Words Worth Fighting For

Weasel words and truth telling.

Once upon a time in America, there were public figures like Barry Goldwater. He was a rock-ribbed conservative Republican. I disagreed with almost all of his political positions and could never have voted for him. He was against the trade unions that gave my father a life with dignity.

He was a rigid Cold Warrior. He once suggested that my home city of New York be cut off from the United States and floated out to sea. But oh, how I miss him now.

Above all his other qualities, I miss Goldwater's extraordinary penchant for straight talk. He was one of those old-fashioned Americans who absolutely believed that our freedoms of speech were there to be used. He understood that clear, declarative sentences, unencumbered by evasive qualifiers and legalese, were the sinewy muscles of our democracy, and like muscles, they grew flabby and weak if they were not used. In his long career (five terms in the U.S. Senate), Goldwater always said what he believed. He didn't submit to the slippery guidance of media consultants, who have turned so many of today's politicians into ciphers. He went forth and spoke his mind, even when his blunt opposition to the prevailing New Deal orthodoxies brought forth mockery.

Goldwater was often dismissed as an extremist, and in 1964, when accepting the Republican nomination for president, he spoke a few lines that doomed his candidacy: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

At the time, more than a few people noted that such words could have been uttered by Malcolm X, that other plain- spoken American. Goldwater lost the election in a landslide.

The result changed our politics. The basic political motto became "safety first." Talking plainly became a kind of gaffe, and gaffes could cause defeat. In both parties, political discourse got tamer, slicker, more controlled. But Goldwater did not join in the blanding of America. For decades after his defeat in 1964, he continued to speak his mind, even when his views clashed with those of his own party. Here are a few examples.

When Richard Nixon, a fellow Republican, was dodging and dissembling during the Watergate scandal, Goldwater said: "Nixon should get his ass out of the White House -- today."

When the country was addled by the debate over gays in the military, Goldwater said: "You don't need to be 'straight' to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight."

When the Republican party was fervently embracing the Christian conservatives, Goldwater (the Episcopalian grandson of a Jewish immigrant from Poland) spoke his mind: "When you say 'radical Right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican party away from the Republican party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics good-bye."

Goldwater died in 1998, full of years, respected by people in both major parties and by millions of independents. He was at once a fierce defender of conservative American traditions and a cranky champion of the very American obligation to dissent. I met him only once, and he reminded me of Harry S. Truman. Their politics were radically different, but each man believed plain speaking was essential to a democracy because it was the only way to tell the truth. Where there is courage, there is clarity. Goldwater and Truman clearly understood their principles, and they had the moral strength to act on their behalf.

And yet six years after Goldwater's death, we live in a country where the collective lack of courage has infected the language itself. We don't demand honesty and accountability from our leaders; not surprisingly, our leaders conclude that we can't handle the truth.

Instead of Goldwater's blunt lucidity, we get weasel words, as in Bush's "weapons-of-mass-destruction-related program activities," from his 2004 State of the Union Address. We get dissembling, as in Rumsfeld's tortured answer to a reporter's question about Abu Ghraib: "My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe is technically different from torture." We get legalistic evasions, as when then-vice president Al Gore replied to a 1997 question about his phone calls from the White House soliciting Democratic campaign contributions: "There is no controlling legal authority that says this was in violation of the law." And we get Bill Clinton's notorious nonanswer to the Starr grand jury: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' means."

Every society is wider than politics, including ours. But throughout our society, courage is becoming all too rare -- and the deficit is of our own making. Today, more than ever, we need people with the courage to tell the plain truth. We need brave men and women who refuse to trumpet platitudes, or take stale ideas off the rack. We need more people who scrutinize every public utterance crafted by the rented fingers of ghostwriters, and point out the evasions. We need leaders and citizens who say no to what George Orwell once called the "smelly little orthodoxies."

Telling the truth, of course, can carry heavy penalties: condemnation, ostracism, slander, the end of careers. Telling the truth often requires as much courage as that of the foot soldier, the police officer, the firefighter. The arena is different; there are no rocket-propelled grenades, no roaring fires or desperadoes with guns. But truly brave people share one big thing: In doing their duty, they can lose everything. Without such people, we can lose everything, too. No democracy can survive if it is wormy with lies and evasions.

That is why we must cherish those people who have the guts to speak the truth: mavericks, whistle-blowers, disturbers of the public peace. And it's why, in spite of my own continuing (though chastened) liberal faith, I miss Barry Goldwater. More than ever.

Pete Hamill is the author of 18 books, including the New York Times best-sellers A Drinking Life, Snow in August, and Forever. His new book, Downtown, will be published in December by Little, Brown.

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