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  • Would Goldwater Have Made a Good President?
  • Donald T. Critchlow (bio)

When asked in November 1964 whether Barry Goldwater would make a good president—or a better one than incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson—forty three million voters declared, “No.” Only twenty-seven million voters thought otherwise. What kind of president would Goldwater have been if in an extraordinary upset he had won in 1964?

Counterfactual history makes for a fun intellectual exercise, if only to reveal contingency in history. Inflection points arise in history that can create more realistic scenarios as to how history might have been otherwise. The election of 1964, however, was not one of these turning points. Goldwater was doomed to lose the election of 1964. John F. Kennedy’s assassination the year before assured Lyndon Baines Johnson’s reelection. Goldwater understood this. He accepted his party’s nomination with reluctance. Counterfactual history is most revealing when the likelihood of contingency has some plausibility. For example, the Confederacy during the American Civil War might have forced the North into a compromise. Hitler might have remained in control of the European continent if he had not invaded the Soviet Union or Japan had not brought the United States into the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historical forces have a life of their own that appear to determine the course of history, but occasionally, [End Page 11] albeit rarely, unexpected turns can occur.1

In 1964, however, it is difficult to foresee any scenario in which Barry Goldwater could have won the election or that Republican candidates, following on his coattails, would have swept into Congress. Without a Republican Congress, Goldwater would have accomplished little in the way of program innovation. What he might have prevented, however, was further expansion of Johnson’s Great Society. Integral to his presidency—imagined, in this case—was the matter of his political skills and leadership temperament.

Any wild hopes that somehow he might defeat Johnson in November were pretty much dashed after his acceptance speech, which only deepened division within the Republican Party. The heart of his speech rested in these words: “Fellow Republicans, it is the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power, private or public, which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people.” These words captured Goldwater’s central outlook. Fear of centralized power as a corrupting influence lay at the heart of Goldwater’s conservative approach to government and rested within a deep American political tradition. These sentiments were hardly inflammatory and in themselves would not have drawn media attention. What proved controversial was his declaration, near the end of his speech, “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.”2 The speech would be remembered only for these words. Within the context of the time, Goldwater appeared to belligerently throw down a marker that he was not going to allow himself or his followers to be browbeaten as extremists. These were not words of reconciliation designed to heal the wounds of a bitter primary that had left the Republican Party severely divided.

In fairness, following the brutal primary that pitted Goldwater against New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, Republicans were going to remain divided no matter what Goldwater did. Rockefeller’s relentless campaign charge that Goldwater represented extremism within the Republican Party, and Goldwater’s [End Page 12] supporters’ attacks on Rockefeller as a spendthrift, adulterer, and Republican in Name Only (RINO), inflicted wounds not easily healed. Furthermore, Rockefeller’s declaration of himself as the conscience of the Republican Party at the San Francisco Republican National Convention ensured that he and his allies were not going to rally to Goldwater’s campaign in any case. Goldwater’s acceptance speech, in which he assailed his enemies and tried to repudiate charges that his followers were extremists—instead of liberty-loving patriots—reinforced a common view among his opponents (Republicans and Democrats alike) that the Goldwater movement was divisive. Critics said Goldwater was a man temperamentally unsuited for...


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