Symington’s speech to the Arizona Historical Society honoring Barry Goldwater

Goldwater Speech
March 7th, 2007

Arizona Historical Society

I have been looking forward to this day, and I am delighted to be here to remember and honor Barry Goldwater.

He’s a big and consequential figure, and a hard man to capture in words. There has been no one else like him in American politics. But trying to give the man his due is a worthy assignment – and a fun one, too. And you know, that’s one thing to remember about Barry – he was always a lot of fun.

In one way or another, I’ve been drawn and connected to Barry from the early years of my life. Maryland may be a long way from Arizona, but Barry Goldwater carried something of this state everywhere he went. And it was there, when I was 12 or so, that I got my first glimpse of him.

One morning in 1958, there he was, rolling up the steep driveway of our farm thirty miles outside of Baltimore. He had come to stay for the weekend, and his ride was not the black sedan that a young boy expected of a United States Senator. He climbed out of a Corvette Stingray, wearing boots and cowboy hat – and to an eastern boy it looked like Marshall Dillon stepping right out of Gunsmoke.

Goldwater the political figure is recalled for his bluntness and occasionally stern manner. His critics tried to paint him as angry and uncaring. But I knew him always as a gentleman, and even then he paused repeatedly to pay attention to the tow-headed child who followed him around that weekend.

My father was running for Congress at the time. Dad ran three times, in a district with 4 to 1 Democrat registration. I wondered sometimes why Dad never looked for a different district. Later on, I made sure that I did.

So Barry had come to stay with us, confer with Dad on his uphill campaign and give a speech on defense at the Towson Armory. (I still have the open reel tape of that speech.)

The conversations I was allowed to hear that weekend had to do with the same subject: the Cold War and the Soviet threat.

What I noticed was the clarity and conviction the Senator conveyed about containing the Soviet Union and turning it back. He and my father spoke of nuclear deterrents and hot spots and communist treachery. The recurring themes were resolve and determination and unyielding strength, in the face of a spreading tyranny.

Ronald Reagan is remembered now for having won the Cold War by pursuing peace through strength. But the leading exponent of that creed, for 18 long years before another Westerner would ride into town, was Barry Goldwater.

Then as ever, there were those who were inclined to hide from the danger and hope for the best, and those inclined to confront it. Barry Goldwater carried the message for the latter, and bore the contempt of the former, amplified by the Eastern media. And he did it unreservedly for more than three decades.

I suppose I will never know just how much Barry Goldwater had to do with my own journey to Arizona. But he embodied this state, and he captured my imagination that weekend.

I would correspond with him during high school and college – each letter he sent surprised me, and I still have them. And throughout my life he would continue to cross my mind and my path. His influence on my thinking was great. But even more than that, some nine years after his death, his influence is abundantly clear in the charm, character, and expanding prosperity of Arizona.

When the day came, I left the family farm and made off for Harvard. It was 1964 then, a rather important year for Barry. Two memories from the time have remained with me.

I was not the typical Harvard undergraduate of the day. I joined the ROTC after arriving on campus, and found there was not a long line of resolute youth competing for the privilege. Today the fashion is for all to claim support for the troops. Back then, the virulent strain of pacifism gripping Harvard and most other campuses had the ROTC members concealing their uniforms in paper bags.

Late in the ’64 campaign cycle I came into a “Goldwater for President” button and occasionally had the audacity to wear it beyond my dorm room. I was once accosted in the airport by a middle-aged Bostonian who apparently took offense. “What’s the matter with you son?” he fumed. “Are you mentally demented?”

Earlier that same year, Barry found me again, this time in the wilds of Quebec. Before starting school I had been sent on memorable journey: two months on the Rupert River, from central Quebec to Rupert’s House on Hudson’s Bay, with 10 rugged men making hundreds of miles on a tough and harrowing trip.

Seven weeks in, we were tired and famished and pulled in to camp after 30 miles of paddling that day. A small amphibious plane flew overhead and dropped the provisions we would need for the final week of travel to the bay.

We opened the parcels, which had been wrapped in newspapers. My attention shifted from the food to the big headline from San Francisco: Goldwater Wins Nomination. So that is how I learned Barry would be taking on LBJ in ’64. And he was about to take a pretty tough and harrowing trip of his own.

Barry won only 6 states in that campaign, and well less than 40 percent of the vote. By any standard a sound defeat, and Barry took it with grace. But the judgment of a moment and the verdict of time and history are two different things.

As an historical figure, LBJ peaked on that November day, and he has been falling ever since. On both great issues of that contest – the power and limits of government and the conduct of foreign affairs – Barry was right, and Lyndon had it all wrong.

Johnson soon found himself shrinking beneath the weight of a badly conducted war and a badly conceived Great Society program. Barry went home to Arizona, stuck to his principles and kept taking beautiful photographs.

Johnson would see his party unravel, and the political power he coveted torn from his hands. Awaiting him was a not a victor’s laurel, but the harsh judgment of historians. And even now, after four decades, biographer Robert Caro labors over a fourth volume, cataloging the tragic flaws and venal exploits of Goldwater’s victorious opponent.

Barry was a less complicated man, which contributed perhaps to his defeat in that campaign. But it also contributed to his success in life.

We esteem him now because, as soldiers like to say, he led from the front. There was no dark side to Barry Goldwater, no hidden man, no calculation, no pretense. In a profession full of show horses and coiffed camera hounds, Barry was the outlier, the one who never seemed to feel that familiar call to conspicuous virtue.

4 years after the 64 campaign. Barry would cross my path once more, and yet again in a most unusual way.

After college I had joined the Air Force and found myself assigned to Luke Air Force Base west of Phoenix. I have always suspected that Barry’s influence with the Air Force might have had something to do with that assignment.

The Vietnam war was still young, and I soon found myself in Thailand, serving as a weapons controller.

Barry was never a supporter of the half-measures and the shifting political calculations that drove America’s war policy in Vietnam. Occasionally he got himself in trouble for a rash remark about the subject. But once again, time would prove him right.

I had only been stationed at Luke for a few months, but that was all it took. Just like its leading citizen years before, Arizona had captured my imagination. I became a Westerner at heart, and I knew after returning from the war that this was going to be home.

What I did not know was that one day I would be drawn to political life myself. But I was, and as most are aware that led to a rather eventful 10 years.

Most of that is the subject for another speech, but Barry was a recurring presence when I was governor, too.

In executive politics you’re never around for long, and when I was governor we tried to get a lot of things done while we had the chance.

And we got in the habit along the way — when we had something big to roll out — of running it by Barry in advance. He was a great barometer, and he still had tremendous instincts even in his later years.

On three or four occasions I made the trip up Hogahn Drive to Barry’s house, Be Nun E Kun, Navajo for “House on the Hill.” He still had the same way of looking at you that I first experienced in Maryland, only now it came from a seated position, cane at the ready, wearing shorts, alongside his desk off the front room.

He would listen intently, never moving his eyes from yours, and when you were finished he would ask at most one question. “Makes a lot of sense to me,” he would say, and that was it. You had him behind you, and behind you he would stay.

I have always been an adherent to supply-side economics, believing that if you reduced the tax burden on productive economic output, you would get more of it. But the tax reduction policies that we put in place in this state, which even now contribute to its increasing wealth and opportunity, were also a simple expression of Goldwaterism.

“A government big enough to give you everything you want,” Barry famously said, “is also big enough to take away everything you have.” Every time we reduced taxes — and we did so every year I was in office — we were honoring Goldwater’s maxim.

At this point it can’t be known whether Barry’s warnings about the dangers of oversized government will ever be heeded. Washington continues its cycle of tax, spend and elect, and continues to draw power to itself that the Constitution left with the states.

At the same time, Washington is failing to carry the critical responsibility it does have to secure our borders.

If Barry were around today I think he would have something to say about these subjects. And I think we pretty much know what that would be.

It’s also worth considering what America’s leading Cold Warrior might have to say about this new war are fighting now.

In the 21st century, Islamic terror has become every bit the threat to freedom that Nazism and imperial Communism were in the 20th. There is reason to question, however, whether the American people yet understand this threat, or yet know quite how to respond to it.

One thing is certain: I don’t think anyone in high public office today is speaking with quite the same clarity and force that we would hear from Goldwater. I believe that if Barry were alive and in office today, he would be speaking bluntly about the bloody origins and history of radical Islam, and calling for the strongest possible measures to drive it out of the free world and put it on the defensive everywhere else.

Much of the Islamic world’s response to murder as a high expression of the faith has been indifference or faint disapproval, if not implied or outright support.

This response has been more shocking than the terror itself.

The dramatic cruelty of 9/11 was surely a new level of assault on America and the freedom for which it stands. But the killers we have long had with us. New today is the framing of a stark and critical question regarding the real nature of Islam, and the Islamic world’s failure so far to answer that question conclusively.

We know in the Western world — in the Judeo-Christian tradition — that if you begin by severing faith from reason you end up severing heads from shoulders. Islam seems to be having difficulty asserting the same premise with any perceptible voice, let alone any effect.

It is true that the Islamic faith lacks a fixed hierarchical seat and structure, giving some difficulty to the task of enunciating a round and meaningful rejection of terrorist acts. And yet the terrorists seem to be doing well enough organizing themselves, so it ought to be equally possible for those Muslims intent on distancing and reclaiming their faith from ruthless killers.

Of course, the fear of those killers has much to do with the muted response, not only from peaceful Muslims but from leaders of many once-great nations around the world.

I think that Barry would tell those folks in his plainspoken way that the killers have to be stopped, because sooner or later they will come for you. The Soviets ruled by terror too, as did the Nazis, as did other tyrannical regimes throughout history.

Now, I don’t think we would hear Barry muse out-loud about “lobbing one into the men’s room” somewhere in Mecca. I’m sure he learned his lesson about that formulation. But he wouldn’t be leaving any room for misunderstanding among the American people about what they are facing, either.

When we remember a consequential man like Barry, it is easy to lionize him, and to praise his works to the extent of obscuring his flaws.

I don’t mean to do that here. Barry certainly had his shortcomings, and he made his share of mistakes. He could in fact be heard admitting while still in office that he had gotten himself in a lot of trouble by speaking without thinking. There were times when the conservative cause he served so long might have done better by more carefully chosen words.

But this man was, as Bill Clinton said upon his death, “an American original.” He has certainly been the seminal political figure in this young state, and those of us who had the pleasure of knowing him will never forget his singular personality. He was as he seemed: determined, decisive, positive and bold, and he helped to build an Arizona whose future grows brighter than even he may have imagined

In this state, water is good as gold; and so was Barry Goldwater.

Fife Symington III