Of course the right-wing Senator from Arizona who died on Friday was a liberal, in many of the ways that the word is used in Britain. He was in the Manchester tradition, a foe of government intervention and an individualist. In America being a liberal means being something else - a friend of the state - and so Goldwater's lifelong crusade was against liberalism. But in his later years he found himself often at odds with the Republican Party, over abortion, school prayers and gay rights, as they became more authoritarian.
None the less, the ease with which the mainstream media in America slid into eulogy was slightly disturbing. "Barry Goldwater was a politician who stood by his own salty views," the New York Times said in an editorial, failing to point out that it had long regarded most of these salty views as a grave threat to the nation. He had, after all, saltily suggested using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Saltily, he had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act which started to dismantle apartheid in America's south.
The warmth of the tribute from President Bill Clinton was also surprising. When Goldwater ran in 1964, as the Washington Post pointed out, he was regarded as "a demagogue and a leader of right-wing extremists and fascists who was likely to lead the United States into nuclear war, eliminate civil rights progress, and destroy welfare programmes". Alternatively, as Mr Clinton put it, he was "a great patriot and a fine human being".
Part of the reason for the mellowing of opinion towards Goldwater is that he remained in favour of personal choice, while the fanatics of the religious right were colonising conservatism. "A lot of so-called conservatives today don't know what the word means," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "They think I've turned liberal because I believe a woman has a right to an abortion. That's a decision that's up to a pregnant woman, not up to the Pope or some do-gooders or the religious right." That and similar lines were much quoted yesterday as evidence that Barry hadn't been so bad after all.
Goldwater was in a way an American Enoch Powell. He crystallised the rise of conservatism, a John the Baptist figure who stood slightly outside politics, yet created a permanent change in it. He was also riddled with contradictions, desegregating his own family's department stores yet resisting legislation that would do the same. He could have been a British Barry Goldwater: his grandfather, "Big Mike", settled briefly in London on his way from Poland to Arizona.
Yet Goldwater has had his effect on British politics. He began the wave of reaction that crashed on to our shores in 1979. He helped to make politics what it is now in Britain and America, which is why so many found such kind things to say about a man once regarded as a lunatic.Reuse content