Chicago. -- Blunt and cantankerous Barry Goldwater is back in the news. The famous right-wing candidate of 1964 is telling interviewers that he supports gay rights, even though homosexuality remains a mystery to him.
Senator Goldwater's gay grandson, Ty Ross, says that he is close to the old man, even though he laughs at the way Mr. Goldwater says, " 'You people need to stand up for your rights' -- one of those 'you people' kind of things."
Senator Goldwater, a military man and a longtime defender of a strong military, supported President Clinton's effort to remove the ban from gay participation in the nation's defense. One thing is certain about Mr. Goldwater: If he thought anything would weaken America's military posture, he would fight it as only he can fight.
Gay people welcome his support. He has even told friends, ruefully, "I'm an honorary gay, now." When I interviewed Randy Shilts, the gay journalist, shortly before his death, he said he could not understand why he had not gone to speak with Mr. Goldwater while preparing his book on gays in the military. The former senator had not, at that point, made his stand public; but Mr. Shilts was sure that he would have supported the gays, considering the number of decorated patriots and heroic veterans who are gay.
As Mr. Shilts understood, Mr. Goldwater was always a preacher of individual liberty verging on anarchy. That is why he got along so well with his anarchic speech writer in the 1964 campaign, Karl Hess. Mr. Hess, who died recently, admired Senator Goldwater even when their positions differed drastically on the Vietnam War. Mr. Hess said the senator was not only a man of honor, but also of consistency in his blend of anti-communist fervor and anti-statist principle.
Senator Goldwater has been quoted often, in recent years, attacking the religious right for its intolerance and extremism. In the 1964 campaign, he quieted right-wingers who wanted to encourage racial troubles to improve his chances of election. (He had refused to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)
Mr. Goldwater told his closest circle of advisers to let it be known on the right that if there were major riots in the summer of 1964, he would withdraw from the race rather than capitalize on the nation's agony. I asked Mr. Hess if Senator Goldwater would have followed through on his word. "In a minute," the former speech writer said. "He always kept his word."
So it is not a new Barry Goldwater we are seeing, just the same old guy, prickly and bellicose, but consistent. He probably would have made a terrible president, but only because he was too good for the office.
Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.