Older, Wiser but Still Prickly as a Saguaro, Barry Goldwater Remembers When Right Was Wrong

Like an eagle at rest, Barry Goldwater is perched high in the window-walled study of Be-Nun-I-Kin, his opulent aerie on Scorpion Hill, watching the dusty desert blow into the green and glassy reaches of Phoenix. The famous chiseled features are softening some, the tanned skin is craggier now, and the joints are stiff with arthritis. Dressed in an elegant blue jumpsuit with a gold buckle, he apologizes for staying seated at his desk when visitors come and go. Some days it is just too painful to walk.

But the raptor eyes are sharp behind Goldwater’s signature horn-rimmed glasses, and they dart and skip where he no longer can move with ease. Eighty on New Year’s Day, widowed since 1985 and alone in the rambling neo-Navaho ranch house surrounded by silent cactus sentinels, Goldwater is home to roost, retired after five terms in the Senate, free to play in his ham-radio shack and tinker with his gadgets. Back home in Arizona, he can look out on a political landscape radically redrawn to the conservative lines he imagined some 30 years ago. Godfather of the New Right and precursor of the Reagan revolution, Goldwater was once branded a dangerous extremist. Now the danger seems remote; his ideas are the stuff of everyday politics.

In Washington there’s a new President in the White House, and the old warrior wishes him well. “I look for Bush to have a very, very good tenure,” Goldwater says. “I think the American people are pretty much behind him. But had the Republicans lost this last presidential race, the country would have started down the wrong path again, and I think it would have probably meant the end of our free government. To me, that’s the only thing worth fighting for.”

Goldwater’s autobiography, Goldwater, written with reporter Jack Casserly, is a surprise best-seller this winter, and the reason is simple. It is full of the blunt, sometimes apocalyptic opinions that he inherited from his peddler-frontiersmen ancestors. Not quite a cowboy, he still evinces the lean figure of the lonesome rider on the plains, the rugged individualist of American myth. “My old Uncle Morris, who helped found the Democrat Party in the Arizona Territory, was my chief instructor,” Goldwater says, “and he firmly believed that limited government was the secret of keeping freedom. All our efforts were directed at that.”

Goldwater’s personal best effort for what his supporters have always called the Cause was his fierce and prophetic race for the Presidency in 1964. Defying conventional wisdom, he adopted a platform based on principle and political philosophy rather than on convenience and popular fancy. Such convictions—and their brusque expression—did not sit well with the more modulated masses across the country, who cast their votes overwhelmingly for Lyndon Johnson.

Now, looking back across the decades, Goldwater sees that there was no way that he could have won just one year after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. “The country was not ready for three Presidents in 3½ years,” he says. The war in Vietnam was escalating by the month, and, in Goldwater’s view, Johnson was responsible for losing it. “When you go to war, you decide to win it the same second you decide to go in it. Johnson just did not understand that.” If he had won, Goldwater thinks he could have ended the war in a flash. “First I’d drop leaflets on North Vietnam, then drop 500-pound bombs. Make a swamp out of North Vietnam. The war would have been over in two or three weeks.”

But, he insists, “I’d never use nuclear weapons.” In the heat of the 1964 race, he was reviled by the Democrats as a nuclear warmonger, and the charge stuck. Their most effective advertisement—broadcast on national television only once during the campaign—showed a little girl picking petals off a daisy; a voice-over entoned an ominous countdown, and the short spot ended with the looming eruption of a mushroom cloud. The unspoken message was horribly clear: Goldwater equals incineration. The commercial, he says, was the brainchild of former Johnson aide Bill Moyers, now a respected public television journalist, and to this day its disingenuousness causes Goldwater pain. Moyers “has lectured us on truth, the public trust, a fairer and finer America,” he writes. “Every time I see him, I get sick to my stomach and want to throw up.”

Honesty counts for a lot with Goldwater and, more than any political program, constitutes “the conscience of a conservative”—the title of his 1960 book. There is something about the clear light and stark shadows of the western desert that suggests a frank and open mind, and as the West has come to play a leading role in modern America, Goldwater’s stature has grown apace.

Certainly there’s no love lost between him and the East. “Back in the 1920s, I used to go to New York to buy for my firm” (the landmark Goldwaters department store, founded by his grandfather), he recalls. “They wouldn’t take a check on a bank outside the city. They didn’t think Arizona had banks. That’s when I first said, let’s cut the whole Eastern Seaboard off and turn it loose in the ocean.”

To Goldwater and his followers, the liberal Eastern Republicans were a greater evil than the Democrats, and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, their leader, tantamount to Satan. The two men heaped contempt on each other during the presidential primary in 1964. Rockefeller denounced “extremist elements” in the party, evoking images of McCarthyism. Goldwater counterattacked at the Republicans’ uproarious convention at San Francisco’s old Cow Palace. Rising like a prophetic figure at the podium, he proclaimed, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” The words are worthy of a Patrick Henry, and they galvanized the Goldwater delegates. Bumper stickers sprouted on cars all over America: IN YOUR HEART YOU KNOW HE’S RIGHT.

But revolutionaries are rarely honored before the revolution. IN YOUR HEART YOU KNOW HE’S NUTS, the Democrats countered, in what became the first war of the political bumper stickers. In the end, the Republican ticket lost 45 states.

Undeterred, Goldwater—who returned to the Senate when a seat opened in 1968—kept working hard to forge a new conservative coalition, giving thousands of speeches at the grass roots level, eating countless dinners of rubber chicken and soggy peas. “It was a deliberate thing,” Goldwater says. “There were strategies, and it wasn’t just some-thing that happened out of the blue.”

The Cause left little time for ham radio, flying (his passion), old cars (Goldwater spent more than $110,000 customizing a 1969 Javelin AMX) or his family. Peggy, his wife of 51 years, was often alone at Be-Nun-I-Kin (it means “house on the top of the hill” in Navaho) raising the children: Joanne, 53, a Phoenix caterer; Barry Jr., 50, a onetime California Congressman who, with Watergate witness John Dean, now counsels investors in L.A.; Michael, 48, a director of project developments for a Phoenix construction company; and Peggy, 44, who has a salad-dressing business. Goldwater “never dealt with the kids,” says Barry Jr. “He was always away, in the war, in Washington. With my father, work came before family.”

Barry Sr.’s distinctive stock—a blend of German-Jewish merchant and WASP-Western adventurer—is given more to action than to displays of affection. Phoenix was a sandy stop on the way west when the Goldwaters arrived there in prestate-hood days and began building up their retail chain. Goldwater attended military school and later—despite poor eyesight and advancing years—talked his way into the Army Air Corps during World War II. He piloted unpressurized C-47s over the Himalayan “Hump” and ferried war matériel to Russian allies in Iran. It was his first brush with the Soviets, who were to become his implacable enemy.

“Several of us would go over to [the Persian Gulf] to teach the Russian pilots how to fly our airplanes,” Goldwater recalls. “They are delightful people. They couldn’t speak English, we couldn’t speak Russian. They didn’t understand Communism, but they were fighting for their country, and that’s something you have to admire in the Soviets. They’re people, the same as we are.” For years after that, Goldwater wanted to visit Russia. “I was violently opposed to Communism, but I was never opposed to opening discussion with the Soviet Union,” he says. “But the State Department said I shouldn’t go. The newspapers in Russia carried far dirtier cartoons about me than anything in this country.”

When he returned to Phoenix after the war to work in the family business, the city was expanding, and Goldwater waded into politics to lead the modernization process. He campaigned for a “right to work” referendum against the local labor unions, he won election to the city council, and he served on the commission that planned the diversion of the West’s greatest water resource to Arizona.

Phoenix is a vastly different place today. The valley below Goldwater’s home is filling up with housing tracts, shopping malls, swimming pools, freeways and smog. Cowboys and Indians have been squeezed out by retirees and yuppies. So different in history and tastes are the newcomers, in fact, that Goldwater won his last election to the Senate, in 1980, by a surprisingly slim majority.

Ironically, the 15-year conservative transformation of the Republican Party has often left its torchbearer in the dark. In Phoenix, the party has moved so far to the right “they think I’m practically a socialist,” Goldwater says. “They don’t invite me to their meetings.” He has called the new Christian Right “extreme,” echoing the charge that Rockefeller once leveled against him. “[Jerry] Falwell needed a swift kick in the ass,” Goldwater writes. “Our Constitution seeks to allow freedom for everyone, not merely those professing certain moral or religious views.” And while he says he personally dislikes abortion, he has recently been quoted in favor of women’s reproductive rights—in part, perhaps, in deference to his wife, who founded the Arizona chapter of Planned Parenthood.

Moreover, Goldwater’s relationship to the last three Republican Presidents has sometimes been cool. “We won’t even talk about [former President Richard] Nixon,” says Goldwater. But in his book he snarls, “Nixon was the most dishonest individual I ever met in my life.”

The televised speech that Ronald Reagan gave for Goldwater in 1964 propelled Reagan into national prominence. The two men fell out in 1976 when Goldwater supported Gerald Ford’s nomination over a Reagan challenge. Goldwater supported Reagan in 1980 and ’84 and gives the man who put the conservative agenda into practice high marks for “inspiration” and F’s for administration. The White House version of the Iran-contra affair, says Goldwater, “makes Reagan out to be a liar or an incompetent.” As for Reagan’s appointments, “Any other President would have gotten rid of [former Attorney General Edwin] Meese in a week,” he says. Perhaps most startling, Goldwater disagrees with Reagan’s stand on the Middle East. “My feeling is that the Palestinians should have a land to live on,” he says. “They’ve never had an acre they could call their own. I don’t think, out of a sense of decency to human beings, we should deny them that.”

Now Goldwater worries that Bush may be the last Republican President for a long time. “I would have to think that the conservatives, in order to stay alive, will have to embrace some of the things that we now do not embrace,” he says. “People say to me, ‘Well, what would you do about welfare?’ thinking I would stamp it out. No—but I would take a long, hard look at it. There has never been a welfare state in history that hasn’t turned into a dictatorship. I don’t see that happening, but I’m not going to be alive forever.”

But in the noontime light of Be-Nun-I-Kin, Goldwater looks like he may outlast us all. (Son Barry Jr. says, “He has had every major joint in his body taken apart and scraped, but other than that, he has the body of a 35-year-old.”) He rises at 5 in the morning, works out in the gym, goes through the mail and has begun computer lessons. He gives seminars at Arizona State University, where he holds the endowed Barry Goldwater Chair of American Institutions.

Washington is a world away. Although he campaigned for Bush where it counted (in New Hampshire, just before the crucial primary last winter), Goldwater didn’t hesitate to speak his mind when the party’s strategy took the low road. “Go back and tell George Bush to start talking about the issues, okay?” Goldwater said sharply to Dan Quayle on a Phoenix campaign stop last September. (He has known the new Vice-President since Quayle was a child because Quayle’s maternal grandfather, Eugene Pulliam, was the publisher of Phoenix’s archconservative Arizona Republic.) So far, the new Administration has not called him for advice or counsel.

“I think Bush wants to solve his problems on his own,” Goldwater offers, “and I say, let him have it, it’s all right with me. When he wants to, he’ll call me. He knows he can. He has my number.”

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