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  • Post columnist: David S. Broder

  • Goldwater Remembered

  •   Always Goldwater

    By David S. Broder
    Tuesday, June 2, 1998; Page A13

    PHOENIX—A scheduling coincidence brought me back to Phoenix on the day of Barry Goldwater's death and stirred memories of the summer, 34 years ago, when the Arizona senator came home from San Francisco with the Republican presidential nomination in hand.

    The first day back, Goldwater was intercepted at the barbershop by the Associated Press's Walter Mears for an exclusive interview. The next morning, several reporters stung by Mears's scoop drove up to Goldwater's mountain home, hoping to recoup. The security guard at the bottom of the driveway agreed to call the house, and the senator, gracious as usual, let us come up.

    You must understand that on that weekend, Goldwater was at the center of a huge political storm. The Republican National Convention had ended in an uproar, triggered by his defiant "extremism in the defense of liberty" speech. Large parts of his party were threatening to rebel, and elders from Eisenhower on down were trying to calm the stormy waters. Every utterance from Goldwater was critically important at that moment.

    So what did he do? First, he told us he had begun the day on the phone with another early riser, his neighbor "Lucky" Davis, mother of future first lady Nancy Davis Reagan. As was their custom, they had exchanged the latest jokes to reach their ears -- which he eagerly retold and none of which were remotely suitable for family newspapers.

    Then he showed us the elaborate "ham" radio equipment in the corner of his living room and, on impulse, said: "Look at this." He reached into a drawer below the transmitter, extracted a large brown envelope and removed from it a blown-up photograph of a near-naked woman posed provocatively near her own "ham" set. The inscription, he pointed out, read: "Barry, you ought to 'work' my call letters."

    The contents of the subsequent interview were much less notable than these preliminaries. The morning remains a vivid reminder that Goldwater, more than any other major-league politician I have ever known, was determined to guard his own individuality no matter what. The press and the country could think what they damn pleased; he was going to live his life saying and doing exactly what he wanted.

    That was his charm, and that is the paradox of his huge legacy. He was almost completely uninterested in defining and organizing a mass movement; yet he truly created the conservative politics that have dominated the final third of this century. How did he do it?

    His ghostwritten book, "Conscience of a Conservative," inspired a generation of young people to join the Republican Party; they fill its leadership today. But he was, as he was quick to proclaim, no intellectual. His ideas were no more than gut reactions to his experiences. The Army Air Force made him a lifelong advocate of a strong military. Even more important, growing up in a family of entrepreneurs on a frontier just emerging into statehood and prosperity made him believe that self-reliance is the supreme virtue.

    The essence of his philosophy was expressed at a 1964 campaign rally in John Tower's hometown of Wichita Falls, Tex. He told the crowd filling a football stadium how their ancestors had come to the arid Southwest, scratching out a living from the hard soil. When they dug a little deeper, they discovered oil -- and riches beyond imagination. He concluded with a classic Goldwaterism: "So, as a famous man once said, 'Let my people go.' "

    From those four words he derived a hostility to big government, taxes and regulation that is the hallmark of contemporary conservatism. The message took hold rapidly despite his landslide defeat; Ronald Reagan, who gained his first national political exposure in the 1964 Goldwater campaign, won the California governorship just two years later. The Goldwater-Reagan view merged with and fueled a national reaction against almost four decades in which the Democrats dominated Washington and vastly expanded the scope of the federal government.

    If Goldwater gave impetus to the conservative counterrevolution, he also demonstrated the weaknesses that have continued to plague it. Though principled, his opposition to the great civil rights laws of the 1960s was historically wrong; Republicans are still struggling to overcome the distrust of minorities who exercise growing political power.

    And his habit of making off-the-cuff comments that alarmed people who rely on Social Security, Medicare and other government programs continues to plague congressional Republican leaders who are his heirs.

    But he was always his own man, unprogrammed and uninhibited. An American original who loved political combat as he loved the land and people of his native state. Unstintingly.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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