Twenty years before the "San Francisco Democrats" were reviled with such devastating gusto by Jeane Kirkpatrick, there were the San Francisco Republicans. The Grand Old Party held its 1964 national convention in the cavernous Cow Palace that July. The nominee was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater. While Barry was no [real-estate developer], the party's path to Cleveland arguably began in San Francisco 52 years ago.
The Republican Party then was still a mass American political party, with conservatives, centrists, and liberals. As the Party of Lincoln, it retained the remnant of decades of support by African-Americans. In 1960, Richard Nixon, with a strong civil rights record and the initial backing of Daddy King, neglected to call Martin Luther King Jr. in jail (John F. Kennedy did), a blunder that some scholars have said cost him the presidency. Even so, Republicans, including conservatives from the Midwest, had been essential to enacting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, a year later, the Voting Rights Act. Without them, Lyndon Johnson would never have been able to overpower the segregationist Southern wing of his own party.
But Goldwater and his supporters staged a revolution in the run-up to the convention, with conservatives capturing the party machinery for the first time since the 1930s. These were not conservatives such as Ohio Rep. William McCullough, a key leader in passage of the Civil Rights Act. Instead, their lineage went back to the reaction against the New Deal, Sen. Joe McCarthy, and "the paranoid style in American politics," a term coined by the political scientist Richard J. Hofstadter in his famous 1964 essay.
It had received little traction with Republican presidential candidates Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower, or even anti-communist Dick Nixon. But thanks to William F. Buckley's National Review (founded in 1955) and Goldwater's 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative, ghostwritten by Brent Bozell, the movement had received new life. It was conservatism 2.0. Behind its appeal were more than anti-communism, a call for low taxes and smaller government, and the perennial claim of Democratic foreign-policy weakness. A special magnet for many disaffected white voters was the right's opposition to the civil rights gains of the era.
The party establishment was blindsided. The mainstream candidates were Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York, a big-government reforming liberal, and William Scranton, the patrician governor of Pennsylvania. Hard as it is to believe today, the Northeast was once a Republican stronghold. Rockefeller was the frontrunner, until divorce (a no-no for candidates then) and re-marriage (with whiffs of adultery) caused him to stumble. The primary race seemed in flux until Goldwater decisively defeated Rockefeller in California. But primaries were not the determining element that they are today. Conventions decided the nominees, often with surprising results. In 1964, as Smithsonian Magazine put it, the Republicans "faced the ugliest of conventions since 1912."
The volume of right-wing rage at the media was novel at this Republican convention. Unprecedented, too, was the attention focused on the issue of television coverage. The convention was the first since CBS and NBC had expanded their nightly newscasts from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, and the first since the assassination and funeral of President John F. Kennedy redefined the bond between television and politics. In 1960, there were about as many journalists, both print and broadcast, as delegates. Four years later, broadcasters alone outnumbered delegates two to one....
According to a Harris Poll taken late that June, 62 percent of rank and file Republicans preferred Scranton to Goldwater, but the supposed Wall Street kingmakers were in dithering disarray. ("What in God's name has happened to the Republican Party!" muttered Henry Cabot Lodge — the party's 1960 vice presidential nominee — as he paged through the delegate list in his hotel room. "I hardly know any of these people!") The moderates' strategy was to put the Goldwaterites' perceived extremism on televised display, hoping delegates would flock to Scranton after being flooded by telegrams from outraged voters watching at home.
It was not to be. Rockefeller was booed during his convention speech. A draft-Nixon gambit went nowhere. Goldwater's forces controlled the floor. And during his acceptance speech, Goldwater famously said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" But whose liberty and whose justice? Certainly not African-Americans who had suffered for nearly a century under Jim Crow. And what did extremism by the commander in chief mean in the age of thermonuclear weapons? Many believe those two sentences cost Goldwater the election.
In fact, Goldwater himself knew he had no chance with the nation grieving the martyred Jack Kennedy. He ran reluctantly, believing he had a duty to the conservative cause. But before Dallas, Kennedy himself took a Goldwater run very seriously. Despite the Herblock/daisy-girl-ad caricature he became, Goldwater possessed some formidable qualities. He was handsome (and a prolific swordsman, like JFK) and the epitome of the athletic, rugged Westerner, at a time when the West held much romance and allure to the American soul. He was also a most capable politician, surrounded by an able group of strategists.
With his opposition to new federal civil rights laws (remember, this is the America of the early 1960s, not today), Kennedy feared Goldwater could take the South and more from the Democrats in 1964. Meanwhile, before Dallas, the Kennedy agenda was bottled up in Congress, despite both houses being controlled by his party. The Vienna Summit and Bay of Pigs had been disasters for JFK, hardly redeemed in the minds of many by the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Kennedy brothers seemed overreaching on civil rights to Southern conservatives and weak on the issue to liberals. All these liabilities changed instantly with the assassination and dogged work of LBJ, also launching a generation of Kennedy hagiography.
In Your Heart, You Know He's Right, was the slogan that prefigured the "silent majority" in an almost plaintive way. Johnson's people easily made sport of it, "In Your Guts, You Know He's Nuts." Goldwater was so easily painted as a hot-headed extremist that his hypocrisy went unexamined — how his home state wouldn't even exist without massive federal aid, from the Army pacifying native tribes and huge amounts of taxpayer dollars spent on water projects to the Cold War arms funding that created and sustained Phoenix's modern technology economy. Barry's coziness with organized crime was also missed, the big-time press and pundits overcome by fears that he really would, as he joked, "lob one into the men's room of the Kremlin."
"Landslide Lyndon" finally earned his nickname, taking all but six states that November. Goldwater's margin of victory in Arizona was less than 1 percent. Publisher Eugene C. Pulliam of the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette refused to endorse him. At Kenilworth School, Barry's alma mater, only one girl and I wore Goldwater buttons. But ominously for the Democrats, five of the six states Goldwater won were in the South, the first victory by a Republican presidential candidate since Reconstruction.
Barry went on to recant his stance on civil rights, sincerely I believe. He was never a theocrat or culture warrior. The revolution he began would result in the election of his surrogate, Ronald Reagan, first to the governorship of California and then to the presidency. But the ongoing push to the right eventually marginalized Goldwater and read out of the party everyone who was not the purest reactionary (RINOs). [The real-estate developer] is no anomaly, but the fulfillment of this ongoing revolution (and hardly less bad than his primary competition).
In 1964, watching the convention that nominated Goldwater, California's Democratic Gov. Pat Brown (Jerry's father), said, the "stench of fascism is in the air." Imagine what he would say about Cleveland.