Goldwater: A Life of High Contrasts. BOOKS: AUTOBIOGRAPHY

GOLDWATER By Barry M. Goldwater, with Jack Casserly, New York: Doubleday, 415 pp. $21.95 `MY aim has always been to reduce the size of government,'' writes former Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona on the second page of this memoir. ``Not to pass laws but to repeal them.''

If lives, like paragraphs, had topic sentences, those would be his: Uncomplicated and honest, iconoclastic and attention-getting, assertive to the edge of belligerence, and soaked in conservative ideology.

Those words mark him, in fact, as an easily recognizable political type whose right-of-center, no-nonsense views are increasingly occupying the intellectual high ground in America's political dialogue.

And that defines both the strengths and the problems with this book. The problem is that, on too many occasions, it trades in easily recognizable types - almost stereotypes - rather than in fully composed characters.

Those whom Goldwater admires - Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, Kennedy, and most military men - win the prose equivalent of standing ovations. Those he despises - Presidents Johnson and Nixon, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and many State Department types - are almost cardboard villains. Only rarely, as with former CIA director William Casey, does a complex individual emerge.

Yet that's part of the book's strength.

There is very little fuzziness in Goldwater's world: Issues and people, right and wrong, stand out in all the sharpness of an Arizona sunset. That, of course, is the recipe for stereotypes - and for lively reading.

Yet we tend to forget that Goldwater himself almost single-handedly created that conservative stereotype: the shoot-from-the-hip-and-mince-no-words westerner, impatient with those who would fence him in and disgusted by those who smile and stab in the back.

And we forget that, if self-reliance, decentralization, and economic freedom sound commonplace today, it is because Goldwater helped make them so.

FOR that reason, the three chapters at the heart of this sometimes-rambling, always-interesting book are the best. They detail the growth in American political conservatism, from Goldwater's appointment in 1955 as chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee to his defeat in the presidential campaign of 1964 at the hands of Lyndon Johnson.

Here is Goldwater buoyed to unsought prominence in the wake of his 1960 book, ``The Conscience of a Conservative'' - which, as he notes, was ``the college student underground book of the times.''

Here is Goldwater taking on the party's liberal wing, embodied in Nelson Rockefeller, and being savaged by them as an extremist who won the nomination by fluke and lost the election by millions.

Here is Goldwater meeting the people who, during the course of the Reagan presidency, would become the far-right pantheon: William Rusher, William Buckley, Richard Viguerie, William Baroody, and others.

TO be sure, the later chapters are solid - on Vietnam, Nixon and Watergate, the CIA, the military - as are the earlier, sometimes delightful ones on his upbringing. And his penultimate chapter, on his last race, is a moving tribute to his family and, especially, his wife of 51 years, Peggy.

Cross-cutting them all, however, is his firy insistence on the conservative ideology. Like an old-school hickory-switch teacher, he repeats the lesson until the end.

``The secret to our international strength in the year 2000 and beyond,'' he says, ``is whether the United States can reverse its failures at home on three fronts:

1.The material and personal cost of government

2.The idea that forced equality of results can replace equality of opportunity

3.The steady increase of a massive, uncontrolled bureaucracy.''

If you've heard that agenda before, thank the Goldwater of the 1960s. He made the Goldwater of the 1980s a commonplace.

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