TORONTO, ON, Jan 2, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Fifty years ago, on January 3, 1964, Barry Goldwater formally launched the most suicidal political campaign in American presidential history. Running as the voice of authentic conservatism, he wound up carrying just six states and 39 per cent of the popular vote.
First elected to the senate from Arizona in 1952, Goldwater quickly built a reputation as a trenchant critic of the role the federal government had assumed in American life. And he didn’t spare his own party, describing Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Republican administration as “a dime store New Deal.”
When The Conscience of a Conservative was published in 1960, Goldwater was the attributed author. In truth, though, it was a ghost-written job, albeit one partially drawn from his speeches. But mixed provenance notwithstanding, the book was a huge success, selling some 3.5 million copies over the next four years.
As biographer Robert Alan Goldberg later summarised it, the message was blunt: “That government be constrained in its power and not interfere in the private lives of its citizens was a core belief for Goldwater.” To that end, Washington needed to withdraw from areas where it didn’t belong, including those constitutionally reserved to the states. Taken in conjunction with a particularly hawkish anti-communist foreign policy, it was a perspective distinctly at odds with the prevailing American political consensus.
Goldwater also had a propensity to shoot from the lip, speaking his mind without first weighing the impact. He freely acknowledged the flaw, once observing that there were “words of mine floating around in the air that I would like to reach up and eat.” Still, he couldn’t help himself.
And there was more. Having ended segregation in his family’s department stores and been instrumental in doing the same for Phoenix schools and restaurants and the Arizona National Guard, Goldwater had a good personal record on race relations. But the 1964 Civil Rights Act caused him a problem. As he saw it, the sections on public accommodations and employment were unconstitutional. So, after failing in his efforts to delete the offending provisions, he voted against the legislation. For this, he was attacked as a racist.
Then came his Republican convention acceptance speech. Speaking words written for him by history professor Harry Jaffa, Goldwater threw down a defiant gauntlet: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Seasoned Republican political heads, like Richard Nixon, despaired. Afterwards, Goldwater privately explained his meaning. Apparently, it was that “wholehearted devotion to liberty is unassailable and that half-hearted devotion to justice is indefensible.” Perhaps. But then again, maybe he just liked the uncompromising sound of the original formulation.
Following the convention, what had been a particularly rancorous campaign became downright toxic. Although biographer Goldberg is often very critical of his subject, he offers this characterization: “The defamation of Barry Goldwater by the Democrats and their accomplices would be unprecedented in American political history.”
CBS News led the charge, courtesy of on-air correspondent Daniel Schorr’s spurious story about alleged German connections and implied links to Hitler. And to seal the deal, the Democrats’ advertising agency produced two famous commercials associating Goldwater with nuclear devastation. In the process, the negative political ad made its serious debut on the American scene.
When it was all over, the conventional wisdom proclaimed that American conservatism was dead and buried. Yet only 16 years later, Ronald Reagan romped to his first easy presidential victory.
In the intervening years, America had obviously changed in ways that made it more susceptible to the kind of message Goldwater had tried – and failed – to communicate. But notwithstanding the philosophical affinity between the two men, there were also substantial differences.
Where Goldwater was flinty, Reagan was folksy. Where Goldwater was angry, Reagan was amiable. Where Goldwater was cranky, Reagan was cheerful.
And there was another difference, going beyond personality and temperament. Reagan had an almost instinctive shrewdness about when to trim his sails. Years of executive negotiating experience – first as a union leader (the Screen Actors Guild) and then as California governor – had engrained the lesson that 60 per cent of a pie was much better than no pie at all.
Maybe Mary Poppins got it right. A spoonful of sugar really does help the medicine go down.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.
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