The Iran-contra crisis has cost Ronald Reagan his opportunity to be among the 20th century's greatest Presidents, says retired Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Iran-contra has caused ``irreparable harm'' to the President, says Mr. Goldwater, who adds: ``Reagan will be lucky if he can gain even part of the prestige back that he held.''
Goldwater says the President is now courting further damage to the United States and to his administration with unnecessary, high-risk policies in the Persian Gulf.
``We're inviting disaster,'' says the senator, who was interviewed at his home here near Camelback Mountain.
Goldwater, regarded as ``Mr. Conservative'' within the Republican Party, says that historically, Reagan will rank behind both Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower as leaders in the White House.
The senator, who was the GOP nominee for president in 1964, blames Reagan's Iran-contra problems largely on the White House staff. He says:
``Republicans elect a president, and he doesn't know a thing about picking a staff. Right back to Eisenhower, we've had nothing but problems with White House appointments. But particularly Reagan. Reagan has ... picked some of the worst we've ever had.''
Goldwater says the staff has been arrogant, naive, and inexperienced.
``They just don't understand the art and the work of politics. ... You have to know your way around. You have to know who to talk to. ... And you have to be willing to listen.''
Reagan's saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf particularly concerns Goldwater at this juncture. He explained:
``Personally, as one who has been through wars and lived with them most of my life, I don't like what the President's doing in the Persian Gulf. I think we're inviting disaster. In fact, I don't see how we can avoid it.
``One of these days, they're going to sink ... an American tanker or an American warship. Then what do we do? Now, if we don't do anything, we can kiss the whole world goodbye, because we are not held in great esteem around this world today. We're looked on as sort of a paper tiger....
``I don't believe in putting ourselves in a position that can result in war. And I think that's exactly what Reagan has done in the Persian Gulf.''
Goldwater, who eventually reached the rank of major general in the Air Force Reserve, is a former Army Air Corps pilot who served in southern Asia during World War II. Looking back on his experiences there, he says:
``I hope and pray that the President doesn't get us into a war in the Persian Gulf. ... That was my neck of the woods, and that's no place for an American.''
Goldwater discounts the threat of the Iran-Iraq war to the supply of oil.
``If the Iraqis and Iranians want to fight it out, and it's going to go on forever, let 'em fight,'' says the senator. And if the warring nations start sinking Saudi and Kuwaiti tankers, ``that's their business.''
The US would be best served, says Goldwater, by devoting its energy to developing the oil supplies within this country, especially in Alaska. ``We have all the oil this country will ever need,'' he insists.
The senator, who retired in January, also commented on the Republican Party, the conservative movement, the 1988 presidential race, and other topics. Excerpts from the interview follow:
What is the political outlook for the GOP?
I think we have at least one more presidential election that we will win. After that it will be touch-and-go, because we will then have run out of ... money and ideas, and the people by that time would have gotten tired of the Republicans. These things go in cycles.
Does that mean the conservative movement has peaked?
No, no, no. The conservative movement is stronger now than it has ever been. ... The great strength of the conservatives today are the young people. I lecture at Arizona State 25 or 30 times a semester, and at other schools, and I find a decided difference today - young people who understand the Constitution, who understand the American enterprise system, who are looking for jobs, not handouts. I am very encouraged by it, and I think it is going to continue to be that way.
But the Republicans won't benefit?
That's the cyclical effect that I've always believed in. ... A man who is conservative [doesn't] always votes conservative.
Are there any true conservatives running for president in 1988 among the Republicans?
Yes. He may not be as ``bad'' a conservative as I am, but I think George Bush is going to be the man. I think he'd be a ... good president.
But Bush comes from the East, which is that part of the country you once wanted to saw off from the rest of the US.
Well, he lived in Texas long enough to get over it.
Do any Democrats look strong in '88?
Yes, but they are not running. I think Senator [Sam] Nunn of Georgia and former Governor [Charles] Robb of Virginia - Robb went to school right here in Phoenix with my kids - he's a good man. But Nunn is about the best man we have in this country right now.
Some have compared Iran-contra to Watergate. Is it comparable?
No. It didn't prove Reagan to be a liar. [Watergate] proved Nixon to be a liar.
Besides our problems with the budget deficit, what major conservative goals remain unfulfilled?
I can't think of anything we've fulfilled, to tell you the truth.
Inflation is down, for example.
Inflation is down, interest rates are down, but if they weren't, we'd already be bankrupt.
So a major concern would be...?
Welfare. If we don't solve the problems of the welfare state, then we are going the way of all other nations that have tried it. Bankruptcy, then dictatorship. ... We have today nearly 50 percent of our people [to some degree] dependent on the federal government for their livelihood. ... I'll give you a good example. I started paying social security when it first came out - $4 a month. One day I counted everything that I could think of that I had put into social security [and] I hadn't put more than $10,000 or thereabouts in my whole life. Yet I now get that much a year, and more. [Goldwater donates his check to charity.]
So are you optimistic, or pessimistic?
I am always an optimist about my country. I'm an optimist because of the young people and their attitude. If I looked only at the elected officials and the Congress, the war is over. But I think the American people are beginning to realize what awful shape we are in.