PHOENIX -- A high-pitched yapping violates the air, providing an unwelcome accompaniment to Barry Goldwater's pronouncements. Finally the former senator has had enough.

"Throw that damn dog in the incinerator and turn it on!" Goldwater roars to an aide in his Western-style ranch house.

It's the sort of remark that got him into trouble during the legendary presidential race of 1964, when he was the Republican nominee and the hero of the Radical Right -- an evangelist of extremism who defended the John Birch Society, argued for making the Social Security system voluntary and mused aloud about defoliating Vietnam with nuclear weapons before being swept away in a Lyndon Johnson landslide.

"He's a 100-year-old French poodle. Barks all day long," Goldwater explains to a visitor as the aide hops to and tries to fix the problem.

Surely that couldn't be his dog?

"No -- my wife's," the senator confirms (though it's not really a poodle but rather a schnauzer named Sofie). "We're waiting for him {that is, her} to die."

Nobody seems to be waiting for Barry Goldwater to die.

At 85, after a life in politics spanning five decades (he retired from the Senate in 1987), Mr. Conservative has found himself an unlikely new career: as a gay rights activist. While that's not his sole pursuit -- he returned to Capitol Hill yesterday to testify in favor of scenic overflights of the Grand Canyon -- in recent years he's championed homosexuals serving in the military and has worked locally to stop businesses in Phoenix from hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. This month he signed on as honorary co-chairman of a drive to pass a federal law preventing job discrimination against homosexuals. The effort, dubbed Americans Against Discrimination, is being spearheaded by the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the influential gay lobbying organization.

"The big thing is to make this country, along with every other country in the world with a few exceptions, quit discriminating against people just because they're gay," Goldwater asserts. "You don't have to agree with it, but they have a constitutional right to be gay. And that's what brings me into it."

"He's the kind of spokesman who makes people focus on this issue through new eyes," says Goldwater's co-chair, Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts, a Democrat who ardently opposed his candidacy in 1964. "He causes people to focus on the real issue: Should the country that celebrates life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness allow discrimination for a group of Americans based on sexual preference?"

Gay rights aside, Goldwater is doing lots more to drive would-be disciples nuts. In 1992 he backed a Democrat for Congress over a Christian conservative Republican (his candidate, Karan English, won), and has been applying the full force of his cantankerous personality to frequent denunciations of the religious right and occasional defenses of Bill Clinton -- calling a press conference recently to urge Republican critics of Whitewater to "get off his back and let him be president."

Some of the faithful think he's lost his marbles.

"I am often asked by people inside Arizona, and outside of Arizona, about Barry," says Republican John McCain, Goldwater's successor in the Senate, in a tone that suggests he's apologizing for a crazy uncle in the attic. "I always say that Barry Goldwater has the right to say whatever he wants to. He has made his contribution -- which transformed the Republican Party from an Eastern elitist organization to the breeding ground for the election of Ronald Reagan." (Goldwater likes to remind McCain, a Vietnam-era Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years in the "Hanoi Hilton," that if he'd been elected president in 1964, "you wouldn't have spent all those years in a Vietnamese prison camp." McCain's reply: "You're right, Barry. It would have been a Chinese prison camp.")

The Sage in His Aerie

Goldwater hurls his bolts of wisdom from a barren hillside above downtown Phoenix, where he presides over his well-to-do yet sparsely landscaped neighborhood as the Oracle of Paradise Valley (as the suburb is called). One climbs to his front door through a shocking blast of heat that makes a non-Arizonan feel like a kernel of air-popped popcorn. The first thing one sees -- after being ushered into The Presence by Doris Berry, his aide for the last three decades -- are two sun-browned ankles stuffed into laceless canvas boating shoes. Rounding a corner, one gradually notices the khaki trousers, the blue cotton work shirt and the famed granite-jawed face and piercing blue eyes, topped off by a full, white mane.

Goldwater is surrounded in his perch by huge picture windows affording an appropriately majestic view. He sits behind a kidney-shaped desk amid a welter of digital gauges and other electronic gewgaws (which he assembled himself out of mail-order kits) measuring barometric pressure, rainfall, time and temperature (100 degrees Fahrenheit at 9 a.m., on its way to 108), looking for all the world like an air-traffic controller. He extends a liver-spotted hand, not bothering to rise: After nine times under the knife to replace knees, hips and a shoulder, it would take too long and waste valuable time.

"Go ahead," he instructs briskly after a minimum of small talk, ordering the interview to commence, taking an aspirin off his desk to pop in his mouth and chew without the aid of water. "It tastes good," he insists.

So how did this super-patriot, former fighter pilot and retired Air Force general get involved in gay rights?

"The first time this came up was with the question, should there be gays in the military?" Goldwater says. "Having spent 37 years of my life in the military as a reservist, and never having met a gay in all of that time, and never having even talked about it in all those years, I just thought, why the hell shouldn't they serve? They're American citizens. As long as they're not doing things that are harmful to anyone else. ... So I came out for it."

He says he's mystified by the origins of homosexuality. "You try to find out where it started, even going back to old Egyptology -- and you knew damn well the Egyptians had to have those people -- but you can't find any writings," he says. "I have one grandson who's gay. And my brother {Bob Goldwater} has a granddaughter who is gay. We're sort of at a loss to know what the hell it's all about."

Goldwater says that having openly gay relatives doesn't influence his beliefs, which are animated by libertarian principles that government should stay out of people's private lives.

"He's pretty secure in feeling that discriminating against gays is constitutionally wrong," says Goldwater's gay grandson, Ty Ross, a Scottsdale, Ariz., artisan who says he is close to his grandfather (whom he calls "Paka") and has even brought boyfriends to meet him. Ross, who is HIV-positive but healthy, adds, "We haven't really talked about it. He's so funny. He says, 'You people need to stand up for your rights' -- one of those 'you people' kind of things."

Phoenix real estate entrepreneur and gay rights activist Charlie Harrison, who has been friendly with Goldwater since the senator began patronizing a restaurant Harrison owned 12 years ago, recalls a recent fund-raising dinner for Arizona gay men and lesbians at which Goldwater received one standing ovation after another. "He was treated like God," Harrison marvels. "Like the Grand Canyon come to Phoenix."

"Well, Charlie, I'm an honorary gay by now," Harrison says Goldwater told him.

All in all, a far cry from those glory days on the Radical Right.

"What I was talking about was more or less 'conservative,' " Goldwater recalls, saying he was smeared by the people around President Johnson -- "the most dishonest man we ever had in the presidency." Goldwater continues: "The oldest philosophy in the world is conservatism, and I go clear back to the first Greeks. ... When you say 'radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye."

That's the sort of apostasy that has provoked some of Goldwater's fellow Republicans to question his sanity and his loyalty, and to try to impose stiff sanctions.

Goldwater seems amused.

"They want to change the name of the party headquarters from the Goldwater building to something else," he boasts. "They want to take my name off the airport. They want to take my name off the high school. They want to take my name off the lake up north."

"And the boulevard," Doris Berry chimes in.

"Yeah, that's right," Goldwater grins. "But they don't get very far with it."

And on the Subject of ...

Very little can rattle this man who was born in Arizona when it was still a territory, the grandson of a Polish-Jewish pioneer whose descendants became Episcopalians, arriving in 1860 to launch a merchandising fortune -- "when there was nobody here but Indians and a few Mexicans," Goldwater says. "My mother came out here with tuberculosis, was given three weeks to live and she died at 94 from drinking." The senator had the luxury to pursue his passions, which still include American Indian art and culture, photography, aviation (though he's been reduced to building model airplanes instead of flying real ones) and ham radio. "For Barry Goldwater, whom I urge to follow the career for which he has shown much talent -- photography," reads an inscription on a photo hanging in Goldwater's "ham shack." It's a note from Jack Kennedy.

"Had he lived, he would have been a good president," Goldwater says of his late friend and Senate colleague, the Democrat he had wanted to run against in 1964. As for Richard Nixon, Goldwater never forgave him for lying about Watergate, and recently declined to attend his funeral. His 83-year-old brother, Bob, who along with their 82-year-old sister, Carolyn, still lives an active life, pleaded with Barry not to give out any statements after Nixon's death -- fearing that they would be ungenerous and intemperate.

"And I didn't," Goldwater says tersely.

In the course of an interview that amounted to a bull session, Goldwater gave his opinions on everything from Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole's temper, to President Clinton's foreign policy, to Hillary Rodham Clinton's management skills.

On Dole: "I said one day that Dole had a temper, and he got madder than hell. He has one. He has a mean one."

On alleged racism in the Marine Corps: "They had a program on '60 Minutes' about a black man who was a decorated captain in the Marines, and ... I think they asked him to retire because he was black. The Marines are still a little funny about that. There are lots of blacks in the Marines -- there are black pilots -- but they don't like 'em. ... They're changing, but not that fast. I think they have one black general." (A Marine Corps spokesman said that Goldwater is mistaken, and that the Marines offer equal opportunity for all.)

On Shannon Faulkner, the young woman who recently won a court decision to enter the corps of cadets at the previously all-male Citadel military academy: "It's a state-financed and state-run institute, and there's no way you can say no to women. Now, if it were privately run with private money, they could tell women to go to hell."

On Clinton's relations with the military: "The thing that worries me right now is Clinton. I don't think he understands the military. And I don't think the people around him understand the military. And evidently, they have no real compunction against cutting the military. ... If a country wanted to go to war with us, we better be ready, because we might not win the next war. It worries the hell out of me."

On Clinton's conduct of American foreign policy: "I worry about it because he doesn't know a goddamn thing about it. We don't have any foreign policy. ... The best thing Clinton could do -- I think I wrote him a letter about this, but I'm not sure -- is to shut up. Every time I turn that radio on, there's Clinton, making a speech. And he makes speeches on a subject he doesn't know anything about. He'd be much better off if he'd quit it, because even though he makes a good speech, I don't think he should talk all the time. ... He has no discipline."

On Hillary Clinton, who was an ardent Goldwater supporter in 1964: "If he'd let his wife run business, I think he'd be better off. ... I just like the way she acts. I've never met her, but I sent her a bag of chili, and she invited me to come to the White House some night and said she'd cook chili for me. Someday, maybe."

On the Clinton health care proposal: "If you made it law, it would cost as much as the whole country is worth. I would have to sell my automobile, my house, my property, everything, and contribute it to that, and you know that's not going to happen."

When the senator's comments on health care are repeated to Susan Goldwater, she says, "He's so ill-informed about it, and he shouldn't even talk about it."

Thirty years his junior, she is a registered nurse and the director of a 200-employee hospice that tends mainly to terminal cancer and AIDS patients. A handsome, chic woman with an air of command, she has also been the senator's wife for the last three years. They met soon after the death of Goldwater's first wife, Peggy, when she came to take his blood pressure. Some, like John McCain, attribute much of Goldwater's outspoken contrariness, which occasionally makes him sound like a raving liberal, to Susan Goldwater's influence.

"Baloney," she snorts, holding forth in her spacious office. She adds that she always encourages her third husband to think whatever he wants.

So what's it like being married to Mount Rushmore?

"Rocky at times," she quips. "Great fun at others."

"She's a very strong gal," Barry Goldwater says. "She does what she pleases."

"I've never been so well off in my life," he adds, noting that he swims and rides a bicycle through the hills nearly every day. "My first wife passed away when I retired. And I said I'd never get married again. You lose a woman you've been married to for 52 years, it makes a difference. Susan and I started going together and then we got married. We've been married almost three years. She has four children and I have four children. Between us we have about 14 grandchildren. So we're getting along."

Goldwater affects bemusement at the Sturm und Drang he seems to have caused among those who once saw themselves as his ideological descendants. As a good conservative should, he says, "I haven't changed my outlook at all."

And in due course he abruptly dismisses his guest, having been waiting impatiently all morning to play with a visiting grandchild.