In 1964, the Republican party was looking for a smooth nomination process and someone who was on board with the GOP hierarchy, someone moderate. Now we know “moderate” most likely meant progressive.
They believed they had their man in Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York and administrator of the famous interest center in New York City that bore his family’s name — Rockefeller Center. Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, another moderate, was urged into the race when it appeared Rockefeller had lost momentum. Then there was the “extremist” — Barry Goldwater, the solidly conservative senator from Arizona.
With the ’64 convention coming just a short time after the Cuban missile crisis and in the midst of America’s deepening involvement in Vietnam, the spread of communism throughout the world was a huge concern for Americans. Barry Goldwater was decidedly, unabashedly, anti-communist, believing communism shouldn’t be just contained; it should be rolled back. That extremist sentiment would eventually lead to anti-Goldwater ads, like one from Lyndon Johnson featuring a little girl counting daisies followed by the countdown to a nuclear explosion. The ad essentially declared that a vote for Barry Goldwater was a vote to kill your sweet, innocent children.
In the early 1960s, the character of a candidate still mattered. A year prior, Rockefeller had married his second wife with whom he’d had an affair for years during his first marriage. All of this came to light when she gave birth to his son three days before the California primary — and Goldwater won the California primary.
Goldwater’s acceptance speech was said to cause some anger and alienation, perhaps even some defections to the Democratic party, but he didn’t hold back.
“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,” Goldwater said.
A former Hollywood actor rose to the podium in support of Goldwater, an actor who three years hence would become a two-term governor of California, and within 16 years, lead the free world.
“This is the meaning and the phrase of Barry Goldwater, peace through strength. Winston Churchill said the destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we’re spirits, not animals. And he said there’s something going on in time and space and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty. You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness. We will keep in mind and remember that Barry Goldwater has faith in us. He has faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny,” Ronald Reagan said.
So Goldwater took on the sitting president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who beat him in a landslide. Johnson wound up with 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. The scare tactics worked.