Barry Goldwater's first appearance on the national scene was in 1960. Vice President Richard Nixon was the clear favorite for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. But two long-shot candidates loomed in the background: Senator Goldwater of Arizona, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. The difference between these two was striking. Rockefeller was representative of the "eastern wing" of the Republican Party, the politically-moderate wing, "the establishment." Goldwater was representative of the "western wing" of the Republican Party, the politically-conservative wing, "the grass roots."
This east-west split had its origins in the very beginnings of the Republican Party, when the establishment-types of the disintegrating Whig Party joined the new Republican Party. The Republican Party was founded just as much on the issue of opening the west as it was on the issue of emancipation. Indeed, the first motto of the Republican Party was "free men, free land, Fremont!" (General John C. Fremont having been the party's first presidential candidate.) But, the establishment-types within the party have always tried to tone-down the party's revolutionary impulse to freedom.
Senator Goldwater knew he had no chance to win the nomination in 1960, and so he urged his followers to unite behind Vice President Nixon. As things turned out, Nixon lost the election to Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and then, two years later, in a race for Governor of California, lost again. If the second loss did not itself eliminate Nixon from consideration for the Republican Party's 1964 presidential nomination, his sore loser remarks following his defeat did.
Going into 1963, President Kennedy was doing poorly in the polls. Historians might think Kennedy was a great president, but there is no evidence that the American people appreciated his "vigorous" style and military recklessness. The Republican nomination was, therefore, a thing to be coveted. However, since 1960, Senator Goldwater had been lining up support around the country, especially in the south and the west, and was clearly ahead in the race for the nomination. The eastern establishment then began a party-rupturing "stop Goldwater" effort.
Meanwhile, the political situation was changing dramatically. With the assassination of President Kennedy, the public lost its stomach for critical evaluation of the administration. It was as if an aura fell over Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon Johnson of Texas. For example, Senator Goldwater said that the mess Kennedy had gotten us into in Vietnam was a war, and that we should win it. But the public wanted, instead, to believe President Johnson when he said that what was going on over there was merely "a police action." In addition, the economy was doing well (thanks to the tax cuts Kennedy had pushed through), which always helps the incumbent. In light of these developments, Goldwater said that he had considered dropping out of the race for president, but nevertheless stayed in it in order to wrest control of the party from the Eastern establishment.
In accepting the Republican Party's nomination in San Francisco's expansive and sweltering Cow Palace, Senator Goldwater made a speech that endeared him forever to his followers. The key line of his speech was "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Statements like this can be found in the writings and speeches of many great champions of freedom going back centuries. Let me put it this way: we end the pledge of allegiance by saying "with liberty and justice for all." We say this as a commitment to make the symbol of our flag into a reality. For Goldwater, his speech was likewise a commitment to achieve liberty and justice for all. But that's not the way his speech was heard. Senator Goldwater's campaign, damaged by a fractricidal "stop-Goldwater" effort, which disposed people to interpret whatever he said in the worst light, started downhill and ended in disaster.
The most difficult thing for many of us about the 1964 campaign were the slanders that were heaped upon Barry Goldwater. The television commercial showing first a little girl picking the petals of a flower, and then the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb; and, the one showing old people arriving at the social security office to find their checks ripped up on the floor. The argument that "law and order" were codewords for racism. Let me share with you something about Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the grandson of a Polish Jew who came to the country to escape the pogroms of eastern Europe. Perhaps I should explain what were these "pogroms." The pogroms did not involve the mass extermination of the Jews (as under the Nazis), but petty discrimination and hooliganism, sanctioned by the government, designed to force the Jews to leave the country. The "first duty" of government, as Goldwater put it, is to maintain law and order. This protects us as individuals and as members of minority groups. Thus, freedom is not compromised by limited government that protects us from foreign invasion and from the criminal element, it is made possible by limited government.
Even though routed in the fall, Senator Goldwater could be said to have been an agent of change within the Republican Party. During the 1964 campaign, the man who would bring western-conservatives to victory was discovered. Ronald Reagan, still known mostly as an actor, gave a such stirring speech on behalf of Goldwater, that some people got the idea that Reagan would make a good candidate. One could of course say that Reagan enveloped the impulse to freedom characteristic of western conservatives within a charming and good-natured personality. But Goldwater had an engaging personality of his own. I think it is sufficient to say that 1964 was simply not a good year to have been the Republican candidate for president. If Goldwater had won, I'm sure we would remember his bluntness as an asset rather than as a liability.
Senator Goldwater was also instrumental in changing the composition of the Republican Party, adding a third element to the party, the southern-conservatives, which has brought the Republican Party to majority status. To be sure, geographic differences among Republicans are becoming less pronounced over time, but, for present purposes, it is still a useful device. Western conservatives tend to be more libertarian, more open to cultural diversity and to change. Southern conservatives tend to more, well, conservative. This is why Goldwater, in recent years, could say something like "a lot of so-called conservatives today don't know what the word means." For western conservatives, conservativism means freedom; that is, individual liberty and limited government under the constitution, especially limited federal government. For southern conservatives, conservatism means preservation of the established social order.
The difference between western conservatives and southern conservatives is illustrated, ironically, in the area of civil rights. As a businessman, before entering politics, Barry Goldwater ended race discrimination in his family-owned department store. And, as a city councilman, he worked to end racial segregation in the Phoenix public schools. However, he didn't think the race issue required intervention by the federal government. Southern conservatives may have misinterpreted Goldwater's opposition to federal intervention in the area of civil rights as approval of the established social order of the south. But, instead, it reflected his appreciation of the limits of the federal government under our constitution.
In recent years, Senator Goldwater has gotten into spats with the "religious right" on issues such as abortion, homosexuality and medical marijuana. It's not that Goldwater turned liberal in his old age, but that, as a western conservative, he thinks people have about them a sphere of privacy, within which the government cannot intervene. Even more fundamentally, it is because, as the great champions of freedom have always taught, you cannot have freedom without goodness, and so a free society must trust the people, in their private lives, and in their local communities.
A fitting tribute to Barry Goldwater would be for the several factions within the Republican Party to do in 2000 what he urged upon his followers in 1960, to unite behind the presidential nominee of the party, and not do what was done to him in 1964, to destroy the presidential nominee through infighting.
"I have little interest in streamlining government or making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them." The Conscience of a Conservative, 1958.
"This party, with its every action, every word, every breath, every heart beat, has but a single resolve: freedom!" Acceptance Speech, 1964.
"Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Acceptance Speech, 1964.
"Whole-hearted devotion to liberty is unassailable and half-hearted devotion to justice is undefensible." Goldwater's explantion of the "meaning" of the above, 1964.
"As far as I'm concerned, Mr. Nixon can go to China and stay there." Goldwater's reaction on hearing that Nixon, who had just resigned in disgrace, would travel to China, 1974.
"By the time the convention opened, I had been branded as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman and the candidate who couldn't win." With No Apologies, 1979.
"When you've lost an election by that much, it isn't the case of whether you made the wrong speech or wore the wrong necktie. It was just the wrong time." With No Apologies, 1979.
"You don't need to be straight to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight." letter to the editor, 1993.