For conservatives who admire Ronald Reagan and use him as the gold standard in selecting Republican candidates, 50 years ago this week marks what some consider was the first victory of the modern conservative movement.
The event was a gathering of the Young Republican National Convention where an important first step of the early conservative movement was taken, culminating in Barry Goldwater's nomination for president a year later.
Goldwater, of course, lost disastrously in 1964. But his campaign had a seminal moment when actor Ronald Reagan delivered a much-praised nationally televised address on Goldwater's behalf that catapulted Reagan into electoral politics.
But it might not have worked out that way had it not been for the tumultuous events that began a half-century ago this week at the old Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco.
"Young Republicans were much more important then than they are today," recalls Morton Blackwell, then a Louisiana Young Republican (YR) attending the group's national conclave and now Virginia's Republican National Committeeman. "At a time when serving on a county or state Republican committee usually meant you had to have gray hair, a large group of under-40s committed to Republican politics was very important."
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, an unabashed liberal Republican and poised to run for president, saw the YR's race for national chairman as an early opportunity to gain ground for the big race in 1964. So did outgoing YR Chairman Leonard Nadasdy of Minnesota.
In events that would presage today's debate over "modernizing" the Republican Party, Nadasdy had pursued a "smiling quest for a better, fairer Young Republican National Federation," according to author Rick Perlstein in his book "Before the Storm."
The candidate for YR chairman backed by Nadasdy was Idaho state Rep. Chuck McDevitt. Although McDevitt had a conservative record in the Idaho legislature, his candidacy was fueled by Rockefeller's money and he was clearly perceived as the New Yorker's man in the race.
Supporters of Arizona's conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater's yet-unannounced presidential bid rallied to D.C. Young Republican Chairman Donald "Buz" Lukens, U.S. Air Force reserve officer and congressional staffer.
Republican operative F. Clifton White, head of the "Draft Goldwater" movement and himself a veteran of past YR battles, assisted the Lukens team behind the scenes. J. William Middendorf, a top fundraiser for the Goldwater effort and other conservative causes, put thousands from the "Draft Goldwater" committee into the race for the YR presidency.
M. Stanton Evans, then-editor of The Indianapolis News who covered the entire YR convention that year, summarized the chairman's race for Newsmax: "There was only one issue — Goldwater vs. Rockefeller — and nothing else mattered."
Running with McDevitt and Lukens in the race was California YR Chairman Bob Gaston, also considered a conservative.
With reporters from the national press swelling the Sheraton-Palace and its ballroom enveloped in cigarette smoke, the race for YR chairman had all the trappings of a national political convention.
Oregon's liberal Republican governor and Rockefeller ally Mark Hatfield delivered the convention's keynote address, which the young Goldwater supporters boycotted. When Goldwater himself spoke, he was given a hero's welcome and seven-minute ovation.
Prior to the much-awaited vote for national chairman, things grew ugly amid challenges to the credentials of several state delegations.
As Blackwell recalled, "Nadasdy clearly overreached. He had complete control of the credentials committee and every battle was decided in favor of the McDevitt forces. If he had behaved more responsibly, his man might have won."
The roll calls over the credentials rulings led to fist-fights among delegates to the full convention.
"I remember a bunch of bushy-tailed young guys at the YR nuthouse,” recalled Wyoming delegate Alan Simpson, later a U.S. senator. Asked by Newsmax how he voted, Simpson said: “After 50 years, I'll be damned if I can remember!"
On the first ballot, McDevitt led, but lacked the majority required to win. California's Gaston released his votes to Lukens, and with police now lining the room to keep order, the roll call for the second ballot proceeded. At 5:15 a.m., after Wyoming cast its ballots, Lukens had won by two votes.
The outcome made headlines and sent political tremors throughout the Republican Party. What followed was the battle for the soul of the Republican Party, which would culminate in Goldwater's nomination for president in 1964.
"The YR convention in 1963 was a turning point for American conservatives," said Evans, the Indianapolis News editor. "In order to nominate Goldwater in '64, they had to win the YR convention in '63. That convention was a decisive moment and it presaged everything."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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