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McCain and Flake echo Goldwater and Arizona's independent tradition

Modern Goldwaters? John McCain and Jeff Flake bring to mind Arizona's preeminent politician of the past

Arizona sometimes seems like the Rodney Dangerfield of states, politically speaking, squished between the blue behemoth of California and the red swagger of Texas, a state seeking respect  whose votes have rarely, if ever, made the difference in a national race.

Surely one day it will be competitive, so Democrats keep hoping, but that day has not come. In the meantime some of the Republicans who run Arizona have caused it to be seen as a haven of immigrant-bashing politicians who battle gay rights and civil rights measures on the side.

But there once was a very different profile of the Arizona politician, and its likeness has come into very sharp relief in recent days with two high-wire acts by the state’s Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.

In very different venues, both men have maneuvered to stick a finger in the eye of their party’s orthodoxy. If there is a classic Arizona political demeanor, that is exactly it, provided the finger-poking was accompanied with wicked glee.

Defying the party line last week, McCain rose to defend the report by Senate Democrats into the interrogation tactics used by the CIA in the years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Torture was the agency's tactic, he said, ripping away the excuses made by other Republicans with strength drawn from his own punishment at the hands of North Vietnamese in a Hanoi prison cell.

He commended the beleaguered architect of the report, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, at that moment his party’s archenemy, for “seeking a truthful accounting of policies I hope we will never resort to again.”

“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless," McCain said. 

Then came Flake, one of three senators who accompanied Alan Gross, the American contractor who had been imprisoned in a Cuban cell, from Havana back home Wednesday to the land he had last touched five years ago.

Flake has been a critic of U.S. policy on Cuba since he entered Congress and earlier had visited Gross in Cuba. While others in his party were castigating the deal cooked by President Obama that led to Gross’ release and saying the Democratic president was consorting with communists, Flake was adamant about the need for a change in a course set 50 years ago.

"This is a wonderful day for Alan Gross, for his wife, Judy, and their family,” said Flake, who sent out pictures of the journey home via social media. “The manner in which they have endured this nightmare is worthy of praise and admiration. It was an honor to be with Alan as he touched down on U.S. soil after more than five years in a Cuban prison. When I visited Alan last month, he expressed the hope that his ordeal might somehow lead to positive changes between the United States and Cuba. With today's significant and far-reaching announcements, I think it already has."

That approach seems baked into the soil of a state that, while currently more or less defined by metropolitan traffic jams, erratic housing prices and a historical unwillingness to put any bar on development, was yanked into modernity by tough-minded ranchers and miners who suffered its cataclysmic temperatures pre-air-conditioning.

That mind-set -- part curmudgeon, part crank, all quirk -- bled into the state’s early politics and its politicians.

Most famous was Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican grandson of a saloon keeper turned mercantile store owner who had migrated to Arizona via California’s Gold Rush territory.

Goldwater the politician was known for his certitude — “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” — and his overwhelming defeat to Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential contest. (Out of that defeat, however, came the modern Republican conservative movement; the speech that set Ronald Reagan on his road to the presidency was made in support of Goldwater.)

But Goldwater was hardly predictable. His wife founded the Phoenix-area Planned Parenthood operation. He was one of three Republican members of Congress — two from Arizona, the second being House GOP leader John J. Rhodes — who went to the White House in the throes of Watergate in pursuit of Richard Nixon’s resignation. The next day, Nixon quit.

And then there was gay rights, which Goldwater supported long before most Democrats bothered to. He defended gays — in 1994, four years before his death — in the Washington Post.

“Gays and lesbians are part of every American family,” said Goldwater, who had a gay grandchild. “They should not be shortchanged in their efforts to better their lives and serve their communities. Some will try to paint this as a liberal or religious issue. I am a conservative Republican, but I believe in democracy and the separation of church and state."

And gay rights extended to military service, he said: "You don't need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight."

A contemporary of Goldwater was Rep. Morris Udall, an Arizona Democrat whose frequent diversions into running for president were notable for their comic flair, as opposed to success. Udall happily admitted it in “Too Funny to be President,”  his chronology of his political missteps.

One frequently offered set piece had Udall marching up to voters in New Hampshire and telling them that he was Mo Udall, running for president. “We were just laughing about that," he said they replied.

But his persona, like Goldwater’s, masked achievements: in Udall’s case, the expansion of the federal wilderness system and protection of other public lands. He also served as a sharp barb in the side of Reagan administration efforts to curb environmental and historical protections.

Then too, there are the Arizonans celebrated at home more than on the grand national stage. Politicians such as Sam Steiger, who inspired sentences like this to be written in the Los Angeles Times in 1990:

“Sam Steiger, a onetime horse trader and five-time congressman with a fondness for red suspenders, is billing his gubernatorial campaign as ‘old Sam's last roundup’ and seriously downplaying his past, which includes an overturned conviction for theft by extortion and the controversial shooting of two burros.”

The burros? Self-defense, Steiger claimed, an assertion that survived smirking when the animals were found to have been shot in the rear. His legend was later burnished by the episode at Whiskey Row, the line of saloons across the street from Prescott’s Yavapai County Courthouse.

A road resurfacing had paved over a crosswalk between government offices and the sources of libation. When officialdom did nothing to restore the link, Steiger used a striping machine to paint a new crosswalk. He was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal damage. The first charge was dropped, the second brushed aside by a sympathetic jury that took less than half an hour to acquit him.

"Colorful is the kindest adjective," he said of himself in an interview during his unsuccessful bid for governor.

But it was that and more. The epitaph for the old-school Arizona politician may have best been written by David Broder, the eminence of the Washington Post, on the occasion of Goldwater’s death.

“Goldwater, more than any other major-league politician I have ever known, was determined to guard his own individuality no matter what,” Broder wrote. “He was going to live his life saying and doing exactly what he wanted.... But he was always his own man, unprogrammed and uninhibited."

The words were written in a reminiscence of Goldwater’s home-grown and home-spun independence, and they seemed familiar this month, as McCain and Flake said and did exactly what they wanted.

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter @cathleendecker.

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