Barry Goldwater, the blunt-spoken, charismatic senator and failed presidential nominee who hurled conservative rhetoric as surely as old-time gunslingers from his native Arizona fired bullets, died Friday in his suburban Phoenix home. He was 89.
Goldwater, who more than any other person was the catalyst who transformed the modern-day conservative movement from a lonely voice in the wilderness into a potent political force, died of natural causes, according to a statement released by his family.
The announcement, ending days of public speculation about Goldwater's precarious health, added: "He was in his own bed, in his own room, as he wished, overlooking the valley he loved with family at his side. He died as he lived: with dignity, courage and humility."
The ever-influential politician, who left the U.S. Senate in 1986 after more than 30 years of service, had been in poor health since a 1996 stroke that damaged the frontal lobe of his brain, which controls memory and personality. His biographer Jack Casserly said in September 1997 that the wizened campaigner suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Goldwater had successfully undergone triple bypass heart surgery in 1982.
Calling him "truly an American original," President Clinton praised Goldwater on Friday as "a great patriot and a truly fine human being."
Barry Morris Goldwater failed miserably when he sought the presidency in 1964, but the ideas and philosophy he articulated became a formula for victory when former disciple Ronald Reagan won the nation's highest office by a landslide in 1980.
There were other factors involved in Reagan's triumph, of course. But Reagan's basic campaign theme was essentially the same one Goldwater had sounded 16 years earlier--cut big government, slash spending and taxes, hack away at the jungle of federal regulations and red tape, and bolster national defense.
"Barry Goldwater was Ronald Reagan's John the Baptist," is the way a friend of the senator once put it.
Nancy Reagan, speaking for herself and her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease, issued a statement Friday expressing sorrow and remembering Goldwater as "a forward thinker who initiated a crusade that launched a revolution."
"It wasn't fashionable to be conservative back then," she said, "but Barry was willing to defy conventional wisdom and inspire us as the conscience of the conservative movement."
Goldwater had a habit of speaking from the hip, an impulsiveness that caused many voters to fear he was a trigger-happy adventurer who might start a nuclear war.
"They were afraid of me," Goldwater wrote years later in explaining his overwhelming loss in 1964 to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Connecting With the Electorate
Despite his defeat, Goldwater exposed a deep vein of discontent in the electorate that subsequent conservative campaigners, particularly Reagan, exploited to woo vast numbers of voters away from the Democratic Party. Indeed, in his memoirs, "With No Apologies," published in 1979, Goldwater maintained that even Democrat Jimmy Carter used Goldwater campaign issues to good effect.
"In 1976, Jimmy Carter picked up many of my complaints," Goldwater wrote. "I truly believe he won that election because the people are sick and tired of federal control, federal taxes, inflation and the lessening of individual freedom. It is tragic that once he was elected, Jimmy Carter promptly forgot his campaign promises."
It was an anomaly that Goldwater, the grandson of a Polish Jewish immigrant, a resident of a Western state and a man with scant political experience before entering the Senate, should have had such a profound impact on American politics.
When Goldwater arrived in the Senate in 1953, after riding to a narrow victory on the presidential coattails of Dwight D. Eisenhower, there were several nationally known conservatives already on the scene: Republicans Robert A. Taft (Ohio), William F. Knowland (California), Styles Bridges (New Hampshire), Eugene D. Millikin (Colorado), Bourke B. Hickenlooper (Iowa), Homer E. Capehart (Indiana), John W. Bricker (Ohio), William E. Jenner (Indiana) and Joseph R. McCarthy (Wisconsin).
Taft, the conservative hero of the day, died a few months after Goldwater arrived, and by the end of his first term, Goldwater was beginning to inherit Taft's mantle.
However, except for a similarity in viewpoints, there was a world of difference between the two men. Taft, a Harvard University-trained lawyer, was an intellectual. Goldwater, who left college after one year to work in his family's Phoenix clothing store, made no pretense of erudition.
And Goldwater had a quality that Taft lacked--charisma. Taft, balding and bookish, had a rigid personal dignity that made him appear aloof. Goldwater, with his silver hair and rugged features, presented the image of a confident frontiersman of the Old West.