This The Godfather of American Conservatism, this is the senior Republican senator from Arizona talking, the man who has served as the “conscience” of the conservative movement for a generation.
These days, his ire is aimed at his fellow conservatives, or at least that faction that is trying to strip the courts of jurisdiction over such social issues as abortion, busing and school prayer. “This is not a conservative concept, believe me,” Goldwater said of the campaign on the courts. “I’ve spent my whole life railing against those who use any excuse to get around the law or the Constitution.” The old Arizona battler, who at one point seemed to be surrendering to age, gimpy limbs and younger ideologues, has suddenly begun to shoot holes through a lot of ideas that are described as conservative.
Abortion, he says, should be a private matter; the military budget I should be subject to greater scrutiny; arms control might not be a bad idea. Here is a man who stays true to certain basic principles, yet seems willing to learn as conditions change around him.
“We hope we can stop the others,” he said. “I don’t think anyone on this floor wants another fight, especially over abortion.
These sorts of comments pinch a throbbing nerve in the conservative camp. One of the foremost publications of the right, Human Events, recently printed an article headlined “Goldwater Dismays Conservatives Again.” And Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, said pointedly, “Goldwater has never been known as a constitutional expert.”
In response, the Arizona Republican tells his critics where to go. And while such talk is not ordinarily heard in the Capitol, normally a palace of politeness, Goldwater is not an ordinary lawmaker: candidate for president,
Senator for 26 years, the man who got Ronald Reagan into politics, a professional curmudgeon who has never put tact or delicacy high on his list of desirable political graces. He intends to retire after his current term ends in 1986 and, at the age of 73, he figures he can say anything he wants.
“When you don’t have to worry how people at home will vote,” he said, “you feel much more free to tell what you really think.”
“His chief value,” said Sen. Charles Mathias, Jr., a liberal Republican from Maryland, “is that helps makes people stop and think.”
“Rather than moving with the ideological tides,” said Mathias, “he’s clearly trying to keep his sights on the same landmarks that have always been important to.
Besides, Goldwater believes you can’t legislate morality even if you want to. He says he learned that lesson as a young man in Prohibition when he brewed illicit beer for his father. He fears that the conservative revolution led by Ronald Reagan could collapse under its own moral self-importance.
“I don’t want to see conservatism join with the ills of liberalism,” he said.
Barry Goldwater is a true Westerner, a man who prizes free will and open spaces, and he is particularly perturbed by the linkage of conservative politics with religious leaders.
In his view, they have prix-fixe moral menus: no substitutions allowed. “They say that you have to go along with them 100 percent or, by God, they’re going to get you,” the senator asserted. “That’s wrong, that’s the way the Communists talk.”
In recent years, Goldwater had virtually dropped from sight in the Senate. He had the worst attendance record in the entire body, and was viewed more as a figure of history than of current consequence. What changed all that was the right-wing attack last summer on Sandra Day O’Connor, the Arizona judge who was the first woman nominated for the Supreme Court.
The senator was irked. He came charging out of the chute like a young bronco with a burr under his saddle, and his continuing fulminations against what he sees as rightwing assaults on the Constitution have garnered wide attention. “Nothing I’ve done since I ran for presidenthas gotten as much press notice as this,” he admitted.
Like many older conservatives, Goldwater has always been suspicious of the Washington press corps, and he chides younger Republicans who “literally can’t go to the bathroom without issuing a press release.”
But no politician likes being ignored, and the “old man,” as he refers to himself, clearly likes all the fuss.