The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Barry Goldwater was my grandfather. Today’s GOP would have to censure him, too.

His conservatism was more like Cindy McCain’s than the Arizona Republican Party’s.

Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) speaks to reporters Aug. 7, 1974, after meeting with President Richard M. Nixon at the White House to discuss Nixon's decision to resign. (AP)
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The Arizona Republican Party is considering a censure of Cindy McCain: The draft resolution already passed in committee and will be voted on Saturday by the full body of several hundred state committeemen. They’ll also be voting on resolutions to censure former senator Jeff Flake and Gov. Doug Ducey. The resolution reportedly condemns McCain for supporting “leftist causes such as gay marriage” and issues that “run counter to Republican values”; failing “to support Conservative Republican candidates such as President Trump”; and condemning Trump for his criticism of her husband.

Leave aside the weirdness of censuring someone who doesn’t take kindly to criticism of her own husband. In the era of Donald Trump, a move like this, sadly, isn’t surprising: Though he’s no longer president, the vindictive spirit Trump brought to the GOP won’t fade away easily. But what might be a surprise to Arizona’s Republican Party, which appears not to know its history, is that party members are poised to censure a woman whose beliefs line up with the late Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater — Arizona’s “Mr. Conservative” — a lot more closely than theirs.

Goldwater — my beloved grandfather, whom we kids always called “Paka” — was the most conservative national figure in our lifetimes. He admired Americans such as Sen. John McCain who had served their country in uniform. He would have been repulsed by Trump. And at the end of his career, Paka spoke in favor of gay rights.

So if you go by the Arizona GOP’s list of apparent gripes with Cindy McCain, then censuring her means they’d have to censure him, too.

Love him or hate him, to understand my grandfather, it’s important to remember that he was born in Arizona when it was still a territory, not a state. Like many politicians in the American West, his small-L libertarian streak came from a desire to be left as far as possible out of the federal government’s reach. He was criticized in his day for a hawkish posture toward the Soviet Union; and he’s still criticized for voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The line often quoted from his 1964 Republican National Convention speech is: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He was a hard-liner.

Trumpism expanded the GOP tent. Don’t expect Republicans to abandon it now.

But my grandfather wasn’t a rabble-rouser. He was an institutionalist who served for three decades in the Senate, became a general in the Air Force Reserve and wrote, in “The Conscience of a Conservative,” that he didn’t lay blame on “my brethren in government” for any failure of conservative principles to gain traction. He believed it was incumbent upon conservatives to persuade liberals of the rightness of their ideas.

My grandfather and President Biden served together in the Senate for more than a decade. When my grandfather retired from Congress, then-Rep. John McCain won his Senate seat. Paka certainly had ideological differences with both men, but he would have shared their disdain for Trump, whom he would’ve considered unprincipled, and wouldn’t have considered a true conservative, despite being a Republican in name. Having lost a presidential race himself, my grandfather would have been appalled by the Capitol riot — and by the constitutional madness that Trump encouraged by refusing to accept the November election’s outcome.

When President Richard M. Nixon resigned his office, rather than face impeachment, Sen. Goldwater and fellow Arizonan John Rhodes — then the Republican leader in the House of Representatives — paid Nixon a visit at the White House, signaling that Republicans understood Nixon’s time was at an end. The idea of trying to overturn the results of a free and fair election would have been foreign to him.

A constitutionalist, Goldwater would have opposed Trump’s reliance on governing by executive order. As someone who believed in self-reliance, not the crowd, he would have opposed today’s Republican litmus test, which seems to hold that loyalty to Trump is what matters over loyalty to country. And as someone devoted to individual liberty, he would recoil at the idea that Cindy McCain would face censure for supporting LGBT rights.

My wife guarded the Capitol. My mom joined the horde surrounding it.

As The Washington Post reported in 1994, he came to believe that “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.” Not everyone had to share his view, he said, but gays and lesbians “have a constitutional right to be gay.”

Censuring anyone for speaking their mind isn’t what my grandfather was about. A Republican candidate like Trump denigrating a military hero like Senator McCain would have been nearly inconceivable. Censuring Cindy McCain, just because she didn’t genuflect to Trump, would have struck him as stupid. Arizona’s Republican Party turning its back on traditional conservatism would have been a great disappointment to him, but he would have known how to respond: “A lot of so-called conservatives today don’t know what the word means,” he said late in his life. Today, they might censure him for it.

Correction: Goldwater served in the Senate for three decades. He served for almost two decades after he ran for president.