- - Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Fifty years ago yesterday, I was in the Cow Palace in San Francisco when Sen. Barry Goldwater accepted the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention.

I heard him speak the famous lines for which he was later so viciously attacked that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

I assume that neither Goldwater, nor speechwriter Karl Hess thought that words borrowed from Cicero so similar to Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” would be so harmful to his campaign. The use of that one word — “extremism” — played into the hands of so many in the national media who had been working hard to portray Goldwater as an extremist.

I can tell you that almost everything about that convention was very exciting to me. I was just five days short of my 17th birthday, and I had never been any place west of Nashville, Tenn. I was traveling alone, and rode a train for 77 hours from Knoxville, Tenn., to San Francisco.

I had been given a position as an honorary assistant sergeant at arms. I have since told people that you can’t get any lower than being an honorary assistant, but it got me into the convention.

I grew up in a political family, but my main interest had always been sports until I started following the race for the Republican presidential nomination in late 1963.

I closely followed the 1964 New Hampshire primary that was won by Henry Cabot Lodge even though he was in Vietnam as our ambassador, and then the race that developed between Goldwater and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York.

Just a few days before the convention, I went to the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville to hear Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, who was attempting to lead a last-minute “Stop Goldwater” movement. I was not for Scranton, but was just fascinated by all that was going on in national politics that year.

I was at the convention when Rockefeller was booed by many of the delegates. I remember seeing NBC’s John Chancellor several times as I walked around the convention floor.

Probably the greatest speech of the convention, to me, was that given by former Vice President Richard Nixon. My parents had been very strong Nixon supporters.

David R. Stokes, in an article in The Daily Caller, quoted from Nixon’s convention speech:

“Before the convention, we were Goldwater Republicans, Scranton Republicans, Lodge Republicans, but now that this convention has met and made its decision, we are Republicans, period, working for Barry Goldwater and to those few, if there are some who say that they are going to sit it out or take a walk, or even go on a boat ride, I have an answer in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1960 — ‘Let’s grow up, Republicans, let’s go to work — and we shall win in November.’”

Conservatives are avid readers, and for many years there has been a big market for conservative books. One of the earliest best-sellers was Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative.” No other book has ever had such an impact on a presidential nomination.

Probably no other single speech has ever had as great an effect or changed the course of history as much as the one given by Ronald Reagan during the ‘64 campaign.

That speech propelled Reagan two years later into the governor’s mansion in California and later into the White House.

When I returned from San Francisco, I began working as a bag boy at an A&P grocery store, making $1.10 an hour. I was so enthusiastic I sent my first paycheck — $19 and some-odd cents — as a contribution to the Goldwater campaign.

A few days before the election, I was asked to speak for Goldwater at my high school. For some reason, I still remember my last words in that debate.

I said the main criticism of Goldwater was that he was too far right. I then said this sort of hokey statement, “Well, the opposite of right is wrong, so if Barry Goldwater is far right, then Lyndon Johnson must be far wrong.”

On Election Day, Goldwater lost by more votes than any other major party nominee, 43,000,000 to 27,000,000. He carried only his home state of Arizona and four states in the Deep South. He lost my home state of Tennessee.

He took many other Republicans all across the nation down to defeat with him. The House ended up with 295 Democrats to 140 Republicans. There were not even enough seats for all the Democrats on their side of the aisle.

Many top Republicans were defeated that year in races for senator or governor, such as Howard H. Baker Jr., Charles Percy, Bud Wilkinson, Lowell Thomas and Bob Taft Jr. But several came back to win two years later when the Republicans picked up 46 seats in the House, six in the Senate and eight governorships.

And Goldwater’s disastrous losing campaign laid the foundation for what became the conservative movement of today.

John J. Duncan Jr. is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Tennessee.

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