WASHINGTON — One of the most important symbolic moments of the new Congress occurred earlier this winter and you almost certainly don’t know a thing about it.
Before several hundred people on the second floor of the Capitol — but virtually ignored by major media outlets — congressional leaders unveiled a statue commemorating the life of an ideologically rigid lawmaker who bent with the breezes of the time; a viscerally partisan political figure who drew pride from his work with opponents; a military aviator dedicated to peaceful pursuits, especially nature photography; and a presidential nominee whose campaign ranks among the most futile of all time but which nonetheless spawned a vigorous political creed.
The remarkable thing about this mere hour during the bitterly divided 114th Congress is that there on the stage were House Speaker John Boehner and minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and both were speaking affectionately, kindly, even sentimentally, about a man who lost both their states in the 1964 presidential election but who won their respect in the half-century that followed.
The unveiling of this 1,700-pound bronze statue in honor of Barry Goldwater was a special symbolic moment, not because the onetime senator from Arizona is regarded as the founding father of modern conservatism, not because he was an early and sometimes lonely supporter of contemporary causes such as gay rights and not because the hard edges of political personalities almost always get worn away by the passage of time. This was an important moment because the unveiling won praise from men and women who seldom agree on anything, and whose view of our national passage — from Mr. Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson to the Tea Party and Barack Obama — run along parallel lines that do not meet.
But in Mr. Goldwater’s time — we tend to think of that era as John Kennedy’s time or Lyndon Johnson’s time, but now we know it was Mr. Goldwater’s time as well — politics wasn’t gentler, but it was kinder. This is no misty reminiscence of times past, a reverie on good old days burnished over the decades. At the moment of JFK’s assassination, Mr. Goldwater said he had had more debates with Mr. Kennedy than with any other man. Then he added:
“He was a gentleman. He was the kind of antagonist that I’ve always enjoyed. He would fight like a wildcat for his points and his principles, but there was never anything personal about it.”
It was Ms. Pelosi, the former House speaker and an accomplished Democratic pugilist, who looked across the statues from all 50 states — two for each — and noted that they “celebrate the full breadth of ideas and principles that have blossomed within America’s democracy.” At the moment she was saying that during a ceremony honoring a conservative icon, I noticed that I was scribbling down her remarks while leaning against the statue of Robert LaFollette, the Wisconsin crusader who was a leader of the Progressive movement, a pioneer in establishing direct primary elections, an opponent of American involvement in World War I and an unsuccessful third-party candidate for the presidency exactly 40 years before the Goldwater campaign.
The Goldwater acceptance speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco is remembered principally for his much-misinterpreted proclamation that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” (Read that carefully and you might wonder whether in the age of the national security state and the Ferguson riots Mr. Goldwater might have a point.)
Yet from the distance of time and the perspective of 21st-century politics, this might be the more appropriate excerpt:
“The beauty of this federal system of ours is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity. We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution.”
Mr. Boehner, no stranger to political pressures from right and left, saluted Mr. Goldwater by saying that “the beaten path and the same old b.s. — it was not for him.”
Well, maybe the beaten path wasn’t, but Mr. Goldwater actually had a flair for the old b.s. He was, after all, the fellow who suggested the United States lob a nuclear weapon into the men’s room of the Kremlin and who said that listening to one of his political rivals, Hubert Humphrey, speak was like “trying to read Playboy magazine with your wife turning the pages.”
He railed against Social Security and was no friend of the civil rights legislation of 1964, though he may have been the only one in the Capitol who actually was telling the truth when he said he opposed the measure not because he opposed integration and the rights of African-Americans but because he didn’t like federal intrusion in the lives of the people.
Almost alone in his party — indeed, almost alone in Congress — he supported the right of gays to serve in the armed forces. “You don’t have to be straight to be in the military,” he said on more than one occasion. “You just have to be able to shoot straight.”
A champion of conservatism at a time when it was at its low ebb in the 1960s, he was a choice not an echo — a phrase forever identified with him but actually the title of a book by another conservative icon, Phyllis Schlafley. It was his campaign that brought Ronald Reagan to prominence, and together they changed American politics forever.
So now Barry Goldwater is back in the Capitol, standing among his peers.
Gathered with him are John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, with opposing views of the sanctity of the Union; William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist, and George Washington, a veteran of two wars; Robert E. Lee and Samuel Adams, who both fought for national independence but of a substantially different kind; Roger Williams and Father Junipero Serra, whose views on religion differed but whose commitments to religious freedom were enduring; and Henry Clay, known as the Great Compromiser.
If they were to walk among our leaders of today — fond as they are of pointless contention, averse to mutual respect — whom might they choose as their neighbors there in Statuary Hall?