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In an outspoken and outrageous run for the presidency in 1964, Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona suffered an extraordinary defeat that seemed to consign him and all conservatives to political oblivion. Yet, unlike other big losers - like Alf Landon in 1936 and George McGovern in 1972 - Goldwater went on to acquire an almost mythical status in American public life. Even now, at 87, he is considered an icon by many. Unquestionably, he merits an in-depth biography by a first-rate scholar.

The carefully documented portrait of Goldwater by Robert Alan Goldberg, a University of Utah history professor, is colorful, insightful and down-to-earth. It is a Goldwater with all of his charisma as well as all of his warts. It is a Goldwater who, in spite of his reputation as the embodiment of American conservatism, did not always support his own principles.Although Goldwater reluctantly cooperated with the author in the preparation of the book, he exercised no control over the finished product. The result is a fascinating study of one of the more interesting figures in American political history.

One of Goldberg's most important contributions is his artful ability to place Goldwater and his activities in the context of both Arizona and American history. The author clearly demonstrates the political empathy Goldwater felt for both Herbert Hoover and Robert Taft as mentors, yet makes it clear that neither of the great men wasted any warmth on Gold-water.

In his early years, Goldwater was known for his lackluster academic performance and his personal charm, the latter quality being most responsible for his decision to go into the family business. Unfortunately, his inability to focus for long periods on any one thing interfered with his business acumen. More important, his quick temper, his tendency to depression and a proclivity for heavy drinking made it appear that major success in any field would elude him.

But he had gifts that were bound to serve him well in politics. He spoke with confidence in simple, colorful language, and he did it without notes. His handsome, rugged appearance made him seem the ideal of the Western individualist who enjoyed living the strenuous life of his dreams. Never a devoted family man, he demonstrated early that his family responsibilities would never interfere with his political career.

According to his eldest son, Barry Jr., "My father didn't even appear human." Although his father wrote him letters, he still felt cheated. "I did achieve. I did excel. I was successful. But he wasn't around to say, `Good job!' It must not have been that good, or I'm sure he would have patted me on the back."

Rather than an important original thinker or notable conservative philsopher, Goldwater is portrayed by Goldberg as primarily a "salesman-at-large for conservatism." Goldberg says, "He was out of place in Washington, a small-town businessman in a lawyer's world. He was unskilled in debate, unwilling to compromise his stands and bored by legislative procedure. Few pieces of legislation would bear his name . . . ."

Goldwater even admitted that his desire was "not to pass laws, but to repeal them." Utah's own Sen. Wallace Bennett is quoted saying, "It became obvious he really didn't want to be a senator. Barry was ambitious early on. He was a little bit of a loner because of that."

Essentially that was true. Goldwater was a maverick who did not follow anyone else's drum. On the other hand, he miscalculated on several issues and in some of the friends he chose to cultivate. The most unfortunate example of the latter was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., the infamous witch hunter of communism of the 1950s. Even when the U.S. Senate voted 67-22 to condemn McCarthy, Goldwater remained loyal.

Richard Nixon, on the other hand, got a place early on Goldwater's black list. While Nixon was still vice president, Goldwater characterized him as "a two-fisted, four-square liar." But, ironically, in the 1970s, when Nixon had self-destructed during Watergate and was swallowed up by the corruption that was destined to ruin him, Goldwater steadfastly stuck by him. Just as he had with McCarthy.

Although Goldwater never had any political respect for John F. Kennedy, he liked him as a friend. One of the great ironies of his career is that even though he looked forward to running against Kennedy in 1964, once Kennedy was assassinated, the fire went out. In fact, Goldberg says, "The shots in Dallas that snuffed out John Kennedy's life also destroyed any chance Barry Goldwater had of being president of the United States."

Goldwater ran in 1964 against Lyndon Johnson only with the greatest reluctance. In fact, he said to his aide, Dean Burch, "You know, I think this blows the whole deal. It's just not the same." That may have been the big reason that Goldwater stumbled through the campaign, continually putting his foot in his mouth.

Before Kennedy's death, he and Goldwater had discussed the possibility of buying or renting a plane and campaigning together. They planned on taking turns giving speeches and rebutting each other. The night before the '64 election, Goldwater was reflective and sentimental when he said, "If Jack were here, we would have had a good campaign."

Goldwater's tendency to shoot from the hip gave ample opportunity for the Democrats to paint him as a trigger-happy extremist. Their main ammunition was provided by Goldwater himself when he made the damning statement in acceptance of the Republican nomination, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

Not only were most highly placed Republicans turned off by the phrase, but Democrats used it as a rallying cry. Goldberg is very hard in his criticism of the Democratic campaign against Goldwater, one he considers cynical, mean-spirited and a blueprint "in the art of negative campaigning."

Despite that defeat, Goldwater's enduring legacy, in Goldberg's opinion, is that he empowered the right wing and planted the seeds for the future growth of conservatism - even the eventual success of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Most conservatives realized that Goldwater made it possible for the smoother, gentler, more charming Reagan to win the presidency in a later election.

Yet the perpetually insecure Goldwater has never completely appreciated that role. He comes off in this well-written, perceptive, lively biography - one that is filled with interesting anecdotes and quotable quotes - as a tragic figure, one who in spite of his accomplishments was never able to fully enjoy them. He is a towering figure who is best known for his assertiveness, his brash style and his conservative principles. Today that seems especially ironic as he rejects the religious right, realizing that the right wing is now to the right of him. He has endorsed Bob Dole for the Republican nomination and considers conservative commentator Pat Buchanan "a kook."

In a larger sense, this excellent book is not only a study of Goldwater the political figure, but of the entire 20th-century conservative movement and its impact on American life. In presenting the story in such an engaging, understandable way, Goldberg has performed an undeniable service - not just for the academic but for the average American who has even a passing interest in political history or the poltiical process.

BARRY GOLDWATER, by Robert Alan Goldberg; Yale University Press; 463 pages; $27.