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I'm with Barry

Why Goldwater has emerged as an important figure in the presidential campaign -- and why Hillary Clinton is among his fans

(Don Dorman/HBO)

WHILE JOHN McCAIN and Hillary Clinton reignite the 1960s culture wars over the merits of a museum to commemorate Woodstock - the former prisoner of war joked that he was "tied up" at the time - the two are finding agreement on another touchstone of the era's radicalism.

"I liked Senator Goldwater because he was a rugged individualist who swam against the political tide," Clinton wrote in her memoir. "I admired him to the point of reverence," McCain wrote in his.

Barry Goldwater, the Arizona Republican whose landslide loss in 1964 banished him to ridicule until his anti-communist, anti-government philosophy was exalted in the 1980s as the origin of the conservative movement, has become an ecumenical icon praised by candidates across the political landscape this year.

If the two decades between Goldwater's loss and Reagan's reelection showed the GOP following Goldwater's model of muscular libertarianism, in the two decades since it has moved away from the teachings of the man George F. Will has called "the embodiment of American conservatism." Under Reagan, Republicans embraced a moralist social policy Goldwater abhorred and under George W. Bush a statist approach to power that Goldwater feared.

With Republicans no longer preaching suspicion of Washington, a new consensus has emerged, as both parties have come in their ways to stand today for a more robust, aggressive federal government. As a result, Goldwaterism is without a natural home in the two-party system, and there's a little bit of the charismatic crusader for everybody who wants to claim him.

"Goldwater still inspires conservatives but he doesn't scare liberals," said Steven M. Gillon, a historian at the University of Oklahoma. "His libertarian views are appealing to independents and run against the authoritarian strand of modern conservatism."

. . .

A blunt and caustic pilot, Goldwater's election to the Senate in 1952 began to turn a traditionally Democratic state into a reliably conservative one, antagonizing not only liberals but the moderate East Coast establishment Republicans he said presided over a "dime store New Deal" during the Eisenhower years.

He became a charismatic figurehead for an individualist politics that historians have come to see as a rightward countercultural twitch before the left-wing convulsions of the late 1960s.

Goldwater's philosophy of desert defiance was crystallized in the 1960 polemic "The Conscience of a Conservative," in which he wrote, "I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them."

The book served as the intellectual rationale for a presidential campaign four years later. Seemingly doomed from the outset after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Goldwater and New York Representative William Miller carried only six states against Lyndon Johnson.

But the campaign left in its wake a template for the national infrastructure of right-wing activists and direct-mail fund-raisers that eventually led to the Reagan Revolution and the Contract With America. By then, Goldwater's followers were no longer encumbered by the parts of his agenda discredited across the political spectrum - such as his opposition to the Civil Rights Act in 1964 or threats to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.

Accessibly written, often in crisp epigrams, and addressing foundational questions about the "dignity of the individual human being," Goldwater's writings offered a salve to politically minded teenagers in the way sidewalk lemonade vendors discover meaning in Ayn Rand or misunderstood high-school poets find solace in J.D. Salinger.

"One of the reasons he was so exciting for young people at this moment in time is there was a lot of bureaucracy and conformity and he appealed to a college-age mind for authenticity and a kind of freedom from cant," said Rick Perlstein, author of "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus."

It was once said of the Velvet Underground that few people bought their records but every one of them started a band. Few Americans ever got on the Goldwater bandwagon, but each today seems to be running for president. In the lives of McCain, Clinton, and fellow candidate Fred Thompson, Goldwater plays different cameos: from paternal role model to high-school hobby to intellectual beacon. As Goldwater has lost his ideological relevance, candidates talk less about what he believed than recall their interactions with him as formative moments in their own maturations - a symbol of integrity used as a preemptive defense for their own self-perceived shortcomings.

Clinton says she read "Conscience of a Conservative" growing up in suburban Illinois after being introduced to it by a ninth-grade history teacher. Clinton went on that year to write a term paper on conservatism and dedicated it "to my parents, who have always taught me to be an individual." As a 16-year-old Young Republican, Clinton donned a "cowgirl outfit and straw cowboy hat emblazoned with the slogan AuH20," the chemical symbols for gold and water, to campaign for Goldwater.

At once, Clinton treats her Goldwater period as an adorable, ironic curio that reaffirms her traditional Midwestern roots and suggests an uncalculated childish exuberance: offered a choice between Goldwaterism and Beatlemania, she chose "In Your Heart, You Know He's Right" over "I Saw Her Standing There." Even as first lady, Clinton coquettishly called herself "this Goldwater Girl" in a letter to the senator, then retired, who referred to Hillary in letters to Bill as "your charming wife."

That a center-left Democrat like Clinton can now proudly acknowledge those roots is a sign of changing times, according to Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz.

"Goldwater's image has softened, so it's not as dangerous today," said Wilentz, a longtime ally of the Clintons.

Clinton uses her youthful dalliance with conservatism as evidence against claims of a lifelong single-mindedness in her political views. For Thompson, grounding himself in the movement's history is essential to his campaign as the self-described "authentic conservative."

As early as 1993, when Thompson, a lawyer and actor who has been portrayed alternately as insufficiently serious and uncommitted to the conservative cause, first ran for the Senate, he identified Goldwater as an early hero. "I was conservative as soon as I put down 'Conscience of a Conservative' when I was in the college," the former Tennessee senator said at a recent debate.

When the book was released, McCain was a Navy pilot expected to follow his father into the admiralty. By the time he entered Congress in 1982, he did so as a war hero with a reputation for rebelling temperamentally, not ideologically - and McCain looked to Goldwater, whose Senate seat he would take in 1986, as he tried to form his political identity.

"In many ways, Goldwater was a celebrity politician. He was just this guy bigger than life," said Jack L. August Jr., director of the Arizona Historical Foundation. "That's what McCain hopes to cloak himself in, rather then the historical origins of modern conservatism."

McCain's description of Goldwater in a chapter of his 2002 book "Worth the Fighting For" devoted to the "authentic maverick" sounds almost like a wishful self-portrait, in which character is emphasized over ideology. "Barry Goldwater was irascible and principled, fiercely independent and deeply patriotic," McCain wrote. "He was his own man always and his country's loyal servant. He appealed to every principle and instinct in my nature."

Although McCain worried that "I really don't think he liked me much," Goldwater supported McCain in his campaigns and the two seemed to grow closer in Goldwater's retirement. McCain and his wife Cindy were at Goldwater's side the night before he died in 1998.

It was only after Goldwater's death that McCain's philosophy of "national-greatness conservatism," which valued displays of American might and an activist bureaucracy, took shape, according to Matt Welch, author of the critical biography "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."

"He repudiated Goldwaterism, not necessarily by name, with his own personal ideology about restoring your faith in the federal government," said Welch. "It's easier to talk about the greatness of the federal government when the man whose seat you took is no longer part of the picture and there to haunt you."

. . .

By the time Thompson, Clinton, and McCain had entered national politics, Goldwater had become widely credited with helping to build a movement he no longer felt had room for him. After Reagan's victory in 1980, Goldwater wrote of "the nuts that the last two elections have brought in who travel under the guise of conservatism."

Those "nuts," in Goldwater's view, were religious figures like preacher Jerry Falwell who he felt contaminated the Republican party with their moral politics. With time, Goldwater became increasingly vocal in his advocacy for abortion and gay rights, critical of Reagan's record on fiscal issues, and a fan of the Clinton presidency. ("He's a Democrat, but I do admire him, I think he's doing a good job," Goldwater wrote to House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995.)

"The party has changed and is no longer what Goldwater and Bill Miller would recognize," said C.C. Goldwater, the senator's granddaughter and producer of "Mr. Conservative," a 2006 HBO documentary about him.

Last week, she held a rally in Phoenix to kick off a write-in campaign for president on a ticket with Miller's daughter Stephanie, a radio host, in part to draw attention to "The Conscience of a Conservative," reissued this year after a generation in which it was largely out of print.

"They're using Goldwater as a kind of spiritual encouragement," C.C. Goldwater said of the other candidates. "His name gets used by a lot of people who don't deserve to use it."

Sasha Issenberg is a reporter in the Globe's Washington bureau.

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