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12:00 AM, Jun 15, 1998 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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He was a most unusual candidate. During the crucial California primary campaign, I covered a Goldwater rally in Long Beach. The senator spotted me and asked me to join him later in his suite at the old Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The place was filled not with politicians but with friends from Phoenix and southern California. Barry was in high spirits, and we had a lot of fun gossiping about the Senate and politics, telling jokes and drinking -- a lot of drinking. I barely made it to the campaign plane the next morning, but it didn't matter because the senator -- as hungover as I -- was late.

That night in Los Angeles turned out to be our last intimacy. When he was nominated that summer in San Francisco, he declined to see me. I suspect he thought that the column I had started writing in 1963 with Rowland Evans was too tough on him and too sympathetic to the hated eastern liberals. Our separation was punctuated during platform-committee hearings at the St. Francis Hotel, when I slugged an obnoxious California Young Republican who called me "slimy" for allegedly misquoting him a year earlier (luckily for me, bystanders separated us before my younger, more robust adversary could retaliate).

During the long years that followed 1964, I never tried to interview Goldwater, despite having spent so much time with him the previous five years. Wonder of wonders, by the 1980s I felt I had moved to the right of a Barry Goldwater who deplored religious conservatives and had changed his mind about abortion. We talked just once more, briefly but cordially, during his second hitch in the Senate, at a Hay-Adams Hotel dinner party given by Clare Boothe Luce. It reminded me of a long-divorced couple's meeting after years of separation.

Over the last three decades, I have felt that I betrayed Goldwater -- not in my columns but in the vote I cast on November 3, 1964. Like millions of other registered Republicans that day, I voted for Lyndon Johnson. I thought that Goldwater would be as disorganized a president as he had been a senator, while Johnson I knew to be one of the greatest Senate majority leaders of all time.

Since then, I have decided it is the better part of wisdom to vote for the presidential candidate I most agree with and forget about measuring his skills. By that standard, Goldwater clearly won the contest, so I regret denying him my vote. In addition, for all his failings, his patriotism was such that he would not have made LBJ's deadly blunders in Vietnam and probably would have spared American much grief. But of course, as I first saw back in 1959, he never could have been elected.

Robert D. Novak is the author of a syndicated column and several books.