Barry Goldwater, Patriot and Politician
By John McCain
There are some people in public life who speak their minds candidly, whose honesty and passion for the truth, as God has given them light to see the truth, contrasts starkly with the sail-trimming and obfuscation so common in political speech today.
Then there are those politicians who pride themselves on being accomplished legislators, whose careers are marked by lasting contributions to the governance of their country, who toil for years at the often dull and exacting work of lawmaking.
Barry Goldwater was the rare politician who managed to be both, an outspoken, truth-telling patriot who took his obligations as a lawmaker seriously and who helped shape the destiny of a great nation. His uncommon honesty and ability made him an American legend in his own time.
It sometimes seems today as if we mistake notoriety or ephemeral celebrity for legend. But the attention accorded by the media heroes of the moment often passes as quickly as it arrives. Goldwater earned the high regard that a grateful nation held him in for so many years, and will still hold him in long after today's passing objects of the public eye fade into obscurity.
Barry Goldwater, who died yesterday at 89, built his reputation on the firmer ground of honor and duty. He once wrote that he was "better equipped to be a military officer than a politician. There's no greater service to this country than the defense of its freedom." That self-assessment was uncharacteristically mistaken. Barry was a superb military officer, but he was also an extraordinarily gifted politician. That he was an unusually open, honest and no-nonsense politician did not make him unsuited for the profession, only uncommon. In uniform and in politics, Barry's purpose was the defense of freedom, and nobody before or since managed the task more ably or more colorfully. He was an authentic, original and passionate patriot.
When we recall Barry Goldwater's long and distinguished career, we are reminded of the best attributes of a public servant. A great person's biography is marked by consistency, integrity and lasting achievement. Such was the life and career of Barry Goldwater. He held his principles close to his heart, where he held his love of country. He lived his public and private lives according to those principles, and woe to the miscreant who ran afoul of them. He always rushed to defend his ground, whether or not the ground he defended was in fashion at the time.
The changes in political attitudes that occur regularly in any nation's history often weaken the resolve of ordinary statesmen. But extraordinary statesmen do not let the vagaries of public opinion impair their vision or weaken their heart. Whether or not the times favored him, Barry believed in what he was doing. He did not tailor his message or trim his cause in deference to the prevailing sentiments about the style and purpose of politics. He made the times come to him.
Harry Truman once said that he never gave anybody hell. "I just tell the truth," he said, "and they think it's hell." Throughout his life, Barry Goldwater told a lot of truth to a lot of people. Two years ago, I went to see Barry. We talked about campaign finance reform. I told him that most of the Republicans were opposed to it. This giant of the Republican Party looked at me, paused and said, "Well, to hell with them."
On occasion, I found myself the beneficiary of Barry's truth-telling. The memory of the experience cautions me to this day to discharge my responsibilities in such a way so that I might avoid giving Barry too much cause to further enlighten me.
It is nearly impossible to list all his accomplishments in a public career that spanned four decades. Nor can the most detailed list adequately explain the extraordinary national and international importance of Barry Goldwater's public service. But even a cursory glance at his achievements indicates the breadth of his interests, and the strength of his devotion to Americans.
Much has been written about how Barry never gave a damn for the perquisites of high office or for the blandishments of public relations specialists who sometimes seem to have seized control of American politics. But no one ever mistook Barry's self-confidence for an absence of concern for America. From his dedicated and just service to Native Americans while serving on the Indian Affairs Committee to his special care for our national heritage, exemplified by his authorship of the Grand Canyon Park Enlargement Act, Barry Goldwater gave a damn about his country, not just for his sake, but for ours.
This nation never had a more ardent defender of liberty than Barry Goldwater. Simply put, he was in love with freedom. He could never abide any restriction on the exercise of freedom as long as that exercise did not interfere with someone else's freedom. No matter the prevailing political sensibilities, no matter the personal risk to his career, no political gain was so important to Barry that it was worth infringing on another American's freedom.
Americans conceive of freedom in many ways: the freedom to be left alone or to join with others in a common purpose; the freedom to prosper or to waste; the freedom to worship God in whatever way we choose or not to worship at all; the freedom to say whatever we like or to remain silent; the freedom to succeed or to fail; the freedom to be brave or cowardly; the freedom to be generous or selfish; to be prideful or humble; to be good or not.
Barry defended freedom in all its manifestations because he saw what freedom conferred on America the distinction of being the last, best hope of humanity, the haven and advocate for all who believe in the God-given dignity of the human being. Barry loved his country because freedom is America's honor.
His outspoken defense of liberty at home was equaled by the care he took in protecting our security abroad. Perhaps his most lasting legislative achievement was the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act. Only Barry had the stature and resolve to undertake the systemic reform of the military. And, as we observed the splendid performance of our military in the Persian Gulf War, notably free of the chain-of-command and service-rivalry problems of the past, and saw the extraordinary effectiveness of their weapons, from the Patriot Missile to the M1 tank, we witnessed the great contribution Barry Goldwater made to the defense of our freedoms. It is no exaggeration to say that today's American armed forces, which have no equal, are the armed forces Barry Goldwater created.
I am both blessed and burdened to have succeeded Barry Goldwater to the United States Senate. I am blessed by the honor of it, but burdened by the certain knowledge that long after I have left public office, Americans will still celebrate the contributions Barry Goldwater made to their well-being, while I and my successors will enjoy much less notable reputations. Barry Goldwater will always be the Senator from Arizona, the one history recalls with appreciation and delight. In all the histories of American politics, Barry Goldwater will remain a chapter unto himself. The rest of us will have to make do as footnotes.
John McCain, a Republican, is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company