The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Conservative Meets the Libertarian: Goldwater and Gays

In 2019 conservative Garry Wills wrote a column The Libertarian by which he meant Barry Goldwater. I do think Goldwater was more libertarian than most conservatives but that doesn’t mean I thought he didn’t miss the boat in various places. Compared to today’s Trumpian authoritarians he’s practically a radical anarchist.

Barry’s granddaughter, CC Goldwater described her grandfather:

“A constitutionalist, Goldwater would have opposed Trump’s reliance on governing by executive order. As someone who believed in self-reliance, not the crowd, he would have opposed today’s Republican litmus test, which seems to hold that loyalty to Trump is what matters over loyalty to country. And as someone devoted to individual liberty, he would recoil at the idea that Cindy McCain would face censure for supporting LGBT rights.”

Wills notes Goldwater supported allowing gays to serve openly in the military — something that barely gets attention today. Goldwater, in fact, was much more supportive than that. His own campaign team tried to convince him to do gay bashing against members of the Johnson administration and he adamantly refused. In 1964 a Johnson aide was caught up by the vice squad and Johnson was terrified it would hurt his run for office.

LBJ immediately ordered a witch-hunt on gays and Bill Moyers was his hatchet man. The White House was in panic mode. Their main concern was Goldwater could use the arrest in the campaign, which would be deadly for the Democrats. The president ranted: “They’re [the Goldwater campaign] going to play this security angle big. They’re going to say, ‘Here’s a man that sat in the highest councils. Who else might he have something to do with? What secrets might he give away?’” Moyers later falsely asserted this was actually done by Goldwater, but that was part of his cover-up of his own work in the witch-hunt.

The paranoia of the White House was astounding, they were convinced Goldwater and Republicans had somehow created this situation. Johnson theorized the waiters at a party Jenkins had attended earlier the night of the arrest must have been Goldwater agents who drugged Jenkins to make him act this way.

As part of his retaliation LBJ told aides to uncover anyone gay in the Goldwater campaign to smear him. Goldwater operatives got word of this and begged Goldwater to do the same. Writer Al Wiesel noted: “Despite the advice of many in his campaign, Goldwater would not make an issue of Jenkins’ [the LBJ aide in question] arrest. The split in his camp — between the libertarian Goldwater, who would many years later come out in favor of gay rights, and the conservative moralists, who would evolve into today’s Christian Right — was the genesis of a rupture that haunts the Republican party to this day…” Goldwater wrote of the incident some years later: “Winning isn’t everything. Some things, like loyalty to friends or lasting principles, are more important.” See this article for more details.

Wills spoke to Randy Shits—author of the biography of Harvey Milk as well as the early history of the AIDS epidemic—about Goldwater. Shilts got his start in politics as a volunteer in the Goldwater campaign in 1965, and his brother, Gary, was a Libertarian candidate in 1986. Shilts said Ayn Rand was one of his favorite writers, “I think that still has a lot of influence on me because I’m still a very strong individualist.”

Shilts and Harvey Milk hit it off straight away because of this. Milk too started as a campaign volunteer for Goldwater. Historian Ralph Luker wrote, “The piece of the story that interested me the most was the roots of Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts in the libertarian strand of American conservatism [I dispute libertarianism is a variety of conservatism entirely] in the 1960s. I still think that that’s a part of the story on gay liberation in 20th century America that hasn’t been sufficiently explored. I suspect Milk and Shilts were not alone among gay activists who found their liberation via libertarianism.”

In a review of Lillian Faderman’s biography on Milk, James Rudin wrote, “Milk supported presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater; the Republican’s call for non-intrusive government interference into personal lives and Goldwater’s libertarianism resonated with him.”

And Reihan Salam, at The American Scene said something quite important:

Faced with ferociously hostile police and the constant threat of public disgrace, it makes perfect sense that lesbians and gay men in the 1950s and 1960s would have been instinctive libertarians, leery of further empowering an already overweening, overly intrusive state. The Goldwater movement attracted all kinds of freethinkers who, like Milk, later gravitated towards a hippie sensibility.

Wills described his encounter saying:

As Mr. Shilts understood, Mr. Goldwater was always a preacher of individual liberty verging on anarchy. That is why he got along so well with his anarchic speechwriter in the 1964 campaign, Karl Hess. Mr. Hess, who died recently, admired Senator Goldwater even when their positions differed drastically on the Vietnam War. Mr. Hess said the senator was not only a man of honor, but also of consistency in his blend of anti-communist fervor and anti-statist principle.

I was pleased to see this reference to Hess, as he was an old friend and someone I know to have been quite supportive of LGBT rights. Wills said Goldwater was too good for the office of president and that while “prickly and bellicose” he was “consistent.”

Perhaps he was too good for the office, certainly when compared to LBJ. The president projected onto Goldwater his own desperation. LBJ assumed Goldwater would do to him, what he planned to do to Goldwater: use a gay friend to smear him. But Goldwater, who was friends with Jenkins, refused to allow anyone to bring up the incident, a kind of decency that was incomprehensible to a consummate politician such as LBJ.

Goldwater spoke in favor of gay rights on numerous occasions, which seemed to confuse Washington Post author Lloyd Grove, who referred to such positions as a “left turn”. Grove didn’t seem to realize Goldwater was being consistent with long held values. Grove wrote:

In recent years [Goldwater] championed homosexuals serving in the military and has worked locally to stop businesses in Phoenix from hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. This month he signed on as honorary co-chairman of a drive to pass a federal law preventing job discrimination against homosexuals. The effort, dubbed Americans Against Discrimination, is being spearheaded by the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the influential gay lobbying organization.

Goldwater clearly said his stand on gay rights was one of princples: “They have a constitutional right to be gay. And that’s what brings me into it.” Grove acknowledged the Senator was “animated by libertarian principles that government should stay out of people’s private lives.” That pretty clearly states the libertarian position on this issue.


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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.