Goldwater: A Good Friend
By George McGovern
After my '72 defeat and my return to the Senate, Barry was the first of my Senate colleagues to call me. He then sent over a newspaper cartoon he had carefully framed in which his face and mine were superimposed on a replica of the familiar painting, "American Gothic" -- the stern-faced, pitchfork-equipped Puritan couple defiantly standing their ground. He had inscribed across the bottom of the cartoon, which still hangs on the wall of my den, these words: "Dear George, if you must lose, lose big."
Later that day in the Senate gym when I thanked him for the cartoon and his inscription he said: "I really meant that inscription. After Dick Nixon lost to Jack Kennedy in 1960 by only 120,000 votes, he regretted for years spending the last weekend of the campaign in Alaska instead of Chicago. With you and me it didn't make any difference where we went the last weekend -- Chicago, Alaska or Timbuktu. So we have nothing to regret except the judgment of the voters!"
A couple of years ago I went to see Sen. Goldwater at his home in Phoenix. We spent a delightful afternoon reflecting on American politics -- past and present. He had just endorsed a young woman running for Congress as a Democrat and was being charged by some of his critics with senility, or worse, for not backing the Republican candidate. "They can call me senile or any other damn thing," he said, "but I still say what I think."
That is what I most admire about Barry Goldwater. He wasn't always right. None of us is. But he said what he thought was right, and that is the way politics ought to be conducted.
Politics can survive human error, but it suffers when politicians lose their candor and conviction. It also suffers when politicians of differing views permit those differences to degenerate into personal, mean-spirited attacks on each other's integrity. Barry Goldwater never did that.
One of the characteristics of the Senate at its best is its tradition of civility. That tradition sometimes permits senators of opposing parties to become effective allies and friends. Former senator Robert Dole and I built such an alliance on matters related to food assistance to the poor, nutritional guidelines for the American people and a strong agriculture. Year after year we won big bipartisan victories in the Senate on those issues.
Sen. Goldwater, despite his exaggerated public image of ultra-conservatism, was one of those who followed that kind of bipartisan leadership. He became even more moderate (liberal?) after he left the Senate a decade ago.
Barry Goldwater had a lifelong love affair with airplanes. During the final days of the Watergate investigation in the summer of 1974, I telephoned him at 6 a.m., apologizing for the early call. "That's okay," he said cheerfully, "I've been up for an hour building a model airplane." He never tired of complimenting me for being a combat bomber pilot in World War II. But for years he found it difficult to understand how a former bomber pilot could so strenuously oppose U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He was even more puzzled by my opposition to the building of some of the more recent bombers and expensive new weapons systems, which I saw as needlessly fueling an open-ended arms race with the much less-equipped Russians.
But never once did he question my sincerity either publicly or privately -- nor I his.
A few years ago I was asked by the San Jose Mercury-News to review Sen. Goldwater's recently published memoir. I don't have a copy of that review with me in Rome, but I do recall his follow-up note to me, in which he said: "I will treasure your words until the day I die."
Perhaps this is an appropriate time for me to say to my old colleague: I'll treasure the memory of your salty conversations and your rough-cut humor until the day I die. If I had not just returned to my new post in Rome after a 12-hour flight the day you died, I would have flown out to Arizona for your funeral. That doesn't now seem practical even for us guys who love airplanes -- but I'll see you later.
The writer, a former U.S. senator from South Dakota and the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, is U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company