06/15/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Not long before Barry Goldwater, 89 and weakened by a series of strokes, died on May 29, his wife, Susan, asked him if he was frightened by the prospect of death. Gazing out from his modernist house overlooking Phoenix, he thought the question over, then looked her in the eye and said, "You know, I've never been frightened of anything in my whole life."
Certainly, the five-term Republican senator from Arizona never seemed tentative in any endeavor, whether ferrying C-47 cargo planes over the hump between India and China as a young airman in World War II or shooting the Colorado River rapids with his grandchildren at 84. Least of all did the specter of defeat that paralyzes so many politicians exert the slightest influence over Goidwater, whose unvarnished opinions on everything from civil-rights legislation to defoliating Vietnam with nuclear weapons earned him a spectacular thumping at the hands of Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election.
Through three decades of Washington politics, Gold-water remained engagingly blunt. "He had a Gary Cooper-like simplicity, that sort of plain, clean American heart," says CNBC commentator Chris Matthews. Goldwater drank hard, flew planes for fun, played with his ham radio, told coarse jokes and pitched political bombshells as nonchalantly as he once talked of lobbing a nuke "into the men's room in the Kremlin."
Goldwater's faithfulness to his own conscience sometimes led him to what seemed strikingly contradictory positions. He defended the radical-right John Birch Society but claimed liberal Hubert Humphrey as his best friend in the Senate. And though he defended Richard Nixon, his party's standard-bearer, all through the dark days of Watergate, finally, disillusioned, he called him "the most dishonest individual I have ever met."
As severe arthritis sapped Goldwater's energy in later years, he became more a monument than a force in the conservative Republican party he helped create, but he lived to see many of the ideas for which he had once been ridiculed—such as dismantling the welfare system and eliminating the progressive income tax—enter the mainstream. Ironically, by the 1980s, he sometimes found himself shunned by fellow conservatives for standing up to the Christian right over abortion rights (his first wife, Peggy, who died in 1985, had founded the Arizona chapter of Planned Parenthood) and gay rights. Goldwater, a retired Air Force Reserve major general, shocked some old friends in 1993 when he declared his support for gays in the military after his gay grandson, Ty Ross, introduced him to an airman who was facing discharge for coming out as a homosexual. "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight," Goldwater declared. Says political pundit Patrick Buchanan, "He was the Moses of the conservative movement. He led us to the promised land but didn't make it himself."
The Goldwater roots in Arizona ran deep. His paternal grandfather, Michael Goldwasser, an immigrant Jewish peddler, opened a general store in the mining town of Prescott in the 1870s. Goldwater's mother, Josephine Williams Goldwater, a Nebraskan, was territorial Arizona's first registered nurse. His uncle Morris helped found the Democratic party in Arizona and taught him, Goldwater once said, that "limited government was the secret of keeping freedom."
At 20, in 1929, Goldwater was thrust into managing the family's department store when his father, Baron, died. He entered politics in 1949, winning a Phoenix City Council seat on a nonpartisan businessman's slate. Three years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate, riding on the coattails of a wildly popular Dwight D. Eisenhower. Later in life, Goldwater feared he had failed his first wife (he married his second, Susan, a hospice nurse, in 1992) and their four children, observing glumly, "A man can't be a soldier or a politician and simultaneously call himself a good, attentive father." In the end, all he wanted, he once said, was to be remembered—as he almost surely will be—as "an honest man who did his best."
Leslie Berestein in Phoenix