In the summer of 1964, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater delivered the most controversial speech in the history of national political conventions when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination. “Mr. Goldwater flung down a challenge with his ‘extremism is no vice’ statement in his acceptance speech,” the New York Times reported.
“My god,” exclaimed one reporter, “he’s going to campaign as Barry Goldwater.”
The reaction was swift and brutal. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Goldwater’s principal and very liberal rival for the Republican nomination, called the statement “dangerous, irresponsible, and frightening.” Martin Luther King, Jr., saw “dangerous signs of Hitlerism” in Goldwater’s programs. NAACP secretary Roy Wilkins said a Goldwater victory “would lead to a police state.” Six weeks later, at the Democratic national convention, President Lyndon Johnson condemned what he called the tactics of “fear and smear” and warned the electorate about the danger of voting for an “extremist.”
Only, Goldwater did not say “Extremism is no vice” but, rather, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The all-important qualifying phrase, “in the defense of liberty,” was ignored or excised by Goldwater’s opponents and the media. People only heard, or thought they heard, “Extremism is no vice.” The idea that Goldwater was a right-wing extremist who would plunge America into a war and do away with Social Security and other essential social programs had been planted in the minds of most Americans by liberal Republicans during the primaries and propagated by an anti-Goldwater press.
In those days, there were no “spin doctors” who would have argued that Goldwater’s speech was one of the best in convention history, drawing attention to its Lincolnian and Churchillian accents. (Its principal author was the respected Lincoln scholar Harry Jaffa.) They would have placed the extremism language in perspective. They would have mentioned the prominent Americans who have counseled extremism throughout our history, such as Patrick Henry, who vowed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” and Abraham Lincoln, who in his famous “House Divided” speech in 1858 said that “this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free … It will become all one thing or all the other.”
GOP spin-meisters would have quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote from a Birmingham jail that some clergymen viewed his “nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.” He added, “Was not Jesus an extremist for love? … Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” Jaffa provided a sound rationale for the phrase, citing Thomas Paine, who wrote in “The Rights of Man” that “A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.”
Nevertheless, in place of even-handed analysis, political opponents and the biased media affixed the label of “extremist” to Barry Goldwater and made it stick. Goldwater always stood by his words, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Decades later, he remarked, “I’d make that speech again any place any time.” But he never again used the extremism sentence in 1964, knowing that to do so would allow his opponent to dredge up the question of who was and who wasn’t an extremist.
What he did say in the fall campaign was that we were in a war in Vietnam, although President Johnson would not admit it, and that the federal government was out of control and needed rolling back. He reminded voters, “Any government that is big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”
But an overwhelming majority of voters in 1964 had been persuaded to fear the straight-talking senator from Arizona, and President Johnson won an historic landslide, receiving 61 percent of the popular vote and carrying 44 states with 486 electoral votes.
Usually, after a defeat of such proportions, that should have been the end of Barry Goldwater and conservatism. Amazingly, the very opposite occurred. Reviled and rejected as no other presidential candidate in the 20th century, Goldwater was easily reelected to the U.S. Senate in 1968 while the president with the largest landslide in history dared not seek reelection.
The immediate cause was Vietnam, the war that Goldwater warned people about, the war that LBJ promised he would not send American boys to fight, the war that ended with over 58,000 Americans dead and 303,000 wounded, the war we lost for the first time in U.S. history. From one end of the country to the other, conservatives grimly joked: “Well, they told me that if I voted for Goldwater we’d go to war in Vietnam. Well, I did, and damned if we didn’t.”
Goldwater’s criticisms of the overinflated promises and understated costs of the Great Society were also proven correct. One pundit wrote, “Goldwater won in 1964. They just didn’t count the votes until 1980” when Reagan won in a landslide.
Let’s consider an intriguing question: What if Barry Goldwater had been elected president in 1964?
One, there would have been no Vietnam War as it was fought under President Johnson. President Goldwater would have called in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and given them 12 months to defeat North Vietnam, using all possible air, sea and limited land resources. At the end of a year, if North Vietnam was still a viable opponent, Goldwater would have withdrawn American forces while providing South Vietnam the weapons with which to engage the communist enemy and maintain its independence.
Two, there would have been no trillion-dollar vainglorious Great Society. President Goldwater would have stuck to a philosophy of a limited federal government with an emphasis on solving economic and social problems at the lowest possible governmental level — starting at the community and city level, rising through the county and the state and arriving at the federal level only after all other solutions had been tried and found wanting.
Presidential candidate Goldwater was almost as important. His lasting impact can be readily seen on national issues like nuclear weapons and Social Security, direct-mail fund raising, the previously one-party South, the role of negative political advertising, and the transformation of the Republican Party into the conservative party. In retrospect, it’s clear that Barry Goldwater was the most consequential loser of 20th century politics.
This piece originally appeared in Daily Caller