NPR Looks Back at Goldwater's 1964 Convention of 'Cavemen' Applauding 'Extremism'

July 11th, 2014 8:13 AM

NPR got in the spirit of anniversaries on Thursday night’s All Things Considered by recalling the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco. For analysis, they turned to.....New York Times Magazine contributor Sam Tanenhaus, whose lack of political insight was proven by his 2009 book The Death of Conservatism (broadened from a 2009 New Republic essay titled "Conservatism Is Dead.")  Oopsy.

Tanenhaus told NPR anchor Robert Siegel that when Nelson Rockefeller tried to argue against “extremism” at the convention, leftist author Norman Mailer wrote 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.”

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.

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.

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 okay. 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.

So in the spirit of exploring "extremism," can we expect around Labor Day that NPR will revisit Lyndon Johnson's historic mudslinging "Daisy" ad suggesting Goldwater would incinerate the planet in a nuclear war (inspired by Johnson-flack-turned-PBS-omnipresence Bill Moyers)?