Goldwater Uncut

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

In 1980, when Goldwater, then 71, barely squeaked past multimillionaire Democrat Bill Schulz with some assistance from the Ronald Reagan landslide, the scuttlebutt afterwards was that Goldy was half-drunk or hung-over the following day when he appeared before reporters. Asked if the voters were sending him a message with his slim victory, Goldwater snarled, "I don't know, and I don't particularly care." The senator later apologized for this little eff-you with full-page ads in the state's newspapers thanking Arizona voters for reelecting him.

Finally, none other than Bob Woodward of the Washington Post portrays a somewhat tight Senator Goldwater (either from meds, whiskey or both) reading a classified document on the floor of the Senate in Woodward's 1987 exposé Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987. Goldwater's act may have been precipitous at the time, but the program he was exposing, the mining of the Nicaraguan harbors by the CIA, had been hidden from him. And as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he was rightly pissed.

In light of all of these incidents and statements, it's safe to conclude that the senator was not the near-teetotaler C.C. describes. This doesn't mean C.C. is intentionally misleading viewers. Being a granddaughter does fix you with certain blinders. After all, how many grandchildren can accurately describe their grandparents' drinking habits? Goldwater's kids might have had trouble gauging this, too.

courtesy of Arizona Historical Foundation
C.C. Goldwater: Apparently viewed her grandfather with blinders on.
C.C. Goldwater: Apparently viewed her grandfather with blinders on.

"I don't know if I've ever seen him drunk," says Barry Jr., who, when he was young, mostly saw his dad when he wasn't in D.C., and after that, sporadically. "Certainly not fall-down drunk. I've seen him kind of high. He was a happy drunk, if you had to categorize him. The only time I saw him drink was at night. He'd have a couple of Old Crows and go to bed."

Another omission in the HBO documentary is Senator Goldwater's connections to various mobsters, and those who had dealings with them. Many of these associations have been well-documented before, first in 1963 in Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris' classic account of mob influence in Vegas, The Green Felt Jungle, and later in the now-famous Arizona Project, a series of articles by members of the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization detailing the influence of organized crime here. The latter was brought on by the execution of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles in 1976, and it raised the ethics bar for all politicians when it came to dealing with their shadier constituents.

Many of the facts were undisputed by Goldwater himself, though he definitely disputed the suggestion that he was "tied" to organized crime. Goldwater was friendly with mobster Gus Greenbaum, who took over the management of Las Vegas' Flamingo Hotel after the 1947 assassination of Bugsy Siegel in Beverly Hills. Greenbaum took the Flamingo out of the red into the black, and later went on to successfully manage the Riviera. But when Greenbaum, a lieutenant of Meyer Lansky's, began skimming more than his allotted share, his days were numbered. On December 3, 1958, both he and his wife's corpses were discovered in their Phoenix home, their throats slashed with a butcher knife from their own kitchen.

Goldwater attended Greenbaum's funeral, a gesture that boggles the mind almost 50 years later. Can you imagine, for instance, Senator John McCain attending the funeral of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano (even if he knew Gravano), whenever that occurs? This was Goldwater's rationalization in his '88 memoir:

"Greenbaum had operated a Phoenix grocery store before taking over a Las Vegas casino. We'd met him at various civic functions. He was, after all, a local resident."

It's true that Goldwater didn't need the mob. He was by then an icon in Arizona. But he was not above giving or taking favors, monetary or otherwise, from his underworld amigos. For instance, he was Greenbaum's guest in Vegas, where he was known as "a real swinger," according to the Reid/Demaris book. And Greenbaum donated lots of money to Harry Rosenzweig, in support of the 1949 Charter Government ticket, of which Goldwater was a part. Interestingly, the Valley National Bank, of which Goldwater's brother Bob was a director, helped finance the Flamingo's construction.

The senator was also acquainted with "Fat Willie" Bioff, who lived in Phoenix under the name William Nelson, though people knew who he really was: a mobster from L.A. who busted unions for the Hollywood studios, testified against members of the Capone gang, then relocated to Arizona, eventually going to work for Gus Greenbaum at the Flamingo. Goldwater gave Bioff and his wife a ride back to Phoenix from Las Vegas in the senator's private plane once. And Bioff, a Goldwater admirer, donated $5,000 to Goldwater's first Senate campaign through Harry Rosenzweig, and also lent Rosenzweig 10 grand at one point before six sticks of dynamite exploded beneath Bioff's new pickup truck with him in it in 1955 — a little present from those Bioff ratted out, perhaps. Here, too, Goldwater attended the funeral, oblivious to any negative assumptions.

"I don't think it was abnormal for Senator Goldwater, or his senior colleague Senator [Carl] Hayden, to have come in contact with so-called nefarious characters," asserts Jack August, director of the Arizona Historical Foundation and author of Vision in the Desert: Carl Hayden and Hydropolitics in the American Southwest. "Was money good money or bad money — who really knows? Campaign finance laws were so much looser then."

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