1964 Convention Established GOP As Conservative

In 1964, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and the conservatives took control of a divided Republican Party and a volatile convention that was referred to as "the Conservative Woodstock."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week's Republican Convention allows us to look at the way the Republican Party has changed. The party's evolution is often traced back to an earlier convention, the Republican gathering in 1964. that was the year that Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater.

NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving no doubt remembers a line the Democrats used after that convention, Ron, because Republicans were saying Barry Goldwater: In your heart, you know he's right. And Democrats responded…

RON ELVING: In your guts, you know he's nuts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: That was one option. And the other Democratic option was in your heart you know he's right - to which they'd add…

ELVING: Extreme right, or far right.

INSKEEP: Which gets to the point that Democrats were able to marginalize the Republican candidate and win a crushing victory in 1964. But, Ron, was that the end of the story?

ELVING: No, that was not at all the end of the story. And that's why a lot of Republicans now look back on the 1964 convention fondly. Many of the people who were attracted to the party beginning in the early 1960s as an alternative to what at that time was liberalism on the march, look back to the Goldwater convention and say that's when they really were first attracted to the sharp distinctions between the parties and, of course, to the persona of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who was always very - also very much a part of that campaign.

INSKEEP: Now, there was a more moderate Republican leader, Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York. And let's listen to him attempt - attempt to give a speech at that 1964 convention.

Mr. NELSON ROCKEFELLER (Former Republican Governor, New York): During this year, I have crisscrossed this nation fighting to keep the Republican Party, the party of all the people…

(Soundbite of cheering)

…and warning of the extremist threat and dangers of a party…

Unidentified Group: We want Barry. We want Barry.

INSKEEP: And now the crowd is chanting We Want Barry, We Want Barry - not a great reception there.

ELVING: No. Nelson Rockefeller did not have much standing at the convention, and was the symbol of the slippage of the control of the Eastern wing of the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: So the acceptance speech - the nomination went to Barry Goldwater, the conservative from Arizona. And let's listen to some of that.

Mr. BARRY GOLDWATER (Former Republican Senator, Arizona; Former Presidential Candidate): I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

(Soundbite of cheering)

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

(Soundbite of cheering)

INSKEEP: Ron Elving, I want to ask this because today's conventions are so carefully scripted to deliver exactly the message that party leaders wanted. Was this tumultuous convention that the Goldwater campaign wanted?

ELVING: They didn't want it to necessarily be quite so full throated. And they did not necessarily want to send the message to the people as a whole that they were not the party of the middle. But at the same time, this was a movement. And a movement had taken over the party, and that movement was calling all the shots at that point.

INSKEEP: Did this convention defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964?

ELVING: I would not say that the convention helped him a great deal. But the larger issues of the year were the passage of the Civil Rights Act - which Barry Goldwater voted against - and, of course, the atmosphere created by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which had only happened 10 months earlier. And, of course, Lyndon Baines Johnson was the inheriting president who had taken office at Kennedy's death. And he was playing it like a violin. And every issue was breaking his way, and he ran a campaign that effectively ground Goldwater into the ground.

INSKEEP: So it was a ruinous year for Republicans. But I want to play one more piece of tape from 1964, because there's a man named Ronald Reagan who defended Barry Goldwater in an ad in 1964.

(Soundbite of 1964 campaign ad)

President RONALD REAGAN: I asked to speak to you because I'm mad. I've known Barry Goldwater for a long time. When I hear people say he's impulsive and such nonsense, I boil over. Do you honestly believe that Barry wants his sons and daughters involved in a war?

INSKEEP: Ron Elving, there's a voice we ended up hearing in American politics again and again after 1964.

ELVING: Yes. Ronald Reagan became the beneficiary of the energy that Barry Goldwater could not effectively exploit for himself and for his own candidacy. The '64 convention established the Republicans as the conservative party. And by heightening that contrast between the parties in that way, the Republicans positioned themselves to benefit in the next several election cycles when the electoral mood changed and shifted against the Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey Democrats. But ultimately, Ronald Reagan in the 1980s really brought to full fruition that conservative movement that began with Barry Goldwater.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving is at the Republican Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. Thanks.

ELVING: Thank you, Steve.

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