In The High Drama Of Its 1964 Convention, GOP Hung A Right Turn

In advance of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Republican Convention, Robert Siegel speaks with The New York Times writer-at-large Sam Tanenhaus. They discuss the impact that the Civil Rights Act, passed earlier that year, had on the nomination of Barry Goldwater.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The summer of 1964 was a time of high political drama. President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated the previous November. His vice president and successor, Lyndon Johnson, was running for president. Johnson had just signed a major civil rights bill into law, and the war in Vietnam was still relatively small and popular. Johnson would go on to win by a landslide. Around this time 50 years ago, the Republicans were holding their national convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.

SIEGEL: The man about to be nominated for president was Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, leader of the party's conservative wing. Goldwater had bested several opponents in the primary season, none more notable than Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York and pillar of the Northeastern - some would say liberal, some would say moderate wing of the GOP. What both of those two men said and did in San Francisco foretold much of the Republican Party's future and the story of American conservativism - something that Sam Tanenhaus, writer at large for the New York Times, has written about extensively. Sam Tanenhaus, welcome back to the program.

SAM TANENHAUS: Oh, always good to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Set the scene for us. San Francisco 1964, the Republicans are about to nominate Barry Goldwater. What was it all about.

TANENHAUS: Well, Goldwater was the leader, not only of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, but of an insurgency within that party. His followers were, in many cases, from the Southwest. There was a realignment in the party. It had been dominated by so-called kingmakers in the East. The editorial board of the New York Herald Tribune, which was the great voice of moderate Republicanism - that's why Goldwater's winning this nomination when he was the darkest of dark horses represented a tremendous breakthrough for the ideological wing of the Republican Party, the conservative movement and also, real sea-change in our politics.

SIEGEL: To put this in some context, a bit earlier, in 1964, the Senate had approved the Civil Rights Act, and 27 of 33 Republicans voted for it. Barry Goldwater was one of the six who voted against it. How much was this argument over civil rights?

TANENHAUS: A lot - the civil rights movement was gaining in force. It was moving from the South to the North. There were riots in the summer of 1964, and Goldwater was tapping into the anxiety many whites - no longer just Southern whites, but whites in the North and the Midwest - about the speed of racial change and progress. Even though he himself was actually quite tolerant on racial matters, he became the leader of the ideological opposition to civil rights legislation.

SIEGEL: The second evening of the Republican convention, the platform was read, and then an amendment was proposed which would condemn extremism. It would condemn the extremism of the Ku Klux Klan, the Communist Party and the John Birch Society. And Governor Nelson Rockefeller, supporting this move, tried to address the convention and famously was hooted down by the crowd. Let's listen to a bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON ROCKEFELLER: And warning of the extremist threat - its danger to the party.

(BOOING)

SIEGEL: And that booing - that hooting down of Governor Rockefeller of New York State went on and on and on.

TANENHAUS: Norman Mailer said a few years later that when Rockefeller stood up against the mob, it was like one of those early moments at the dawn of civilization when one caveman stood off the others and said no, we have to be a civilized society. In retrospect, what we see is Rockefeller really was the hated figure. He was the Republican who was being forced on the party's base, and so for him to take the stage and, in effect, use the language liberals were using to demonize Goldwater and his followers seemed one last betrayal.

SIEGEL: He is referring, in that debate on the civil rights plank, to extremists and extremism. When Barry Goldwater was nominated and when he addressed the convention, extremism is the keyword of the most famous line from that very famous speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARRY GOLDWATER: I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

(CHEERING)

SIEGEL: Sam, the crowd went on for almost 40 seconds applauding that line of Barry Goldwater's.

TANENHAUS: Well, extremism had many meanings in 1964. One - the most obvious had to do with anti-Communism. Are we going to stand up to the Soviet Union or not? So to be extreme in defense of liberty was as much a reference to taking a very tough position in the Cold War as it was a critique of civil rights legislation that seemed to limit the liberty of white southerners. And it's interesting - I was thinking about this today. If Franklin Roosevelt had said something like that after Pearl Harbor, it might have seemed OK. It was the context in which he delivered those words - when extremism was identified by so many with fringe groups like southern segregationists who were blocking the schoolhouse doors to African-Americans in the South. And there were some, including quite ideological conservatives, who the moment Goldwater uttered those words said, this election is lost.

SIEGEL: And then, of course, the Rockefeller Republicans would typically say we're not liberal. We're moderate Republicans. And the second half of that part of the Goldwater speech addressed moderation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOLDWATER: And let me remind you, also, that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

(CHEERING)

SIEGEL: Barry Goldwater went on to lose by a historic margin in 1964. But this is the election of which it's often said that the battle was lost, but the war was won for Republican conservatives in 1964.

TANENHAUS: Well, immediately afterwards, an organization called the American Conservative Union was formed in Washington, D.C. It would become a kind of political citadel for the right. There was a term or an expression many conservatives used - 27 million. That is the 27 million people who voted for Barry Goldwater formed a new base. Here was Barry Goldwater getting a shade under 40 percent of the vote in a very, very large country in an election any Republican was probably doomed to lose because Lyndon Johnson was the torchbearer of the assassinated martyr John F. Kennedy. To do as well as he did was not really so bad in retrospect.

SIEGEL: Well, Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times, thanks for talking with us about that Republican convention 50 years ago.

TANENHAUS: My pleasure as always, Robert.

SIEGEL: Sam is a writer-at-large for the New York Times. He was talking with us about the 1964 Republican convention. His most recent article for the Times Sunday Magazine is about today's conservative Republicans. It's titled "Can The GOP Be A Party Of Ideas?"

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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