Only Barry Goldwater -- Mr. Republican, Mr. Conservative -- could have come up with such an exit line after his biggest legislative triumph, unanimous Senate passage of the most sweeping reform of the Defense Department in 39 years.

"We better come up with somebody," Goldwater told fellow Republicans, "or I'm going to support this guy for president. He's terrific."

With that, he canted his head toward a Democrat -- Sam Nunn of Georgia, ranking minority member on the Armed Services Committee.

As Nunn fumbled with a gracious response, Goldwater signaled an aide to roll his wheelchair out of the press gallery. Wednesday had been quite a day for the 77-year-old Arizonan, who is nearing the end of a 30-year Senate career.

In 7 hours and 10 minutes, Goldwater had persuaded every senator on the floor to vote for changes the Pentagon had opposed for years. In the course of the debate, one senator after another stopped by Goldwater's desk to pat his arm, shake his hand, slap him on the shoulder.

They wanted to thank him for gritting it out, for taking on the military for what he considered its own good, for sitting through countless hours of hearings on the bill, despite mental and physical anguish stemming from the death of his wife, Peggy, shortly before Christmas, and the relentless deterioration of his hips and knees.

One of many emotional moments came when Nunn rose to name the measure the "Barry Goldwater Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986."

Goldwater, on crutches, struggled to his feet to protest that he did not deserve such an honor. Finally, choking back a sob, he relented, saying:

"Damn. The hell with it. When you get old, you get to the point where you can't say thank you. I'll just shut up and let you do what you want."

"Barry," said Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) in one of the many floor speeches that skipped the formalities and talked about Goldwater the man and his legislative accomplishment, "were it not for your willingness to sign on, with all the good offices, with all the imagination, with all the good thinking, with all the fine draftsmanship, with all the fine ideas of the senator from Georgia, and others, this would not have come to fruition.

"I want to say to you that I have always admired you," Biden continued, "but I have never admired you more than when you took this on and brought it about in a way which no one else has been able to do.

"You know that old comment -- and you will not like the comparison -- that only Nixon could go to China. Only Goldwater could produce this. If anybody else had been the one who had been advocating this reorganization, every military man and woman at the Pentagon would have been down on our backs as 'communist sympathizers.' "

After the Senate had voted 95 to 0 for the bill, Goldwater -- former pilot and presidential nominee -- told reporters in the gallery:

"It's the only goddamn thing I've done in the Senate that's worth a damn."

Departing the gallery, he added, "I can go home happy, sit up on my hill and shoot the jack rabbits."