Readorama: Explaining the green Barry Goldwater

07/11/2014 7:00 AM

07/10/2014 10:39 AM

Whoever decided that only liberals could be environmentalists after World War II forgot to alert Barry Goldwater.

The conservative Arizona senator apparently never got that memo, given how in 1970 he considered the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency a necessary exercise of federal authority.

And voters who associate green sentiments with blue-state politicians may forget how the 1964 Republican presidential nominee often felt at home with conservation measures, said Brian Allen Drake, author of “Loving Nature, Fearing the State: Environmentalism and Antigovernment Politics Before Reagan.”

“Goldwater grew up in the deserts of Arizona, which were as important to him as his political beliefs,” said Drake, who lectures at the University of Georgia.

“It is fascinating to watch Goldwater try to be the anti-New Deal Republican who believed the environment still needed to be protected from the free market system.”

Goldwater’s positions sometimes appeared to contradict one another, Drake said. Goldwater was a critic of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the New Deal flood control and power-generating project that he once described as “galloping socialism.” Still, Goldwater often supported reclamation projects in Arizona that promised aggressive water management and improved irrigation. Those measures, Goldwater believed, could both empower residents and eventually pay for themselves.

It’s true, Drake writes, that Goldwater probably wouldn’t have held office in Arizona for long if he hadn’t supported such projects.

But Goldwater also was famously contrary. He supported Planned Parenthood as well as the right of gays to enlist in the armed services during the 1990s.

“I love it when historical figures go in directions you don’t expect,” said Drake, who in 2006 earned his doctorate in American environmental history at the University of Kansas.

“It says something about Goldwater, that he was not as one-dimensional as either his supporters or opponents made him out to be.”

Goldwater’s take on climate change could have been just as idiosyncratic, Drake added.

“I can see him being concerned about global warming, especially the national security component of it,” he said. “Having said that, he also would have been skeptical to overreacting to it.”

Drake speaks at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St. For info, go to

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to


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