Think Tank Warfare

Barry Goldwater's widow says the conservative institute that bears his name is twisting his legacy

Nearly a year after his death, Senator Barry Goldwater's legacy lives on, continuing to affect his beloved state and its contentious politics through the Goldwater Institute, a think tank to which he gave his name in 1988.

Founded on the legendary conservative's well-known agenda of advancing individual freedom and limiting government, the institute holds great sway over conservative state lawmakers. The institute's views on issues, particularly education reform, appear regularly in the opinion pages of the state's newspapers and get debated on the floor of the Legislature. The local dailies have lauded the institute and its executive director, Jeffry Flake, for the institute's ability to set the political agenda of a state that still reveres the Goldwater name.

But the institute also has its detractors. Deriding the think tank's output as more propaganda than real research, critics say the institute calls its members "research fellows" to produce the illusion that the organization is quasi-academic in nature, and that it painstakingly gathers empirical evidence for studies aimed at educating leaders and the public.

The reality, they say, is much less austere: Working on behalf of big-business contributors, the institute's members are really lobbyists churning out right-wing agitprop.

One of those critics was reportedly so unhappy with the institute's direction that he sought to rein it in and change its very nature.

The critic's name?
Barry Goldwater.

Susan Goldwater says the Goldwater Institute's advocacy for education reform--in the form of vouchers and charter schools--made her late husband nervous.

So nervous, she says, that in 1996 he invited several members of the institute's board to his house to discuss his concerns.

"He didn't see innovative ideas coming out of the institute," she says. "He just didn't see much coming out of there. It made him nervous. This goes back three or four years."

Goldwater told her that he had lent his name to the institute in 1988 because he believed its founder, former Northern Arizona University political science professor Michael Sanera, intended it to be an academically oriented policy research organ similar to ASU's Morrison Institute.

"He liked the idea of academics doing this thinking. What he didn't like was seeing it turn into a special-interest, big-business lobbying group," she says.

The former senator had given his name away, and he didn't want to have to monitor or censor the institute. "The board knew he was unhappy. And they cajoled him so he wouldn't yank his name," his widow says.

Despite reassurances from the board members that they were just following the senator's own principles, Goldwater wanted to make real changes to the body that carried his name, she says.

Susan remembers Goldwater saying that he was curious about merging the institute with the chair he had endowed at ASU to make the institute more academic and less political. She says the former senator met with ASU president Lattie Coor to discuss the plan. "Barry met with Lattie Coor. He wanted to have some checks and balances that would protect his name."

Before Goldwater could pursue the matter further, she says, the senator suffered a debilitating stroke. "That was right before Barry's stroke. I was eager to see something happen, and I'm sorry I didn't do more to help make things happen. But then it was too late," she says.

Coor didn't return calls for this story. Neither did Goldwater Institute executive director Jeffry Flake.

Scott Alexander, a former state senator, was a member of the institute's board of directors until six months ago. He says he was not among the board members with whom Goldwater met, but he "peripherally heard about Goldwater's concerns . . . I somewhat joined that concern. There's been some good research regarding the deregulation of our utilities that I think were worthwhile. But I think I might have shared some of the senator's concerns on charter schools. I think that Jeff Flake has done an admirable job, but I'm not certain that charter schools are going to end up being the panacea that he envisions."

Former legislator Tom Patterson is currently on the institute's executive committee, which he joined in the last year. Patterson says he heard about Goldwater asking board members to come hear his concerns. "I can tell you that Jeff Flake, I'm pretty sure, was one of them. I want to say maybe [vice chairman] John Norton, but I don't know that." (Norton could not be reached for comment.)

Patterson says the meeting was a productive one, and the senator's concerns were alleviated by Flake and others.

"What was related to me was that when they were able to explain to Barry the issues involved, he was happy with it all and said, 'Go get 'em.' So, I don't know. I'm giving you poorly remembered hearsay, but you can quote me," he says with a laugh.

Susan Goldwater says her husband's concerns weren't erased by the institute's board members. She says he continued to express his concerns to the board on several other occasions.

She remembers another time Goldwater had disliked the way his name had been used. Doug Wead, an evangelical Christian candidate in the 1992 campaign for congressional District 6, had won the Republican nomination by appealing to the Religious Right while calling himself a "Goldwater Republican." In the general election, Goldwater, to the surprise of many, endorsed Wead's Democratic opponent, Karan English, who won the seat.

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