fighting For when discussing Goldwater, "I admired him to the point of reverence, and I wanted him to like me.... He was usually cordial, just never as affectionate as I would have liked."

This is no surprise to anyone who knew Goldwater. Welch sums it up accurately: "[T]he biggest differences between McCain and Goldwater were so obvious, [and] so destined to keep the two men out of each other's arms, that McCain's inability to identify them borders on self-denial and political tone-deafness." The gulf is wide, and the difference fundamental: Goldwater loved America and its people; McCain loves power, and what it can do for McCain.

Goldwater, While Initially a Supporter, Soon Soured On McCain

Although Goldwater initially supported McCain's run for the Senate, Goldwater knew an opportunist when he saw one, and did not like any of them. We chose not to dwell on the McCain/Goldwater relationship in Pure Goldwater, but we did report how, after assisting McCain win his Senate seat, Goldwater was forced to pull McCain up short for using his good name for fundraising, when McCain had tarnished his own name because of his involvement with the Keating Five. We also included correspondence to shows that McCain is not very good at keeping his word.

To know Goldwater -- as we believe those who read his unpublished private journal will -- is to understand how different these men are, and to see that McCain is cut from very different cloth than Goldwater. Goldwater considered public service a high calling, not an ego trip or power play. McCain was fortunate that Goldwater never publicly exposed him, but Goldwater was too good a Republican to do that and he thought too highly of McCain's father to sink his successor in the Senate.

Had Goldwater publicized what I believe to be his true feelings about John McCain, I doubt McCain would be the presumptive nominee of the GOP in 2008. Goldwater's political perceptions of others have proven extraordinarily prescient, so his reaction toward McCain is telling.

In assembling Pure Goldwater we deliberately looked at Goldwater's fascinating life in its broadest context, providing countless historical details that might otherwise have been lost (like Gerald Ford's offering Goldwater the vice presidency, but Goldwater's turning it down because he felt he could be more effective in the Senate.) But within this broader context, the book makes quite clear that John McCain and Barry Goldwater are as different as night (McCain) and day (Goldwater).

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

(c) 2008

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