Marking the 50th anniversary of Barry Goldwater's nomination for president in 1964, National Public Radio devoted a recent "All Things Considered" program to the convention that changed the Republican Party and modern conservatism — and helped launch the political career of a Goldwater delegate from California named Ronald Reagan.
But instead of highlighting the many young people who traveled to the San Francisco convention and were inspired by Sen. Goldwater, the NPR program focused on the Arizonan being one of six Republicans who voted in the Senate against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Given Goldwater's vote and the celebrated line from his acceptance speech that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," NPR's guest and New York Times Magazine contributor Sam Tanenhaus concluded that "it was the context in which he delivered those words — when extremism was identified by so many fringe groups like Southern segregationists who were blocking the schoolhouse doors to African-Americans in the South."
Admitting that Goldwater himself "was actually quite tolerant on racial matters," Tanenhaus nonetheless said that "he became the leader of the ideological opposition to civil rights legislation" and "was tapping into the anxiety of many whites — no longer just Southern whites but whites in the North and the Midwest — about the speed of racial change and progress."
Newsmax spoke to four people who, as young Goldwater enthusiasts a half-century ago, were in San Francisco and on the floor of the convention at the Cow Palace. To a person, they strongly agreed that NPR and Tanenhaus got it all wrong.
"Tanenhaus has become the liberal interpreter of conservatism," said Allan Ryskind, then a reporter for the national conservative weekly Human Events and later co-owner of the publication. "NPR should have had Lee Edwards [author of the definitive biography of Goldwater] on instead."
Ryskind recalled that Goldwater had led the successful effort to integrate the Arizona Air National Guard. In addition, as biographer Edwards wrote, Goldwater had years earlier changed his opposition to the Supreme Court's power to enforce school integration (his longtime friend, attorney Denison Kitchel, persuaded him) and told Southern delegates to the 1964 convention that segregation was "wrong, morally, and in some instances constitutionally."
"I never met anyone who said they supported Goldwater because he would be somehow harder on blacks," Ryskind told Newsmax. "Conservatives thought — and I still believe — that every state in the South was promoting more progressive policies towards blacks and that some states were moving more rapidly in that direction than others."
As for the Republican nominee's position on the Civil Rights Act, Goldwater had said he would vote for passage if Section II on public accommodations and Section VII on equal employment opportunity were removed. With his view reinforced by a detailed memorandum from Phoenix lawyer and future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Goldwater felt these sections were unconstitutional, were unenforceable without a federal police force, and would lead to the creation of racial quotas and affirmative action.
"He was absolutely right about [the two sections of the Civil Rights Act] and they did lead to precisely what Goldwater and most conservatives were afraid of," said Tom Winter, then executive editor of Human Events, who would join Ryskind as its co-owner a year later. As for the "extremism in the defense of liberty" speech, Winter recalled watching it from a San Francisco restaurant "and cheering it because it was clearly about freedom and fighting communism. I certainly didn't think it had anything to do with race."
Jimmy Duncan, now a Republican congressman from Tennessee, spent 77 hours on a train to attend his first national convention in 1964 and sent his $19 savings from the $1.10 an hour he earned as a supermarket bag-boy to the campaign of his hero Goldwater.
"I was an 'honorary assistant sergeant-at-arms' and on the convention floor every night, including for the senator's nomination and acceptance speech," Duncan told Newsmax. "I didn't see any connection between what he said and stood for and race. Neither did my father, who peacefully integrated the school system in Knoxville [Tenn.] when he was mayor and always did very well among black voters." (John Duncan was elected to Congress that year and served until his death in 1988, when he was succeeded by his son Jimmy).
Duncan also pointed out that other Goldwater supporters running on the Republican ticket in 1964 were also strong civil rights backers. Howard Baker Jr., making his first run for the Senate, made an ardent appeal among black voters. Narrowly defeated that year, Baker rebounded to win a Senate seat in 1966.
Bill Schulz, then a writer for radio commentator/syndicated columnist Fulton Lewis Jr. and later Washington bureau chief and executive editor of Reader's Digest, differs with his friends Ryskind and Winter on the Civil Rights Act vote. He believes the senator "was on the wrong side of history on that one. But he was true to his principles and I was elated that he ran because it allowed conservatives to take over the Republican Party and prepare for what was to come."
What was to come, of course, was Reagan's much-praised, nationally televised speech on Goldwater's behalf that fall, his election to the governorship of California in 1966, and his eventual presidency. Reagan differed little from his friend Barry Goldwater except in how he articulated their agenda of conservatism, which had nothing to do with the suppression of civil rights and everything to do with the "defense of liberty."
(Footnote: Allan Ryskind and Tom Winter hired this author while they were co-owners of Human Events, where he worked from 1979 until joining Newsmax in 2013. He considers both men mentors and they remain his good friends.)
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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