Goldwater's Convention, Trump's Legacy
For moderate Republicans worried that their party is being hijacked by an extremist, here is a story from 1964 that may (or may not) be of some comfort.
The party's apparent choice, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, was no Donald Trump, but he was a far-right maverick, and he was rallying millions of Americans to his cause. He voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and threatened to lob an atomic bomb into the men’s room of the Kremlin when he became president. He was called a racist, a warmonger and compared to Adolf Hitler. He taunted the GOP bigwigs, including former President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Fearing a national shift from his own soft progressivism to Goldwater’s hard conservatism, Ike convened leading party moderates in an effort to deny Goldwater the nomination. This effort included the creation of the Republican Critical Issues Council in late 1963. The 24-member group, led by Ike's brother Milton, included Thomas S. Gates Jr., Ike's Secretary of Defense, Admiral Arleigh Burke, his Chief of Naval Operations, and Oveta Culp Hobby, his Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. The mission was to publish a dozen policy papers that would shape the debate and lay a foundation for the Republican platform at the convention in July.
Milton was the most cerebral and articulate of the four living Eisenhower brothers. He had been president of Kansas State and Penn State Universities and was at the time leading Johns Hopkins University. Although he was not political, his new assignment put him in the middle of that tumultuous campaign. As his special assistant and speechwriter (and, perhaps surprisingly, a registered Democrat), I was right there with him.
Council members met several times in Washington to select the key issues and create task forces to draft the papers. Between April and July 1964, the council published 12 papers. Some of the topics seem quaint by today's standards, others are stubbornly familiar: Agriculture, Asia policy, civil rights, Cuba, energy, fiscal policy, foreign aid, national security, the Panama Canal, population growth, the space program.
In “Republicans and Civil Rights,” the council declared that the American dream of freedom and opportunity was being denied to minorities, especially to “Negroes.” It called for stronger voting laws, job creation, equality of educational opportunity, the enforcement of legal protections and an end to segregation and discrimination. It urged Americans “to destroy the legal barriers that today set race against race.”
Alarmed over a trade imbalance, the council called for an expansion of exports, urged a tougher stance with trading partners, including fighting foreign tariffs, and asked labor unions for help in controlling production costs. It warned of the dangers of combining tax cuts with increased spending, and also proposed a tax on U.S. citizens investing in foreign securities.
The group blamed excessive federal spending in agriculture for a commodities “surplus.” It called for a peaceful space program that could be responsive to military needs. And it criticized the proposed plan to land a man on the moon for rushing to meet an unnecessary 1970 deadline.
The council supported foreign aid, but argued for more clearly defined principles and priorities. Although recommendations for policies to contain communism were more typically hawkish than those offered by the Democrats, they were restrained in comparison to Goldwater's.
Goldwater did not run an issues-based campaign and publicly criticized the CIC. He even asked Edgar Eisenhower (the oldest of the brothers) to try to persuade Milton to take a more conservative stand, especially on civil rights. Edgar tried and failed.
Which is not to say that the proposals were a success. When Goldwater and his conservative army stormed the Cow Palace in San Francisco, the platform committee showed little sympathy for the CIC positions. Every moderate proposal was voted down, including one that called on the party to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society and another to provide more opportunities for blacks.
In a final effort to point the party in a more moderate direction, Milton Eisenhower nominated Pennsylvania governor William Scranton for president in a speech that Walter Cronkite, covering the proceedings for CBS, called the best speech of the convention.
It didn't work. Goldwater won easily on the first ballot. Richard Nixon introduced (and endorsed) the candidate, their hands held high in a victory salute. Scranton, ever the team-player, moved for a unanimous vote on the nomination.
For those who didn’t support Goldwater, the convention was a hostile place. Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and other speakers were booed. I recall the dread I felt when the crowd screamed and stomped to Goldwater’s declaration that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
So did the council have an effect? My guess is that it did -- but in an unexpected way. It helped Johnson in the general election by pointing the way to a more rational and practical agenda for the future, something the 1964 GOP was unable to offer.
LBJ didn’t just derail Goldwater; he buried him in a landslide, winning 44 states and 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 6 states and 52 electoral votes. Johnson couldn't have won 61.1 percent of the popular vote without significant help from Republicans.
And yet there was a storm brewing. Shortly after the convention, I was approached by an aide to Johnson. He told me that LBJ was concerned about the surge of conservatism reflected in San Francisco. There was ample evidence, he said, that the right had embarked on a systematic effort to take over grassroots democratic institutions like school boards, city councils, even organizations like the Boy Scouts.
The president, the aide said, was holding off-the-record discussions with some leading Republicans to form a citizen’s group to counter the Goldwater Republicans. The enterprise would be financed and led by moderate Republicans. Did I want to join as a staff member?
I thought about it, and declined. This year, thanks to Donald Trump and the shifts experienced by the Republican Party, the memories of that distant campaign season have been front of mind. Despite his defeat, Barry Goldwater created a movement by mobilizing conservatives and giving them voice. As LBJ understood, that voice would only get louder with time.
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