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'Glorious Disaster' recounts conservatism's start

A Glorious Disaster Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement, By J. William Middendorf II, Basic Books, 303 pp., $26.95

The television ad in which a young girl is holding a flower as the mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb fills the screen remains a classic use of fear in a political campaign.

It ran 42 years ago during the 1964 presidential campaign , and its target was Barry Goldwater.

That campaign remains as fresh and as politically significant in its account in "A Glorious Disaster," by J. William Middendorf II.

Middendorf was a member of the inner circle "from the start" and, during the campaign, coordinated finances and traveled with Goldwater. His narrative, remarkable for its color, detail, and the still-vivid impressions, draws on his own extensive archives.

The Goldwater campaign looms large in US political history because it set the stage for a Republican and conservative ascendancy that has lasted, with brief interludes, to the present day.

And, as Middendorf writes, it "changed American politics forever" by "[bringing] about a marked shift in Republican philosophy and geography, from liberal to conservative, and from the Northeast to the South and West."

His account of that overturning of the liberal Eastern establishment -- personified by governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York, George Romney of Michigan, William Scranton of Pennsylvania, and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts -- is Middendorf's most valuable contribution.

Rockefeller was the acknowledged early front-runner, and President Kennedy was expected to seek reelection. The landscape would change with Kennedy's assassination and Rockefeller's divorce and remarriage.

By mid-1963, Goldwater -- still considering whether instead to seek reelection to the Senate from Arizona -- was being seen as a likely nominee, the result, as columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak put it, of "a quiet revolt" of conservative young Republicans "seizing power, displacing the Eastern party chiefs."

That Eastern establishment fought back in the New Hampshire primary . And Goldwater provided its ammunition, pushing two issues that would dog him "to the very end" in the campaign against Lyndon Johnson -- voluntary Social Security and nuclear capability for NATO forces.

Goldwater narrowly edged Rockefeller, but Lodge, still ambassador in Saigon, won as a write-in. Goldwater, however, began winning a string of primaries not just in the South and West, but in New Jersey and Ohio. He lost in Oregon, but squeaked past Rockefeller in California. The Eastern establishment's last hope was William Scranton, governor of Pennsylvania. Rockefeller turned over his campaign staff to him and Lodge resigned his post in Vietnam to join the campaign.

Scranton pleaded his case at the remaining state party conventions, finding support in Connecticut where he was considered a native son by virtue of a family summer home on Long Island Sound, although Middendorf and three other Goldwater supporters were among the delegates chosen.

As for Goldwater, weighed down by the seeming recklessness of his acceptance speech, he lost big against Johnson. He carried only six states, and won just 36 percent of the popular vote. He returned to the Senate in 1968, serving three terms as a somewhat mellowed elder statesman.

The campaign's legacy to US politics was Ronald Reagan. In a televised speech in late October, Reagan called the coming 1964 election "a time for choosing" whether "we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

The speech had not been paid for by the Goldwater campaign -- although Goldwater, after hearing a tape, remarked, with characteristic candor: "What the hell's wrong with that?"

Two years later, Reagan was elected governor of California, and then in 1980, president.

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