It’s only natural, on the threshold of a new year, to think about beginnings. So let me ask my fellow conservatives: When did the modern conservative movement get its start?
Some of you will probably say in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. That’s understandable, given all that he accomplished and his unique ability to inspire Americans to understand that increasing individual freedom and responsibility—not government—would restore America as the land of opportunity. But you have to go back a little further to find the spark that led to Reagan’s election. Specifically, you have to return to the election of 1964.
True, that was hardly a happy moment for conservatives. Lyndon Johnson soundly beat our candidate, Barry Goldwater, and we saw Johnson’s campaign pull out all the stops to portray Goldwater as a trigger-happy madman. (I say “our candidate” because at the tender age of three, I accompanied my mother on a neighborhood door-to-door campaign for Goldwater). Yet we learn in a marvelous new book, aptly titled “A Glorious Disaster,” that a great movement would rise from the ashes of defeat. Author J. William Middendorf II would know: As Goldwater’s campaign treasurer, he was there every step of the way during that painful election.
One reason conservatives could take heart is that many voters who opted for Johnson were rejecting a caricature of Goldwater, not his ideas. As Reagan commented at the time, “All of the landslide majority did not vote against a conservative philosophy, they voted against a false image our liberal opponents successfully mounted.”
The most infamous example: the “Daisy” TV ad, in which a little girl counts the petals of a daisy. Her voice is soon overtaken by the countdown of a missile launch. The image of a mushroom cloud appears, as Johnson tells viewers that the stakes are too high for them to stay home and not vote. Translation: Goldwater will annihilate mankind in a nuclear war. And we complain about negative campaigning today!
The funny thing is, Goldwater knew his election was a near-hopeless prospect nearly a year before the election was held. He had been anticipating a spirited contest with John Kennedy. But when the president was murdered in November 1963, everything changed. Goldwater would now square off against Johnson, whom he considered a “dirty fighter.” He seriously considered withdrawing from the race, but his staff, including Middendorf, persuaded him to fight—if only for the sake of the conservatives who were working hard for his election.
So a decision that would affect conservatives down to this very day was cast. According to Middendorf, Goldwater didn’t want to run, didn’t even want to be president, but he would run anyway—because it would lay the foundation for conservative victories down the road. “Lose the election,” Goldwater said, “but win the Party.”
We all know the rest. Ronald Reagan gave an electrifying election-eve speech, “A Time for Choosing,” that showcased his unique appeal; two years later, he was elected governor of California. The “destroyed” Republican Party was soon winning elections, and American politics was transformed.
Middendorf went on to work in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations in a variety of positions—Secretary of the Navy, Ambassador to the Netherlands, U.S. Representative to the Organization of American States, and U.S. Representative to the European Community. Today, he’s a trustee and board member of The Heritage Foundation, Ronald Reagan’s favorite think tank. And today’s disheartened conservatives can take some much-need perspective from the pages of “A Glorious Disaster”:
“The Goldwater campaign gave many of today’s conservative politicians their first national hearing. By replacing the conventional wisdom of the Republican Party leaders in the Northeast with a refreshing conservative logic, we brought about a marked shift in Republican philosophy and geography—from liberal to conservative, and from Northeast to the South and West. We created the conditions that put conservative Republicans back in power after more than thirty years of domination by the liberal eastern establishment.
“The organization that we created to win the Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater—state by state, county by county, precinct by precinct—and the conservative vision that attracted so many supporters came to represent a new baseline for the Republican Party. The defeat in 1964 left behind a cadre of millions of true believers, a loyal base of future convention delegates and activists.
“I believe it is safe to say that without Goldwater, there would have been no Reagan or Bush administrations—nor even, perhaps, the centrist administration of Bill Clinton. Our efforts to elect Barry Goldwater gave muscle to the embryonic conservative movement—which, indeed, had been our goal all along.”
Conservatives didn’t give up in 1964, no matter how tempting it may have seemed. And we shouldn’t give up today. Victory is ours if we will stand firm on principle, share our vision with a nation that so desperately needs it, and work tirelessly to, as the Heritage Foundation vision statement proclaims, “Build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish.”
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