9. Extremism in the Defense of Liberty: The Countercultural Rhetoric of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Acceptance Speech
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291 9 Extremism in the Defense of Liberty: The Countercultural Rhetoric of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Acceptance Speech Carl R. Burgchardt O n July 16, 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona delivered his nomination acceptance address to the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. Near the end of the speech, he proclaimed defiantly, “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.” These words are among the most controversial ever uttered at a political convention in the history of the United States. Although Goldwater’s loyal followers roared their approval, more moderate Republicans were dismayed, and the senator’s Democratic opponents fully exploited the inflammatory nature of these words. The “extremism” passage triggered a vehement reaction that largely eclipsed many other aspects of Goldwater’s complex oration.1 In the decades following the 1964 Republican National Convention, two distinctive historical and critical narratives emerged to explain Goldwater’s acceptance speech. The first version states that Goldwater delivered a defective oration that doomed his campaign to failure. In this view, if he had presented a less radical address , the electoral outcome might have been closer. Such a narrative suggests that the “extremism” statement was a colossal mistake that invalidated the entire speech.2 The second narrative proposes that Goldwater’s speech helped to bring about a renaissance of conservative thought that served as a foundation for Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns for the presidency in the 1980s. As I hope to demonstrate in this chapter, the second view conforms better to the textual and historical evidence. Goldwater’s acceptance speech was emblematic of a larger body of his conservative rhetoric. John C. Hammerback called Goldwater’s speech “the most representative of his 1964 presidential discourse” and the “exemplar for Goldwater’s presidential campaign discourse.” This oration had the most impact and the largest SOCIAL CONTROVERSY AND PUBLIC ADDRESS IN THE 1960S AND EARLY 1970S 292 audience for all of Goldwater’s campaign rhetoric. Goldwater had enough time to study the situation and prepare properly, and he was aware that the speech would receive extensive national media coverage. Goldwater’s address was the subject of intense “discussion for days, weeks, or months.” Goldwater and his speechwriters carefully considered their rhetorical choices. Whatever faults the speech might have had were not caused by inadequate preparation. As Hammerback observed, this rhetorical moment in San Francisco was a chance for Goldwater to heal the party wounds inflicted during the primary and to appeal to less conservative Republicans as well as uncommitted voters. However, Goldwater chose to inflame the political infighting in the Republican Party and make a presentation that in several crucial ways did not follow the usual generic prescriptions for acceptance speeches.3 According to Theodore Sheckels, contemporary presidential nomination acceptance speeches usually conform to twelve standards. By these criteria, Goldwater’s address failed to meet expectations in four ways. First, his speech was unusually negative toward his political opponents. According to Sheckels, although acceptance speeches are “an appropriate place to attack one’s opponents,” recent presidential candidates have chosen to be more positive, leaving tough attacks on the opponents to the candidates for vice president. Goldwater’s address did not follow this pattern . He harshly attacked Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats for failed policies and defective moral character. Second, Goldwater neglected to make any “positive comments about the known or likely [opposition] candidate.” Third, Goldwater did little to “appeal to the non-partisan voter” through “personal narratives.” Fourth, Goldwater did not tell anecdotes to illustrate or humanize his values and principles. Instead, the speech was surprisingly abstract and largely about ideas.4 On the other hand, Goldwater’s address met eight of the standards for acceptance speeches outlined by Sheckels. First, Goldwater presented philosophies or policies that would govern his “future administration,” and he used these statements as a means of contrasting his positions with those “of their rival party.” Goldwater rehearsed common grievances against Democrats that most Republicans likely believed, and he explained why Lyndon Johnson should be replaced. Moreover, Goldwater highlighted major concerns that were shared among most factions of the Republican Party, including opposition to concentrations of government power, concern about the threat of communism, and the need to maintain a strong military. In addition, he proposed a future plan of action based on typical Republican principles of competition and freedom—concepts that had very broad appeal in the...