On Saturday I will join Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and many other state dignitaries to dedicate the Barry Morris Goldwater Memorial in Paradise Valley.
The memorial’s dedication coincides with the anniversary of Arizona’s entrance into the union–February 14, and that is especially fitting. For few men fit the place they lived as well as Senator Barry Goldwater. As columnist George Will put it: “The geometry of his face–the planes of his strong jaw and high forehead–replicated the buttes and mesas of the Southwest, and the crow’s-feet that crinkled the corners of his eyes seemed made by squinting into sunsets.”
Barry could be tough as the Petrified Forest; as memorable as the Grand Canyon; as unyielding as the Sonoran desert; and, sometimes, as prickly as an ocotillo.
For all of the tributes and fond remembrances we offered Barry this week, the great irony is that he couldn’t care less whether we liked him or not. He was not a legislator who lived for the accolades of pundits.
I first met him when I was a student at the University of Arizona and over the years would have the good fortune to benefit many times from his simple common sense. I’ve never met anyone so comfortable with who he was; he didn’t have to prove anything to anybody. Sometimes he’d give you advice. Sometimes he’d make a wisecrack about some political figure or whatever happened to bother him at the moment. Sometimes he didn’t have much he wanted to say at all.
And sometimes he’d just be ornery. In its remembrance of Goldwater after his death in 1998, the Washington Post wrote of an interview it conducted with him a few years earlier. As the Post described it: “Distracted by the yapping of his wife’s pet schnauzer, Goldwater began the session by roaring at his secretary: ‘Throw that damn dog in the incinerator and turn it on!’”
That’s just how Barry was. He said what he thought and made no apologies for it. He casually opined one day that his friend, Bob Dole, had a “mean temper”; bluntly told Nixon he had to resign his office; and observed to a reporter that the best thing Bill Clinton could do as president was “shut up.”
Barry took positions many of us applauded–such as his warning that a government “big enough to give you all you want is big enough to take it all away”–and some with which we wouldn’t have agreed. But Arizonans respected the man; we knew he acted from sincere belief, not poll-tested populism.
We miss him now because he embodies the sort of conviction that modern-day politics often lacks. Barry would have scoffed at today’s focus groups, instant “analysis” on cable news, and 24/7 political gossip on the Internet.
He ran for president against daunting odds, challenging an incumbent, Lyndon Johnson, who clung tenaciously to the image of his assassinated predecessor, John F. Kennedy. Rather than pose as a so-called “Establishment Republican”–which often meant a Republican the media might like–Goldwater put himself forward as an unapologetic conservative, railing against a permissive culture and advocating a tougher policy against the Soviet Union. A reporter covering him as he accepted the Republican nomination gasped in bewilderment: “He’s going to run as Goldwater!”
Indeed he did. He lost in a landslide that year, but he was big enough to joke about it. When his friend, Senator George McGovern, was similarly throttled by Richard Nixon, Goldwater was among the first to send him a note. It read: “George, if you’ve got to lose, lose big.”
But America would soon catch up with Barry, and appreciate him all the more. He was the true father of the Reagan Revolution, of peace through strength, of Western superiority over Communism, of a strong military. Frustrated by griping from conservatives that they could never retake their party from the establishment, he memorably snapped at the 1960 convention: “Grow up, conservatives.” And they did.
His candor never contained malice. In fact, he could be a gentle, compassionate person with a keen understanding of our diverse culture. He reached out to Arizona’s Native American community not because he’d get a nice picture in the paper, but because of a life-long appreciation and respect for Native American life. And he loved Arizona, and its natural treasures, from the day he was born until the day he died. When his Senate career ended in 1987, he went back home to the state that had born and bred him.
“You either take Goldwater or you leave him,” he once growled to a columnist after he was asked about one of his blunt opinions.
I think we’ll take him. Arizonans will never see anyone quite like him again.
–Senator Jon Kyl is a Republican senator from Arizona.