Barry Goldwater was responsible for recruiting and inspiring many of the people who built the infrastructure and organizations that to this day form the bones and sinews of the conservative movement.
After the death of Sen. Bob Taft in 1953, Goldwater quickly became the most consequential figure in the Republican Party and in conservative politics.
Part of Goldwater’s appeal was undoubtedly his larger-than-life personality. He was an Air Force pilot and a plain-talking entrepreneur. In his trademark black glasses and rugged good looks, he was the very definition of a man of the New West. Although not a tall man, Goldwater seemed to stand head and shoulders above every other Republican political figure of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
His plain-spoken, sometimes profane, commentary on the failures and follies of the progressive Republicans and liberal Democrats of his era reflected what millions of conservative Americans believed was wrong with the government, popular culture and politics.
The importance of Goldwater’s willingness to publicly criticize the Republican establishment cannot be overstated.
In 1960, he referred to the domestic program of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the revered liberator of Europe, as “a dime store New Deal,” and in so doing he empowered conservatives to begin to publicly fight the Republican establishment and to demand that the GOP actually stand for and campaign on conservative principles.
Goldwater’s fight, I might add, has been taken up today by members of the tea party movement and other limited-government constitutional conservatives. They draw their inspiration from the same principled demand that the Republican Party actually campaign and govern according to its conservative platform and principles. This honesty in politics is now, as it was then, annoying and troubling to the ruling class within the Republican establishment.
In 1960, with the help of L. Brent Bozell, Jr., Goldwater published the groundbreaking “The Conscience of a Conservative.” The book was intended, Goldwater said, “to awaken the American people to a realization of how far we had moved from the old constitutional concepts toward the new welfare state.” The book quickly went through 20 printings and sold 3.5 million copies, and it is still in print.
“‘The Conscience of a Conservative’ was our new testament,” Pat Buchanan later said. “It contained the core beliefs of our political faith, it told us why we had failed, what we must do. We read it, memorized it, quoted it. For those of us wandering in the arid desert of Eisenhower Republicanism, it hit like a rifle shot.”
The book’s strong statement of the dangers of, and opposition to, world communism helped define the conservative movement as the natural political home of first- and second-generation Eastern Europeans, Cubans and Asians who had fled communist revolutions in their homelands, and it confirmed Barry Goldwater as the premier spokesman for rolling back the communist tide.
It also inspired a new generation of young conservatives, including me, to become involved in the movement.
After deferring to Richard Nixon and taking himself out of the running for the 1960 Republican presidential nomination (where he still received 10 votes on the first ballot) Goldwater traveled the country as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee selling his new brand of conservatism.
That experience put him in contact with grass-roots Republicans all over the country. After Nixon’s defeat, and more than two years before the 1964 election, “Draft Goldwater for President” committees were formed across the country.
Goldwater conservatism, the marriage of anti-communist “national defense conservatives” and economic conservatives, led to a redefinition of conservatism away from the anti-interventionist ideas of William Howard Taft and led to a generational shift in the Republican Party.
In the haze that the liberal establishment media created in their celebration of the election of John F. Kennedy as the beginning of “Camelot,” it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the election of Kennedy coincided with the rise of a conservative movement in the United States and in the Republican Party.
In 1960, Young Americans for Freedom was founded and “The Conscience of a Conservative” was published. In 1961, conservative Republican John Tower was elected in a special election to fill Lyndon B. Johnson’s vacant Senate seat.
On March 7, 1962, while I served as executive secretary, Young Americans for Freedom held a huge rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City with Barry Goldwater as one of the headliners and chief draws. I would nominate the Madison Square Garden rally as the day the modern conservative movement had its public debut.
“A Conservative Rally for World Liberation from Communism” drew a sellout crowd of 18,500 mostly young people to liberalism’s East Coast citadel and gave national exposure to the rally’s featured speakers, especially conservative Republican senators Barry Goldwater, Strom Thurmond and John Tower.
Before that day, what we in the conservative movement were doing was mostly out of the public eye. But when thousands were lined up around Madison Square Garden and the speeches and sellout crowd were front-page, “above the fold” news the next day in The New York Times, the conservative movement leapt onto the national political stage — and it was a movement largely inspired by Goldwater and the new brand of conservatism he shared with intellectuals such as William F. Buckley, Jr., M. Stanton Evans, Russell Kirk, Frank S. Meyer, William F. Rusher and L. Brent Bozell Jr.
Far from being intimidated by the media’s love affair with Kennedy, or swept away in the glamour and liberal celebrity worship surrounding “Camelot,” conservatives were an energized and growing force rallying for the ideals of freedom, liberty and limited government.
And Barry Goldwater was our chief spokesman and inspiration.
Goldwater was enthusiastic about the prospects of running against President Kennedy and drawing a sharp contrast to Kennedy’s policies. What’s more, Goldwater understood that the problem was as much the establishment Republican Party leadership as it was the Democrats.
In 1961, F. Clifton White organized a movement to nominate a Republican conservative for president. Traveling around the country, White exhorted conservatives to seize control of their local Republican Party organizations and elect conservative delegates to the Republican National Convention. It was much the same message I preached in my recent book “Takeover.”
The movement White orchestrated gave conservatives more influence over the inner workings of the Republican Party than they had during Taft’s 1952 defeat and helped persuade Goldwater to run for president.
This scared the devil out of the progressive-dominated Republican establishment, which was all for Eisenhower’s “dime store New Deal.” This ideal had long embraced me-tooism and ceded the national agenda to the Democrats.
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton and Michigan Gov. George Romney all lined up against Goldwater in a furious “Stop Goldwater” movement that attacked him during the Republican primaries, through the Republican National Convention in San Francisco and straight through to his epic defeat on Election Day 1964.
In the wake of Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater briefly considered dropping his campaign. He recognized that the American people would be unlikely to opt for three presidents in 14 months, but he was persuaded to continue by his grass-roots supporters, a desire to wrest control of the Republican Party away from the establishment’s Eastern liberals and for what Bill Middendorf called the “noble reason” of building the conservative movement.
In that sense, Goldwater’s 1964 campaign succeeded far beyond expectation.
In his epic defeat, Goldwater cleared the way for one of his strongest supporters, actor Ronald Reagan, to make an electrifying television speech, “A Time for Choosing.” That speech refreshed conservatism’s appeal and led to former Democrat Reagan entering Republican politics to become governor of California and eventually America’s first conservative president of the modern era.
Although conservatives were in a darkness of biblical proportions after Goldwater’s defeat, we didn’t give up. We started organizations to advance conservative ideas. We took note of Reagan’s optimistic assessment of the election that, although Goldwater lost, we attracted 27 million conservative voters who shared our values.
To communicate with those 27 million newly identified conservative voters, I began copying by hand (as was legal in those days) a list of Goldwater campaign donors. Less than two months after Barry Goldwater’s defeat, I founded the Viguerie Co., America’s first conservative direct mail company.
Through direct mail, we created an alternative media that bypassed the left’s monopoly on the country’s microphones and editorial pages and allowed conservative candidates and organizations to communicate with the growing bloc of conservative voters free of any liberal filters.
Today, the members of the “Stop Goldwater” movement are largely forgotten and “Rockefeller Republican” is a term of derision. But “The Conscience of a Conservative” is still in print, and the organizations founded by the people that Barry Goldwater inspired, including the Viguerie Co., remain vigorous and growing.
• Richard A. Viguerie is the founder of the Viguerie Co., chairman of American Target Advertising and author of “Takeover: The 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win It.”