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Barry Goldwater

David Cowles

Jun 11, 2024

“When people show you who they are, believe them.” – Maya Angelou

If you’re not as old as me – how could you be? – you might not remember Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona (1953 – 1987) and Republican nominee for President (1964). You may be forgiven. While we are used to presidential elections being decided by margins of less than 3%, Goldwater managed to lose by 23%. 

After a bruising but successful primary campaign, Senator Goldwater walked into San Franciso’s ‘Cow Palace’, buoyant with optimism, preparing to proclaim a new era in American history. Goldwater brought the convention to its feet with a message that will live forever in the annals of political rhetoric:

Extremism in the defense of Liberty is no vice…

Moderation is the pursuit of Justice is no virtue!

The nation’s founding documents celebrate as divinely conferred the rights to ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’. Nowhere in these documents will you find reference to any qualifiers, such as:

 …But don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs

(Don’t mess with success…or Texas),

And never, ever tip over a money changer’s applecart.

Yet, since the Gilded Age, the Populist critique of US culture has focused on the ‘extra-constitutional’ role of the State in the preservation of the socio-economic ‘status quo’ (aka ‘inequality’). It’s ok to nibble around the edges with various schemes of social reform, designed to shore up support for the system; but it’s ok only to the extent that such lofty ideals don’t compromise society’s actual guiding principles, as personified by money changing geese.  

Somehow, Goldwater missed the memo! Taking a page straight out of Jesus’ revolutionary handbook (aka the Gospels), he strode into San Francisco’s Cow Palace and proclaimed a Jubilee (i.e. a redistribution of economic power)…this time in America. 

I said earlier that Goldwater’s electrifying speech brought the Republican Convention to its feet. I neglected to mention that about 1/3rd of these feet were headed for the exits. As soon as the Senator delivered his iconic lines, Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of New York and subsequently US VP, led a delegate walk-out. 

From that point on, Goldwater’s candidacy was effectively doomed. We didn’t realize it at the time, but he would never fully recover from Rockefeller’s bovine theatrics. But what’s interesting here is not so much the vagaries of U.S. presidential politics, but the unstated, yet clearly implied, ideology of the peripatetic dissenters:

Liberty should be defended…

And Justice should be pursued,

Both in moderation.

“When people show you who they are, believe them” – Maya Angelou. By their actions, Rocky’s Roadsters (and the many others who doomed the Goldwater campaign) betrayed what was most literally a pact with the devil. How so?

Liberty and Justice, along with Beauty and Truth, are Divine Values. They constitute God’s essence. They’re what it’s like to be God. While these values are often compromised in our everyday lives, such compromises can never be ‘justified’.  Call them what they are: ‘accommodations at the expense of Liberty and Justice’.   

1964 saw the public proclamation of a new, apparently successful, social ethic. Liberty and Justice were ‘reclassified’ as preferred states of affairs rather than absolute imperatives. They are now just two factors, among many others, to be considered in the formation of public policy. ‘Liberty & Justice’ (Goldwater ’64) must never be allowed to replace  ‘Peace & Prosperity’ (Eisenhower ‘52).

Is this ringing any bells? Does it call to mind any other times in the life of this nation when absolute Liberty was considered too extreme and true Justice could only be pursued incrementally? Abolitionism in the 1850’s? Civil Rights in the 1960’s?

Today, we are so obsessed with the vilification of all things ante-bellum that we miss some key points. Pro-slavery politicians weren’t against either Liberty or Justice per se – far from it! They simply believed that these Values needed to be ‘understood in context’ and ‘realized gradually’.

True, we cannot reasonably expect total Liberty or perfect Justice prior to the Eschaton. However, that does not relieve us of our responsibility to advocate and defend these values without compromise. There is no Scriptural or Constitutional sanction for any waiver. Torah does not say, “You shall not kill unless it is convenient.”

So what’s the upshot of our little morality play: Goldwater’s campaign crashed and burned, as noted, and the country descended into a second civil war. But Phoenix (Arizona, get it?) rose from the ashes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, who had played an important role in Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, was elected president – in a landslide! In fact, 1980 nearly flipped ‘64 on its head. And whatever you may think of President Reagan, you will agree that the country has not been the same since.


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