Washington -- IN A STUNNING act of irony -- or was it heresy? -- the old war horse who once was considered the quintessential right-winger warned his fellow Republicans recently that "the radical right has nearly ruined our party."
That admonishment came from the conscience of 85-year-old Barry Goldwater, who 30 years ago this month was nominated for president by a GOP that was hopelessly divided along ideological lines.
Mr. Goldwater expressed his sentiments in a Washington Post guest column in which he urged congressional Republicans to support legislation that would protect gays and lesbians against job discrimination.
After decades of battling liberals, Mr. Goldwater thus lobbed a fiery salvo into the ranks of ultra-conservative zealots who would withhold basic American freedoms from individuals because of their sexual orientation.
"The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please, as long as they don't hurt anyone else in the process," said the former Arizona senator.
"No one has ever shown me how being gay or lesbian harms anyone else. Even the 1992 Republican platform affirms the principle that 'bigotry has no place in our society.' "
Many Americans, especially those under 40, may not know who Barry Goldwater is. But older Americans should have no difficulty recalling the saga of the colorful and candid Arizonan.
In 1964, moderates and liberals saw Mr. Goldwater as an ogre who would destroy Social Security, lead America into nuclear war, dismantle New Deal reforms and propel the republic backward into the dark ages when government did little to protect the poor and the middle class.
In the long history of political party conventions, few moments are more memorable than Mr. Goldwater's acceptance speech before a raucous gathering of delegates in San Francisco's Cow Palace.
Refusing to placate the moderate-to-liberal forces led by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Mr. Goldwater widened the ideological breach by declaring that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
Those words exploded like a nuclear bomb on a party already locked in internecine combat. They confirmed the fears of Mr. Goldwater's foes that the rugged westerner and his followers were right-wing fanatics who could not be trusted to run the country.
But Mr. Goldwater was never as reactionary as his foes claimed. By his own admission, he is "stubborn and hardheaded." He also has a tendency to shoot from the lip. In jest, his Senate colleague, Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, once said, "Barry Goldwater's motto has never changed: Ready! Fire! Aim!"
The truth is, Mr. Goldwater's life and career are filled with ironies.
A life-long opponent of racial injustice who desegregated the Arizona National Guard, he was branded a racist when he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That historic measure provided African Americans with access to previously segregated public accommodations.
But Mr. Goldwater saw it as an infringement of individual rights because it stripped landlords of the right to rent their home to a person of their own choosing. Since the measure was designed to end the discrimination blacks had suffered since the first slave ships arrived from Africa, Mr. Goldwater's was a wrong-headed vote. But it was typical of the stubborn, independent-minded Arizonan.
A pillar of conservatism, Mr. Goldwater opposed efforts of Senate Republicans led by North Carolina's ultra-conservative Jesse Helms in the 1980s to add a school prayer amendment to the Constitution. He said it was impossible to write a prayer acceptable to all religious faiths, and he was right.
Unlike today's conservatives, who seek every opportunity to drag Bill Clinton's reputation through the political muck, Mr. Goldwater vetoed a plan by his campaign advisers to run a TV movie intimating that his 1964 opponent, President Lyndon Johnson, was responsible for moral decay in America.
Mr. Goldwater explained that the movie "was tasteless (and) . . . portrayed the presidency in a poor light . . . It was simply a cheap shot."
One of the 1964 campaign issues was the assertion that Mr. Goldwater wanted to use nuclear weapons to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam so that communist forces could no longer move war supplies surreptitiously from China to North Vietnam.
The truth is, he did not advocate such action but suggested it as a possible military option.
What sets Mr. Goldwater apart from today's right-wingers is his view that government should not interfere with individual freedom or take away basic human rights. The radical right advocates government interference in the lives of homosexuals, women seeking abortions and even the relationship between church and state.
Mr. Goldwater says he knows that the radical right will "rave and rant that the sky is falling" if Congress seeks to provide job protection for gays. As a constitutional conservative and a man of decency, he also knows it is the correct and courageous thing to do.
Robert E. Thompson is a columnist for the Hearst newspapers.