Harry Jaffa on the Famous “Extremism” Speech

Paul noted yesterday the 50th anniversary of Barry Goldwater’s famous—or infamous—convention speech in 1964.  Has there ever been another convention speech before or since that is as well recalled for a single line?  Only William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech comes close.

Harry Jaffa, who turns 96 in a few weeks, reflected some time ago about the famous line—”Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice”—and his role in crafting it:

I wrote that statement, in part, as a repudiation of the critique of extremism that was made by Rockefeller and Scranton witnesses before the [platform] committee. Sometimes these things get out of hand.  They are like letters you do not intend to send.  But they blow out the window and somebody picks them up and they are delivered.  And this one was delivered to the Senator, who fell in love with it and ordered that it be incorporated in his Acceptance Speech, and it led to my becoming the principal drafter of the speech.  And, there it was.  It was not my political judgment that the thing be used in the speech at all, although I must say that I was flattered at the time and didn’t think too much of what the consequences would be. . .  The Senator liked it because he had been goaded by mean-spirited attacks through the long months of the primaries.  Nothing in the political history of the country surpasses in fundamental indecency the kind of attacks that were made on Goldwater by Nelson Rockefeller and his followers. . .  But I was not asked for the extremism statement; I had written it as an in-house memorandum, and it was appropriated.  I’m not making an excuse for myself in saying I wasn’t responsible for it.  I was certainly enthusiastically in favor of it at the time.

Jaffa joked later that he promised future Republican presidential candidates that he wouldn’t write any speeches for them—so long as they listened to his other advice.  A few of us gathered with Jaffa back in February to chat about many mostly theoretical things, so we skipped asking about the extremism line.  But I’ll have a long essay reflecting on the speech and its times shortly in the Claremont Review of Books.

Jaffa copy


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