Pollster Bruce Merrill and playwright Ben Tyler talk about Barry Goldwater and the November 1st performance of the play “Mr. Conservative, the story of Barry Goldwater”.
Ted Simons: A staged reading of the one-man play, "Goldwater: Mr. Conservative," takes place tomorrow evening at 7:30 in the John Paul theater at Phoenix college. Following the performance, ASU pollster Bruce Merrill will moderate a discussion about Arizona's iconic senator and what it means to be a Goldwater conservative. Joining me with a preview is ASU pollster Bruce Merrill, whose extensive résumé includes a lot of work for Barry Goldwater. Also here is centennial theater foundation director Ben Tyler who wrote, "Mr. conservative" back in 1994. Good to have you both here. Thanks for joining us. It was a long time ago.
Bruce Merrill: It was.
Ted Simons: What is the narrative, Mr. Conservative?
Ben Tyler: I got the idea reading an editorial in "The Republic" in 1994 and they had just placed don't ask, don't tell as part of the military's policy and it was an editorial saying that the writer didn't think that don't ask, don't tell was a good idea and that gays should have the right to serve in the military and what difference did it make what your sexual preference is if you're willing to die for your country. And I got to the end and it was signed "Barry Goldwater." What? It got me interested and I did reading about him. I grew up in Arizona. Barry Goldwater's been part of the landscape forever.
Ted Simons: Who is Barry Goldwater in this play?
Ben Tyler: You mean who is the actor or --
Ted Simons: No, what -- who do we meet up there on the stage?
Ben Tyler: In the play, you have to have conflict, and writing a one-person show is very difficult because you only have one person. Where do you have conflict, right?
Ted Simons: Right.
Ben Tyler: I saw the conflict immediately. Here was a man who came to be known as Mr. conservative, the father of the modern conservative political movement in this country, who I found from what he said and going back to the beginning, was consistent over his entire life was really at odds with what I knew the Republican party to be present day.
Ted Simons: Does that sound like the Barry Goldwater you knew?
Bruce Merrill: It really does. Ben has captured the parts of Barry Goldwater that people don't realize. Not only was he pro-gay rights in the military long before it was popular, people realized he was pro-choice, not pro-life. And really for the same reasons with the homosexuality thing. His position was on abortion, that he loathed abortion. He didn't want it, he didn't like it. But he used to say that that's not the issue. The issue is should a woman make that decision with her own body or should the government? And it was the same thing. We were flying back from Page, Arizona. He had given a speech, and I'll never forget him saying when he was talking about sexuality. He said, Bruce, keep in mind if the government can regulate homosexuality, they can regulate heterosexuality. More a libertarian.
Ted Simons: Would he be the same Barry Goldwater in today's climate, Republican all the way, Barry Goldwater, by the party as it stands now?
Bruce Merrill: Well, it will be interesting to hear Ben's response to that. Having lived with him and written the play. I thought about that, there's elements interestingly enough of the tea party that he would respect.
Ben Tyler: Absolutely.
Bruce Merrill: In terms of keeping government as small as possible. But he was a very complex person and as I say, I really looked at him as more libertarian than conservative. The complex aspect of Barry Goldwater's personality, the surprise would pop up -- of Barry Goldwater personality, some who thought they didn't like him that much.
Ted Simons: How far did you get that worked into the play?
Ben Tyler: One of the decisions I made early on was not to tell the story chronologically. I think that's a big mistake. Especially with a biographic piece. I was born in -- you immediately, so -- the play moves forward just as people have talked. Segues from subject to subject, but I found myself -- and I'm not a progressive. I'm a liberal. Proud to say that -- but I found myself agreeing with so much I thought here's something that we can find common ground.
Ted Simons: Did he become -- you know how when you write -- you write a character and then all of a sudden, the character says I'm not doing that. Did Barry Goldwater say that to you?
Ben Tyler: It does all the time. When you're a writer, you feel like you're on the right track. You start out with an idea what it's going to be but really going back to what Bruce said, to me, the point of the play is maximizing freedom for the individual. I really think if you were to boil it down to one sentence that was what Goldwater's point of view was: Maximizing freedom for the individual. And I think that's what -- traditionally, what liberals are looking for and goes back to the ancient Greeks.
Ted Simons: Ring a bell?
Bruce Merrill: Absolutely. And along with that very important part of his personality where I hope Ben tells the story well, I've been involved with a lot of politicians across the country for a number of years. One of the things that I respect most about Barry Goldwater, and I think is very relevant today, I never one time ever heard him say something to somebody and then say something in the opposite direction behind their back. I mean, I want to tell you, I was in meetings with Barry Goldwater. If he didn't like you or like something, he looked you in the eye and told you.
Ben Tyler: True.
Bruce Merrill: And there's not many politicians who can stand up to that task.
Ted Simons: Interesting. Ben, a quote -- when opposing political ideologies are followed to their natural limits, there exists a place where they find common ground. What does that mean?
Ben Tyler: I also considered myself to be on the other side of the fence from conservatism, but when I read what his idea was I thought, I agree with this and I think that's what happens when you follow this out to the right and left, that eventually there's a place where they do meet up. And today, with things as polarized as they are, we need it more than ever.
Ted Simons: We need it more than ever, but can it happen these days with things as polarized as they are?
Bruce Merrill: It's going to be very tough. You have to be very careful. The reason these people were able to get decisions made, Goldwater, they would go down and shut the door and take a bottle of whiskey and come out with a decision. Would that fly today? No, it's not transparent enough. So society has changed and one of the interesting things, Barry Goldwater was ideal for that particular time. I think as Arizona grew into a state and the nation changed.
Ted Simons: What do you hope to gain? What do you want to happen by the moderated discussion after the play?
Bruce Merrill: I think what Ben is looking for, which I think is good, to have a discussion on both dimensions that Barry Goldwater brings to what is really, I agree with Ben, conservatism. Part of what we -- what we call liberalism today. The terms mean little today. There's philosophical conservative. You can be conservative or liberal on social issues and so bringing those two dimensions together is going to be very interesting.
Ben Tyler: I think it will be. And, you know, Bruce maybe you know the answer. Why don't they hammer out compromises anymore? Why has compromise become a dirty world, it seems? When I hear of the people coming up through the tea party -- I will not compromise on anything! To me, that's the nature of politics. You have to.
Ted Simons: Last response.
Bruce Merrill: We don't have enough time -- [Laughter] I think we talked about change, a lot of it, these people play to the media because they can talk to their constituents to get reelected rather than doing what's best for the country.
Ted Simons: Should be a fascinating evening. Good discussion and it's good to have you here to talk about Barry Goldwater.
Ben Tyler: There's a full production in May of 2012 as part of the centennial celebration. This is a sneak peek for the audience.
Bruce Merrill:ASU Morrison Institute Pollster; Ben Tyler:Director,Centennial Theatre Foundation