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I Was a Teen Conservative: How I Learned That Life Is Too Complex for Right-Wing Ideology

In the early ’60s, the right's emphasis on individual freedom was enormously appealing. What better way to rebel against liberal smugness?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Jim Barber

 

Barry Goldwater was my first political hero. The most antiauthoritarian figure in mainstream American politics, who said what he thought without giving a damn, he looked and sounded as Western as Arizona, the state he represented in the Senate. Goldwater and John Kennedy hatched plans in the White House—for what they assumed would be their upcoming presidential campaign against each other in 1964—to travel the country in the Arizonan’s small plane that he flew himself, stopping off at airports in the middle of nowhere to debate one issue or another before taking off again. This two-fisted, free-flying persona made Goldwater the kind of politician that film director Howard Hawks might have come up with; by comparison, government couldn’t help appearing soullessly oppressive. Great Society liberalism had become the norm by the mid-1960s, and this reinforced Goldwater’s iconoclasm, striking a politically attuned, insistently nonconformist teenager as utopian, in the same way that Kennedy embodied idealism for so many others of my generation.

Utopia was in the air where I grew up, though I wouldn’t have identified it as that any more than I could have told you who Howard Hawks was. L.A.’s San Fernando Valley was the no man’s land between rural and suburban, between Wild West and space-age futurism. Ranches sprawled on the other side of the biggest road that ran near my house; three miles away, in the same part of the Valley that would become the porn capital of the world a couple of decades later, were makeshift frontier towns built for Westerns by the Hollywood studios. Overhead, the purple vapor trails of rocket tests streaked the skies. Kennedy’s race to the moon built the modern Valley; every father of every kid I knew worked, as did my own dad, for the bursting aerospace industry—-Lockheed, Hughes, North American, Rockwell. The progress that cut swaths through the Valley brought a disruption matched only by earthquakes. A new freeway (which eventually would be named after President Ronald Reagan) took our house, leaving just the swimming pool that was proof of my parents’ upward mobility; the pool was given to the next-door neighbor whose house fell outside the freeway’s path. This sort of upheaval was too common to be traumatizing.

My mother loved Goldwater, too. She took me to a Goldwater rally at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and on the morning of the ’64 election, I recall her peering through my bedroom door, gently trying to prepare her sensitive teenage son for the likelihood that our man Barry probably wasn’t going to make it that day. An outspoken liberal in her youth, she was the more ideological of my parents, both of whom grew up Franklin Roosevelt Democrats. In the election of 1948, she missed being old enough to vote by 11 days; my father voted for Harry Truman. Though he remained a Democrat in name, he never voted Democratic again. In the next election, both my parents cast their ballots for the Republican nominee, Dwight Eisenhower, after which began the rightward political trajectory of so many New Deal children, which would accelerate in response to the tumult of the ’60s. In my father’s case, this evolution accompanied the economic ascension that went with swimming pools built and forsaken, while my mother shared with many Americans an alarm that Soviet communism was winning the Cold War, sabotaging democracy and free enterprise. My fascination with politics derived from an interest in the drama of American history; by the time I was 12, I was writing stories about Abraham Lincoln and Nathan Hale (an enthusiasm for patriots making the ultimate sacrifice may be discerned here). I could recite the Gettysburg Address and name all the presidents of the United States in order and the opponents they defeated. Enthralled by Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that “government is best which governs least” (lately there’s some question whether he said this), I believed that the Bill of Rights is the greatest political document ever written, and I still believe it today, even as I take greater note over the years that it was written less as an addendum to the Constitution than as a rebuttal, by the Constitution’s greatest skeptic, its so-called father, James Madison.