Barry Goldwater, 1909-1998

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One Sunday in the campaign fall of 1996, Barry Goldwater turned to his friend Bob Dole and in a few choice words summed up both the Goldwater legacy and its current relevance to the GOP power structure. "We're the new liberals of the Republican party," Goldwater said. "Can you imagine that?"

It had been coming for a while. When Barry Goldwater died Friday in his Arizona home at the age of 89, the Republican party to which he had devoted his political career -- the party that Goldwater had almost single-handedly transformed in the sixties from a stolid, moderate force dominated by the Eastern elite to a movement of crisp conservatism with a populist Southern and Western base -- was no longer recognizable to him.

Goldwater's 1964 Presidential campaign was a disaster for the candidate but a war won for the Republicans. Goldwater had wrested the nomination process from the kingmakers in the East, and though it ended in one of the worst defeats in American electoral history, Goldwater's brash, shoot-from-the-hip candidacy had given the GOP new energy and a new self-image -- a party of Marlboro Men, of rugged individualists, of small government and wide freedoms. A party of true Conservatives. And after four years of licking his wounds, the Senator from Arizona regained his seat and became its elder statesman.

Goldwater, born in 1909, came by that conservatism naturally. His grandparents were Polish immigrants who came to America to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and then came to frontier Arizona to escape it in eastern America. Young Barry went to a military academy in Virginia for high school, and when his father died he dropped out of the University of Arizona to join the family department-store business. Goldwater was weaned on a conservatism that valued the abilities of the individual, not one's religion, race or sexual orientation. No matter what.

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he shot back at New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and the establishment Republicans during the bruising 1964 Republican National Convention. "Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Democrats coupled that comment with Goldwater's hawkishness on Vietnam and used it to bury him in the ensuing campaign (remember the camapaign commercial with the daisy girl and the mushroom cloud?), but it was the soul of the Goldwater psyche: know your philosophy, stick to it, and never hesitate to speak your mind.

By 1980, however, Republicanism was taking on a new face. The visage of Ronald Reagan was softer, gentler, and his ideology more inclusive. Led by Reagan, the GOP began to welcome -- and promote -- the the religious right. Reagan welcomed the anti-abortionists, the prayer-in-public-school types, the virulent opponents of homosexuality. Morality became acceptable ground for government policy, and that was something that Goldwater despised.

In 1992, Barry Goldwater came out in favor of lifting the ban on gays in the military -- on the exquisitely conservative grounds that sexuality was none of the government's business. The tongue-clucking from the right was deafening. Gary Bauer, the president of the Family Research Council and now a kingmaker of the GOP's religious right, lamented publicly that "it's sad Sen. Goldwater was once the authentic voice of American conservatism." Ah, but Goldwater didn't change his stripes, the GOP did. Bauer is the "authentic voice" of something else entirely: a radical faction that is fast taking over the party -- and trampling the philosophy -- to which Goldwater dedicated his political life.

No doubt the Republican party will be well represented at Barry Goldwater's funeral. No doubt there will be speeches from the Senate floor, tributes, words of thanks. But if there is any truth left in politics, there will be a lot of red faces. Because the party that this week comes to praise the father of modern conservatism -- the Grand Old Party that owes him so much of the political power it enjoys today -- buried Barry Goldwater years ago.