THE DOOR IS OPEN, and from inside come the sounds of the United States Senate.

This is off-putting. To get here you must use Camelback Mountain as a heading, hang a dusty right on a road that climbs through desert too`quickly becoming suburban -- very rich Arizona`suburban -- and set a new sighting on the bleak red-rock outcrops`of the Squaw Range. At the end of the drive, you walk through prickly fence-post cactus, cross an oasis of manicured lawn and brush the dust off your shoes on a welcome mat inscribed in Navajo words: "Be-Nun-I-Kin," which means "the house atop the hill."

Even with the door open, you must ring twice. Inside, the drone of the Senate continues, interrupted only by a voice punctuating the proceedings with loud objections of "Goddam fool!" and "Jesus H. Christ!" Then C-Span fades, the voice turns to a softer but still profane drawl -- "Who the hell's there?" -- and a tanned face with familiar black horn-rim eyeglasses pokes around a corner, smiling.

Barry Morris Goldwater is 79 years old now, a widower since his wife, Peggy, died almost three years ago. His six-foot cowboy's frame is cut down an inch or so not so much by the arrows of history or age as by the surgeon's scalpel. Both his hips are man-made. One of the knees, too. Even the ticker is primed by a triple bypass. Slows him down some. But not much. He uses a cane to direct you to a chair by the desk in his sun-drenched living room`overlooking Phoenix. The cane has a bulldog's face carved into its handle.

Goldwater extends his arm across the panoramic glassed-in view and shakes a finger at the television screen. "Senate's debatin' that damned-fool trade bill," he says with dismay. "Sometimes I think those people back there have almost given up on American principles."

It's been almost two years since Goldwater left "those people back there," leaving behind 30 years in the Senate. It's been 24 years since he took up the cudgel for The Cause in his great kamikaze run at the presidency -- an ill-starred adventure that, despite its utter disaster, changed the Republican Party and the American political landscape for a generation to come.

Mr. Conservative, they called him back in 1964 when the ascendancy of the liberals had left "conservative" bordering on a political dirty word. He was called a few other things, too: cantankerous and blunt, hotheaded and prophetic, loose-lipped and frightening, even emotionally unstable and nuke-'em nuts. Some of it was outrageously, downright libelously unfair. Some not. Goldwater invited political hits the way a lonesome pine draws lightning strikes. He was an unreconstructed westerner who spoke his mind and found that the sentences often came out laced with hells and damns.

"Yeah," he muses, chuckling. "Hells and damns and a little more."

When other politicians wisely bit their tongue, Goldwater blustered on. His formal campaign was traditional conservative -- tough defense, individual rights, trim the budget-busting federal bureaucracy -- and it touched a public hard core yearning for a lost simplicity in American`life. But off the cuff? Barry shot his mouth off like a daily 21-gun salute. He'd sell the socialistic Tennessee Valley Authority for a dollar. He'd make Social Security voluntary. He spoke nonchalantly of missiles so accurate we could "lob one into the men's room in the Kremlin." The forests in Vietnam could be defoliated with low-yield atomic weapons. On the nuclear stuff, he never said should, just could, like a general pondering all options in the sanctum of the Pentagon war room. But a presidential campaign is no sanctum. The press leapt on every word, and when the clippings got too rough, he fired back that the "eastern publishers" -- how he loved to take on the namby-pamby easterners -- covered him like Pravda.

Mr. Conservative became the Fastest Lip in the West, an Arizona gunslinger, they joked, whose slightly off-kilter battle cry was "Ready! Fire! Aim!" His loyal posse fanned out with signs that insisted "In Your Heart You Know He's Right," nice little double meaning there. Meanwhile, Lyndon Baines Johnson sat serenely in the White House, only months after the tragic death of John Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson would not defoliate jungles. Lyndon Johnson would not send our boys over to fight Asian wars. Lyndon Johnson sent his loyalists out to greet Goldwater with other signs: "In Your Guts You Know He's Nuts," no double meaning there at all. The race became meaner and meaner, Goldwater more and more quixotic.

In the spacious room at Be-Nun-I-Kin, the unglassed walls are lined with superb southwestern paintings, artfully carved Hopi dolls, remarkable photo-portraits of Apache chieftains taken with the battered old Nikon that sits at the ready on Goldwater's desk. Not a political memento remains -- not a single arm-around photo, all 30 years' worth given away to make room for deeper loves. How in the world did this complicated man, whose disguise was to opt for simplicity, ever think he could beat the ultimate pol, Lyndon Johnson, in those Democratic halcyon days of 1964?

"Oh, hell, I never thought that. Knew that when I started. We sat right here in this room and I said, 'Well, we sure as hell can't beat Johnson. So let's get somethin' out of this ordeal. Let's get control of the Republican Party away from those damned easterners and bring it out West.' " Suddenly, a blue-eyed sparkle radiates through the horn rims. "You remember what I said about that?"

Oh, yes, Senator. It's hard to forget the things you said.

"It would be a good thing to saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float right out into the Atlantic." That's what he said back then, and that's about what he did. But with no regrets about the loss?

"No. No. Not when it was over. It didn't even cause me great unhappiness. I just came up here on the hill with Peggy, sat out there watching the sunset and whistled 'Hail to the Chief.' " HOW BARRY GOLDWATER LOVES TO FLY. He piloted his first plane in 1928 at the age of 19 -- an open-cockpit biplane -- and it's still easy to conjure up the vision of the dashingly handsome man he was and is, a silk scarf trailing in the breeze. By 1941, when World War II broke out, he was too old and couldn't see the charts without his horn rims. But somehow he conned his way into the left-hand seat and got one of the war's most risky assignments -- ferrying C47s over the Hump, the treacherous gap in the Himalayas between Burma and China. At 79, with all that man-made gadgetry in his body, he still flies, and his tally is now up to 165 different airplanes, 18 kinds of helicopters, uncounted gliders -- and one balloon.

On July 14, 1964, coincidentally on the anniversary of the turning point of the French Revolution, Bastille Day, he soloed high over San Francisco in a borrowed T33 jet trainer (he had reached the rank of major general in the Air Force Reserve). Far below him, the Republicans had begun their 28th national convention, and the potentates of the party's eastern establishment had grown hysterical in their efforts to block the Arizonan. Joseph Alsop, the leading Establishment columnist, direly warned that the GOP was being usurped by "the Neanderthals." New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a pillar of the old East who had failed to stop Goldwater in the California primary, warned that the situation was "frightening." But Goldwater's minions had done their job well. He had a lock, and he knew it.

Goldwater streaked high over the glittering bay and the sun-showered city, then made a soaring pass over the Cow Palace, where his triumph soon would be feted. But his flight was more his way of getting away from it all than seeking the serene heights for one last heady look down. "When you're up there with all those damn knobs and buttons and dials, that's all you have to think about, and, when I came back, I was very relaxed."

Not so those on the ground. The mood was ugly. As Goldwater came back to Earth, the headlines made note of the day's historical coincidence: "Cactus Jacobins Ready for Revolt on Bastille Day." And that's what the Goldwaterites had in mind: a coup d'etat, a revolution with no prisoners taken.

Delegates muttered to one another about the "rotten, Red eastern press" and angrily shook their fists at the strange men perched high in the new glassed-in television booths. Rockefeller warned the Goldwaterites about "extremism," and the boos drowned him out for 10 long minutes. "It's still a free country, ladies and gentlemen," he said, wedging the words into the ugly sound. The booing grew louder.

Goldwater's victory came on the first ballot. Those in the political know, those with what now would be called the conventional wisdom, told themselves, well, now Barry will settle down and bring the party back together. During his acceptance speech he looked almost biblical, tall, straight, unyielding, like a prophet out of the West. He also thundered biblically: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" The crowd went wild. No prisoners would be taken.

"My God," said one of those purveyors of conventional wisdom, "he's going to run as Goldwater." BARRY GOLDWATER SPRANG FROM PIoneer western stock, and it's easy to see how those deep desert roots produced the prickly cactus blooms that flowered in the presidential candidate a century later.

His grandfather, "Big Mike" Goldwater, a Polish Jew, arrived in San Francisco in 1852, a peddler determined to trim the golden edges off the forty-niners' rush. As the boom faded, he moved south to Sonora, where he ran a saloon, and then to Arizona, where the soldiers had gone off to the Civil War and the Apaches remained uncivil about the white man's intrusion. A man learned how to defend himself, and legend has it that Big Mike once came out of a tussle with an Apache arrow in his hat.

Big Mike had eight children, including Barry's father, Baron, who founded a department store in the scraggly desert town of Phoenix; and Morris, who opted for frontier politics and founded the Arizona Democratic Party. Barry was born in 1909 while Arizona was still a territory, and Uncle Morris the politician turned out to be the greater influence on him.

"It wasn't anything like the politics of today, and frankly it was a helluva lot better," Goldwater says today. "You didn't bullshit anybody, and nobody expected you to." At his desk at Be-Nun-I-Kin, the old warrior's face lights up. He relishes Uncle Morris stories; his favorite is about the time the two of them, Barry still a kid, met a voter on the streets of Phoenix.

"Hello, Mr. Goldwater," the man said to Uncle Morris. "I'll bet you don't remember my name."

"Nope, and I don't give a good goddam," Uncle Morris replied and walked right by with young Barry.

Uncle Morris liked his liquor, liked his women and, despite his abruptness, never held a grudge. He was mayor of Prescott, Ariz., for 20 years and lived with a woman who ran saloons along a place known as Whiskey Row. "I called her Aunt Sallie, and when my uncle finally married her, he blamed the Republicans for forcing him into it. Uncle Morris had an odd way of campaigning but a pretty good one. I drove for him a couple of times, and he and his opponent would climb into the same old car with a bottle of whisky. They'd get out of the car together, beat the hell out of each other at a debate, get back into the back seat and slug down some whisky, and I'd drive them on to the next debate. Seemed pretty civilized to me.

"I learned a lot from Uncle Morris. You can disagree, but you don't have to be disagreeable about it. I'd say the best friend I ever had in the Senate was Hubert Humphrey, and our politics couldn't have been much farther apart. We'd get together in the office and just chew each other's ass out. But then we'd be good friends. I don't think there's ever been a man in politics I could say I really didn't like. Lyndon Johnson probably came as close to it, not for what he did to me but for what he did to his country."

Goldwater drifts off for a moment, the blue eyes wandering toward the window and its smoggy view of a Phoenix so changed from Uncle Morris' days. He is a naturally upbeat man, but the memories of 1964 are mixed. "It was very unpleasant," he says after a moment. "But it didn't have to be."

When he first got the presidential bug -- though everybody says, Goldwater included, that the bug only took half a bite -- he figured he would run against John Kennedy in 1964. They came to the Senate together in 1953 and liked each other immediately. Invariably on opposite sides in floor debates, they sent chiding notes back and forth: "Your father would have spanked you for that one, Jack"; "Barry, you're the greatest 19th-century statesman in politics today."

Kennedy and Goldwater wanted to run against each other -- Kennedy, perhaps, because he figured Goldwater was the easiest Republican to beat; Goldwater because he thought it would be a clean, clear-cut choice on The Cause, giving the public, as his slogan said, a choice not an echo. He also thought it would have been fun.

Goldwater's eyes remain fixed on the window. "I would have enjoyed it very much. I even talked to him one day about using the same airplane, going to the same places. He'd get out in one place and start to debate and I'd rebut him. Then we'd turn it around in the next place. It was the Uncle Morris fantasy, and it probably wouldn't have happened. But he liked the idea. It would have saved a lot of money, we'd have had a good time, and it would have done the country a lot of good."

November 22, 1963, turned everything sour, and it never really turned sweet again. The assassination of his friend sent Goldwater into a deep funk. For weeks he spoke to no one except Peggy. "To hell with this president thing," he said to her, and he meant it. But the wheels had turned too far. Gradually he was pulled back in, making his move for The Cause, determined to save the Republican Party from those namby-pamby eastern liberals who kept losing elections. "THE NOMINATION OF BARRY GOLDWAter for the Presidency is a disaster for the Republican Party," The New York Times editorialized the day after his nomination, "and a blow to the prestige and to the domestic and international interests of the United States."

The Times was not a bastion of conservatism. But Goldwater's campaign went downhill from there. It became arguably the most ill-fated presidential campaign in history. Terrified they would sink with his leaky ship, almost everyone deserted him. Republican governors, Republican senators, even Republican state legislators refused to appear on the same platform with him, humiliating the proud man from Arizona.

It got meaner and meaner. The maverick publisher Ralph Ginzburg printed a purported poll of psychiatrists claiming Goldwater was mentally unstable. Goldwater eventually won a libel suit over that one, a legal rarity for a politician. There wasn't much he could do about the daisy ad except wince. The Johnson television spot showed a wonderfully pink-cheeked little girl picking the petals off a daisy. An ominous background voice marked off a countdown . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . and the daisy and the girl and everything disappeared in an awful mushroom cloud. The ad didn't mention Goldwater; it didn't need to. It ran only once; it didn't need to run again.

As the race turned to shambles, Goldwater seemed almost liberated. He laughed more, joked more. He began to slip out of the cushioned passenger seat of his campaign plane and disappear into the cockpit to fly it himself, finding a place where he had some control and a place he could have some fun. "Hello, this is your captain speaking," traveling reporters once heard a drawling western voice say on the plane's P.A. system. "Would you please have the stewardess send up another martini?"

Every four years, in October, two great all-American events merge. At that time in 1964, Goldwater made an old-fashioned whistlestop tour of the Midwest, as much for the therapy of the train ride as for the political possibilities. One stop came in Cincinnati, where the Cincinnati Reds were in the final days of a tight National League pennant race. Goldwater chose that stop to take one last, half-hearted shot. Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater told Cincinnati, was soft on communism, a foul trait indeed in those Cold War days.

The next morning, as the train pulled out of the station, someone handed him a copy of The Cincinnati Enquirer. "Johnson Soft on Reds -- Goldwater," the newspaper bannered the news. Below the headline, The Enquirer stripped the day's other pivotal story: "Reds Lose, 3 to 2." Goldwater glanced at the front page, smiled and said, "Well, I really did them in, didn't I?" Then he winked and walked back toward the caboose.

Three weeks later Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by 16 million votes. So awful was the defeat that the conventional wisdom consigned Mr. Conservative, The Cause and possibly even the Republican Party to the dustbin of history. EARLIER THAT YEAR, A MOVIE CALLED "The Killers" opened to a slow box office. Time magazine reviewed it in the same issue that reported Goldwater's nomination at the tumultuous San Francisco convention. Time's reviewer thought the film's star, an aging B-movie good guy named Ronald Reagan, gave an adequate performance but found him out of character as a con man, especially when he slugged Angie Dickinson.

It would be Reagan's last movie but not his last starring performance that year. In the desperate closing hours of the election campaign, the Republicans bought him half an hour of prime television time to pump up The Cause. He gave a golden speech -- "We have a rendezvous with destiny" -- and this time the critics raved, adding, of course, that Ronald Reagan was just a movie actor. BARRY GOLDWATER IS A TINKERER. Built into the angular desk in the house atop the hill are a ham radio, a separate receiver on which he can tap into his beloved aviation frequencies and Be-Nun-I-Kin's own weather station, all of which he assembled himself. The bulldog cane taps at the instrumentation.

"Now, you see, this gives the time, the wind direction and the speed, the barometric pressure, the outdoor and indoor temperature, and I can get the minimum and maximum on both. Over here is the inches of rain we've had this year and below that is the humidity. All the cycles."

Goldwater gave up his Senate seat to make the '64 run, a cycle ending, a cycle beginning. Afterward, he disappeared for four years into that special purgatory reserved for failed oracles. He returned in 1968, as did a new president from the "doomed" Republican Party: Richard Nixon, a Californian who eked out a victory using the southern and western geographical base. The Republicans have not nominated an easterner since. They have lost the presidency only once -- to a southerner.

"Oh, yeah, I think I did the Republican Party a helluva lot of good." The words come now with the bearing and tone of a foot soldier who threw himself on the barbed wire so others could charge over the top. They also carry the slightest hint of a disenchanted revolutionary, the dreams of revolutionaries being lost more often in success than in failure.

Nixon was a terrible letdown to him -- "No man ever disappointed me more" -- and Goldwater became the point man in convincing the disgraced president to leave office before an impeachment trial.

As the great conservative revolution roared into the '80s, most of its litmus-test social issues left Goldwater cold, and he often seemed as cantankerous with the new rightists as he did with the old leftists. In 1985 Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) tried to bull a school-prayer bill through the Senate. The crusty Arizonan rose indignantly. "Did you really write this bill?" he asked the new royalist of the right. "If I wrote it, I'd be ashamed of myself." The bill failed. Abortion? Years ago his wife founded the Arizona chapter of Planned Parenthood. "I think the average woman feels, 'My God, that's my business,' and that's the way we should keep it."

Ronald Reagan, of course, was the natural inheritor of the mantle, and Goldwater gives him his due. But he sees some painful squandering of the dream there, too. The Iran-contra affair was "a dreadful mistake," and he shakes his head like a Democrat at the quality of Reagan's government. "He's filled the government with people who don't know a goddammed thing about their job. When I was chairman of the communications subcommittee, he sent a man down for the FCC who, I swear to God, couldn't tune in a television set. Reagan has a very overly developed sense of loyalty. And if somebody called him and said, 'Look, Mr. President, I've got a guy I sure would like to get a job for and I gave you $50,000,' he says, 'Well, what's his name?' That's about the way we got 'em. They're not too good."

Mr. Conservative's chuckle begins almost imperceptibly. "There's a lot of misunderstanding about who's a conservative these days." The chuckle rumbles into a full, rich laugh. "I'm called, you won't believe this, I'm precinct committeeman in this district, which is a very, very conservative district, and they look on me as a socialist. They don't even invite me to Republican meetings." As the laugh rolls on, the bulldog cane taps at the weather station. "Politics moves in cycles, too."

And did you start one, Senator?

"Well, maybe. Maybe it got started with Eisenhower. I use the example of when I came into politics in the late 1920s, we had only one man, Herbert Hoover. We had no ideas, no money and no organization. We lost with Hoover and we lost for a helluva long time after that. Then, finally, we found that the Democrats were at the bottom of the cycle, no money, no ideas. Now I think the circle has turned up to about here" -- the cane points toward the ceiling -- "and I would prophesy that if George Bush wins, he will be the last Republican president in a long while. The Democrats are short only one thing, and that's new ideas. They haven't come up with one, of course, since Roosevelt. But when they do, we're going to be the out party for a number of years."

Be-Nun-I-Kin's weather station shows the rainfall for the year at 2.7 inches, an outside humidity of 18 percent and the late-morning temperature on the desert hill climbing past 95. It's time to leave.

At the doorway, Barry Goldwater pauses to survey his desert sanctuary. "How I love this place. I came up here as a kid when it was wild and untouched and I dreamed of building a house on this hill. Now, you see" -- the cane swirls hard right -- "I played over there at Camelback, but my favorite place" -- the cane swishes 180 degrees left -- "was over there in the Squaws. It used to be Squaw Tit, that big one in the middle. But we had to clean that up. Times change."

Barry Goldwater left the Senate for good in 1986, retiring in typical fashion. On "Meet the Press," a reporter asked him if he planned to run again. "Hell, no," he replied, and he didn't. William Prochnau is an author and a 1988 Alicia Patterson Fellow examining how the media reported the Vietnam war. He covered the 1964 Republican convention for The Seattle Times.