This week in conservative history — Goldwater’s acceptance speech

50 years ago this week, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican nomination for president with this speech. Today, it makes for a great and timely read. But the speech should really be viewed (and can be here; watch for Richard Nixon’s reactions) in order to understand its impact.

The main impact of the speech, unfortunately, was to scare Americans. Indeed, although Lyndon Johnson’s campaign did a masterful job of scaring Americans into voting against Goldwater (see the famous “Daisy Girl” ad, for example), the Arizona Senator paved the way for Johnson with his acceptance speech.

Goldwater, his grim countenance and stern tone of voice magnified by the severe black-rim glasses, is scary right out of the box. A few paragraphs in there is this:

Now, my fellow Americans, the tide has been running against freedom. Our people have followed false prophets.

The result is national decline:

Because of this administration we are tonight a world divided — we are a Nation becalmed. We have lost the brisk pace of diversity and the genius of individual creativity. We are plodding at a pace set by centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.

What are the manifestations of this decline? Goldwater doesn’t mince words:

Tonight there is violence in our streets, corruption in our highest offices, aimlessness among our youth, anxiety among our elders; and there is a virtual despair among the many who look beyond material success for the inner meaning of their lives. Where examples of morality should be set, the opposite is seen. . . .

The growing menace in our country tonight — to personal safety, to life, to limb and property, in homes, in churches, on the playgrounds, and places of business, particularly in our great cities — is the mounting concern, or should be, of every thoughtful citizen in the United States.

This is a vision worthy of Whittaker Chambers at his most pessimistic. Goldwater needs to strike a more optimistic tone. And he tries to, though not until deep into the speech, and even then only for the distant future:

I believe that the Communism which boasts it will bury us will, instead, give way to the forces of freedom. And I can see in the distant and yet recognizable future the outlines of a world worthy our dedication, our every risk, our every effort, our every sacrifice along the way. Yes, a world that will redeem the suffering of those who will be liberated from tyranny.

But getting to this world will be a tortuous process:

I know that the road to freedom is a long and a challenging road. I know also that some men may walk away from it, that some men resist challenge, accepting the false security of governmental paternalism.

Goldwater even suggests that the road to freedom in his time is longer and more challenging than that faced by the Republican Party at the time of its formation in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Today, as then [1858], but more urgently and more broadly than then, the task of preserving and enlarging freedom at home and safeguarding it from the forces of tyranny abroad is great enough to challenge all our resources and to require all our strength.

Goldwater recognizes, however, that many Americans will not be up for the task:

Anyone who joins us in all sincerity, we welcome. Those who do not care for our cause, we don’t expect to enter our ranks in any case.

Goldwater then delivers his famous responses to those who suggest that his views are “extreme”:

Let our Republicanism, so focused and so dedicated, not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels.

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

With those words, he sealed his 1964 political fate — a landslide defeat.

During the 1980s and for some years thereafter, Goldwater’s speech seemed too pessimistic. But now, in the Age of Obama, most of them ring obviously and powerfully true.

Yet if this speech was a prelude to a liberal landslide in 1964, how much more self-defeating would it be with today’s electorate? It’s a question I shudder to answer.