Barry Goldwater’s little 115-page book, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” was published in 1960, long before running for president had occurred to the senator from Arizona, or much of anybody else. But Goldwater was already the undisputed champion of conservative ideas and policies in the Senate, and had traveled thousands of miles making speeches, campaigning for aspiring congressmen and senators, and raising money for the Republican cause. In the process he had developed an understandable and clear position on conservatism and a degree of popularity among right-wing Americans. He also knew that the literature available to conservatives lacked a concise and unadulterated statement of conservative principles.
Ghostwritten by L. Brent Bozell — a senior editor at National Review, William F. Buckley Jr.’s brother-in-law and co-author of “McCarthy and His Enemies” (1954) — it took the ideas that were, at the time, mostly discussed only by a few conservative intellectuals and presented them in a way that made them accessible to a more popular audience and laid out what conservatives believed and what their plan of action should be.
Bozell had been writing speeches for Goldwater, had a good grasp of the issues that Goldwater believed in, and was a first-class writer and thinker. He and Buckley had been debate partners and the U.S. debate champions at Yale, and if anybody in the nascent conservative movement knew how to frame an argument, it was Bozell. It is unclear whether the book was Goldwater’s idea or Bozell’s, but when Bozell finished the manuscript and presented it to Goldwater, it is said that Barry thumbed through it for 10 minutes or so, handed it back and told Bozell to go with it.
The book spelled out the conservative position on limited government, civil rights, government regulation, taxes and spending, the welfare state, education and the Soviet menace. In doing so, Goldwater brought the three conservative branches into a coordinated and seamless tract — a “fusion” that ended the three-way debate over reconciling conservative ideals and practical politics that had raged for 15 years. As Goldwater said in his introduction, he wished “to bridge the gap between theory and practice.” He took the ideas that established the roots of conservatism — economics, anti-communism, limited government, the Constitution — and explained how they could be applied to practical politics and government policy. The “challenge to conservatives today,” he said, “is quite simply to demonstrate the bearing of a proven philosophy on the problems of our own time.”
The result was an astonishing success. “The Conscience of a Conservative” became, quite simply, the conservatives’ new bible, the “underground book of the times,” as Goldwater described it 30 years later. The first printing, a small hardback, was 10,000 copies, which the publisher sold to bookstores for $1 each. Within a month, it ranked 10th on Time magazine’s best-seller list, and two weeks later ranked 14th on The New York Times’ list. By the time the 1960 election came along, just five months later, 500,000 copies were in print. The Wall Street Journal reported that it was selling best in college bookstores, comparably to the perennial best-seller “The Catcher in the Rye.” Eventually over 4 million copies would be printed; “The Conscience of a Conservative” became the political book of the century, probably with a greater impact than any political book since “The Communist Manifesto.” It is no exaggeration to say that “The Conscience of a Conservative” changed American conservatism from an abstract set of ideas into a practical political philosophy and, in the process, established Barry Goldwater as its most prominent spokesmen, which he would remain until the emergence of Ronald Reagan. The book probably was also responsible for recruiting more people to the conservative cause than anything else. Typical was the impact it had on Paul Laxalt who, in 1960, was practicing law in Carson City, Nevada. “One of my clients sent me a copy of ‘Conscience of a Conservative,’” said Mr. Laxalt, “and, God, I found it absolutely fabulous. There wasn’t anything around like that. And I just feasted on it.”
Mr. Laxalt told me the distribution of the book “to young people like myself, a young lawyer who had run for office one time before was significant as hell. It was our bible.” Mr. Laxalt, who was elected lieutenant governor of Nevada in 1962, was the first elected official to endorse Goldwater.
Regnery Publishing released a 33-year anniversary edition in 1990 with a new introduction by Pat Buchanan. “Into that winter of our discontent came this slim book ,” wrote Mr. Buchanan. “[It] was our new testament; it contained the core beliefs of our political faith, it told us why we had failed, what we must do. We read it, memorized it, and quoted it. To reread it today is to recall the magic the charismatic man from the desert had for so many thousands in that Silent Generation.”
“The Conscience of a Conservative” remains in print 54 years later, and is as timely as it was in 1990 and 1960. Over the years, it changed a generation, changed the conservative movement and changed American politics forever.
Barry M. Goldwater was a businessman, five-term United States Senator from Arizona, and the Republican Party’s nominee for president in the 1964 election.
Goldwater was born in Phoenix in what was then the Arizona Territory. His family ran Goldwater’s, the largest department store in Phoenix, which had been founded by his grandfather. After the death of his father, he dropped out of college to help his family run the store. During World War II, he received a reserve commission in the United States Air Force and flew supplies to war zones around the world.
He entered the world of politics in the late 1940s, being elected to the Phoenix City Council. He was instrumental in the rebuilding of the Arizona Republican Party, and in 1952 upset veteran Democrat and Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in his first national election. He served in Congress from 1953 until 1965, when he elected not to run for re-election during his presidential bid, and again from 1969 until 1987.
Goldwater was married to the former Margaret Johnson from 1934 until her death in 1985; the couple had four children. In 1992, he wed Susan Shaffer.