Goldwater Uncut

You've seen the G-rated HBO documentary on the Arizona legend, but there was so much more to Goldy than that

"John said, 'I went out drinking with the two of them one night, and they just left me on the floor. They drank me under the table; I couldn't begin to keep up with them,'" recounts Quinn, adding, "It was really amazing. They could drink all night long, and then get up and go to work the next morning and perform just like everybody else."

Goldwater also very publicly came to the defense of his friend and drinking partner Senator John Tower of Texas while Tower was under fire when nominated in 1989 for Secretary of Defense during George Bush senior's presidency. Tower's opponents charged, quite accurately, that he was a boozer and a womanizer. Goldwater's retort to Tower's critics was telling.

"Yeah, he drank; I've had a few with him," Goldwater said, according to a press report. "That he chased women? I don't give a damn whether he did or not. If everyone in this town connected with politics had to leave town because of that, and drinking, you'd have no government."

Partying hard: Sammy Davis Jr. and wife Altovise, yukking it up with Barry.
courtesy of Arizona Historical Foundation
Partying hard: Sammy Davis Jr. and wife Altovise, yukking it up with Barry.
Goldy's flashy AMC AMX coupe, with the tricked-out dash (below).
courtesy of Arizona Historical Foundation
Goldy's flashy AMC AMX coupe, with the tricked-out dash (below).

Then retired, the former senator from Arizona was swimming against the tsunami on that one. The outcry did not dissipate, and Tower's nomination was defeated in the Senate.

In a society as hopelessly hooked on rehab as ours, the prevailing prejudice seems to be that if you drink heavily, you're an alcoholic. But couldn't it be that someone just likes to imbibe? Certainly in previous generations, such as Goldwater's, the capacity for consuming vast amounts of liquor dwarfed our own. Growing up in the Wild West, the Sun Belt instead of the Bible Belt, meant hard drinking was practically a way of life.

On several occasions, Goldwater proudly described how Prohibition had little effect in Arizona. In Bill McCune's well-rounded 1991 documentary Barry Goldwater: An American Life, Goldwater relates how he used to make beer for his father in spite of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. In his '79 memoir With No Apologies, he explains, "When Prohibition became the law of the land, my father bought the bar, the back bar, and the brass foot rail of his favorite saloon and had them installed in the basement of our house. The country went dry, but that bar was always wet."

The passions of Barry's father, Baron, were card games and cocktails, and Barry's mother Josephine drank until she died at 94, "from too much of the brown stuff," opined Barry with a grin in the McCune doc.

In his '88 tome, Goldwater offered that his mom told him and his siblings that cigarettes and coffee would stunt their growth. "The three of us have always said we were lucky she didn't say anything about booze," he adds mischievously.

Family friend John Dean of Watergate fame sees the senator's alcohol consumption in generational terms. For those who had endured the Great Depression and World War II, liquor was the sine qua non of existence.

"[Barry Goldwater] was of a generation, not unlike my own father, where that was just part of their lives," asserts Dean, who knew the senator through his boyhood chum Barry Jr. "They drank at lunch, and went back to work. They drank in the evening when they came home. And when they got into parties, they had hollow legs."

Bourbon was what men drank, and Goldwater preferred it to champagne. He even tells a story in one of his letters of how a reception at the Nixon White House was made more bearable because the waiter filled his champagne flute with sippin' whiskey instead of bubbly.

Fess Parker, the iconic, coonskin-cap-wearin' actor known for his roles as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, met Goldwater while doing research in D.C. for the TV version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These days, Parker's also known for the award-winning wines of his central California winery. And he recalls seeing Goldwater at various social functions both before and after the senator's run for the presidency in 1964. Like the time he ran into Goldwater at the Kentucky Derby, home of mint juleps, which are, of course, made with bourbon.

"One of the nights that I saw him, he had a little too much and was asleep on the couch," chortles Parker, who supported Goldwater against LBJ in '64. "I think he had a long day at the track, had a couple of those mint juleps, and sang, 'My Old Kentucky Home.'"

There was a bar in Goldwater's Senate office, with a bottle of Old Crow always on hand, naturally. But in his later years, his drinking habits, which expanded to tequila, did get him into a little trouble. In 1976, he had an artificial hip inserted, and it's been suggested that he dealt with the pain, in part, by drinking. Lee Edwards, a very sympathetic biographer writing for right-wing Regnery Publishing, points out in his book Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution that "Senators and government officials soon learned that the earlier in the day they did business with the senator the better."

Fellow Republican John Conlan, running in the '76 Republican primary for Senate, took a cheap shot at the old warhorse after Goldwater endorsed Conlan's primary opponent, Congressman Sam Steiger. In Dennis DeConcini's soon-to-be-released memoir Senator Dennis DeConcini: From the Center of the Aisle, he recounts that Conlan told the Washington press corps, "I don't know what it is with Barry. Maybe it's the pain [from his hip operation]. Maybe it's the drinking he's been doing." Goldwater denounced Conlan, Conlan lost to Steiger, and Democrat DeConcini whipped Steiger in the general election.

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