Barry Goldwater, Mr. Conservative, dies at age 89 Arizona senator founded a movement that swept country

May 30, 1998|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Barry M. Goldwater, the straight-talking "Mr. Conservative" whose campaign as the Republican presidential nominee in 1964 laid the groundwork for a movement that eventually dominated national politics, died at his Arizona home yesterday at age 89.

In wresting that GOP nomination from the hands of the party's liberal-to-moderate Eastern establishment, the uncompromising Westerner was the John the Baptist of the modern conservative movement. He was not its savior -- that role would fall to Ronald Reagan -- but Mr. Goldwater paved the way for Mr. Reagan in a failed and quixotic yet ground-breaking White House bid.

When Mr. Reagan was elected president in 1980, Mr. Goldwater told a news conference in his characteristic cowboy language: "It was me who got Reagan into politics. If it hadn't been for me, he would still be chasing cows over the horizon."

A popular and widely respected five-term senator, who retired in 1986 but continued to frequently make news with his outspoken pronouncements, Mr. Goldwater died at home of what his family called natural causes.

"He was in his own bed, in his own room, as he wished, overlooking the valley he loved with family at his side," said a statement released by the family. "He died as he lived: with dignity, courage and humility."

At his bedside was his second wife, Susan -- a woman 32 years his junior whom Mr. Goldwater married in 1992. His first wife, Peggy, with whom he had two sons and two daughters, died in 1985, the year before he left Congress.

A pilot and mountain climber who remained in vigorous good health until his 80s, Goldwater suffered a stroke in 1996 that damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, which controls memory and personality. In September 1997, his family said Mr. Goldwater was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. In recent months, he made no public appearances.

Praised by Clinton

President Clinton, recalling several meetings with the former Republican standard-bearer, called him "a great patriot and a truly fine human being."

One who knew him much better was a fellow Republican Westerner in the Senate, Paul Laxalt. The former Nevada senator said that "without his vision, courage and leadership, the conservative movement would probably have had a much less significant impact on our nation."

Former first lady Nancy Reagan called Mr. Goldwater "a man of tremendous grit and conviction. He was a forward thinker who initiated a crusade that launched a revolution. It wasn't fashionable to be conservative back then, but Barry was willing to defy conventional wisdom and inspire us as the conscience of the conservative movement." Despite Senator Goldwater's lopsided loss to President Lyndon B. Johnson -- he collected only 39 percent of the vote and carried only five Southern states and his own Arizona, the campaign gave party conservatives a toehold they have yet to relinquish.

Even in defeat, Mr. Goldwater became the emblem of a conservatism that rose from the ashes only four years later in the 1968 comeback election of Republican Richard M. Nixon and that reached full flower in Mr. Reagan's landslide capture of the White House in 1980.

In the Senate, Mr. Goldwater was known predominantly as staunchly pro-military and anti-Communist. He became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

He was sharply critical of what he called no-win policies pursued by the United States in the Korean and Vietnam wars but was always a stalwart champion of the men and women who fought in them.

An Army Air Force pilot in World War II, Senator Goldwater wanted to be known first and foremost as a patriot. But as a result of his blunt rhetoric, he was chided by his Democratic foes as "the mad bomber" whose finger on the nuclear button as president would be a dire risk the country could not afford to take.

Most memorable words

His most memorable words were uttered in his acceptance speech at the raucous GOP convention in San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1964: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!"

The declaration fired his supporters in the convention hall to a frenzy, but it only gave more ammunition to the Democrats to shoot him down in November.

Mr. Goldwater's nomination amounted to a party coup d'etat. The GOP was then supposedly in the tight grip of its Eastern establishment headed by former Gov. Thomas E. Dewey of New York, a two-time loser as the party's presidential nominee.

But Mr. Goldwater, suggesting at one point that the country would be better off if the whole Eastern seaboard were sawed off and floated out into the Atlantic Ocean, beat Eastern favorite Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York in the campaign's critical late primary in California. He was nominated by dint of a masterful state-by-state grass-roots quest for convention delegates, focused on conservative states in the South, the farm belt of the Midwest, and the Far West.

Reckless image

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