Learning Lessons from the Past
Sometimes, the most damning dilemmas and the most complex conundrums find their simplest resolutions when we consider the lessons of the past. That is the takeaway of this very insightful review by my dear friend, Ben House regarding the upcoming election in light of the election of 1964:
Too often book reviews end like this: 'Must-reading for every pastor, teacher, father, and all who are serious about the Christian faith' or 'Essential for every student of American history, the current political scene, conservative issues, and the future of America.' The book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001) is must-reading and essential, but perhaps only for students of the 1964 Presidential campaign. I rarely quote Abraham Lincoln, but I will in this case: “For those who like that sort of thing, I should think it is the sort of thing they would like.”
I like, yea even love, political history, with a love that most reserve only for mystery novels, fine wines, or their wives. So I very much loved this book. It tells the story of the beginning of the modern conservative political movement. It details the social and political upheavals in the country leading up to the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement, and the student protests against the Vietnam War. Before the 1964 election, American politics was less “Left” and “Right” and more of a consensus. Successful politicians were either New Deal Democrats in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt or “Me Too” Republicans, that is Republicans who only wanted to modify, not eliminate the FDR's New Deal legacy.
This book focuses on three main players: Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, political strategist Clifton White, and actor Ronald Reagan. Sen. Goldwater, by incredibly brilliant political maneuvering on the part of others, won the 1964 Republican nomination for the Presidency. He went on to campaign against Lyndon Johnson in the fall of 1964, where he suffered one of election history's greatest defeats. Goldwater was gutsy, brutally honest, outspoken, remarkably consistent, and ultra conservative. Those traits made him the hero and candidate of the loosely organized fringe of true conservative activists. Those same traits gave his opponents the ammunition to demonize him in his campaign.
As a campaigner and political strategist, Goldwater could have written the book on how to mishandle a campaign (now a valued practice among Republican campaign strategists). He and his staff fumbled countless opportunities, while his opponent, Pres. Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), coasted to an easy victory upon the legacy of the late Pres. Kennedy and his own remarkable political successes since Kennedy's death a year earlier.
Goldwater's overwhelming defeat, in the eyes of the political commentators of his day, signaled the death of the reactionary, obsolete, conservative philosophy. The political consensus was a liberal consensus and it was clear after November 1964 that it was here to stay, or at least that was what the commentators concluded. (The media was wrong?)
Clifton White was the key architect of Goldwater's capture of the Republican nomination. In the late 1950s and early 60s, to imagine a conservative actually being nominated would be like imagining the Democrats today nominating a candidate who was pro-life and against homosexuals and the NEA and who was pro-2nd Amendment, against the U.N., and for private schools and Confederate battle flags. (I cannot imagine a Democrat candidate accepting any of those positions.)
White, like Ezra poring over the Pentateuch, studied and understood the political process-the details, state-by-state, precinct-by- precinct. Conservatives, at that time, ranged from college students (who had read Goldwater's book The Conscience of a Conservative) to John Birchers (who were firmly convinced that Pres. Eisenhower was a Communist agent) to segregationalists, isolationists, libertarians, wealthy businessmen, and other 'extremists'. What it did not include were many people who actually could accomplish political objectives. Nor did it include actual electable candidates, outside of Sen. Goldwater. And the Senator himself was a most reluctant and downright stubborn candidate. Throughout much of the political process leading up to 1964, Goldwater denied that he was a candidate. White continued to organize. In time Goldwater threw his hat in the ring and fended off a host of moderate and liberal candidates in the Republican primaries. After Goldwater won the nomination at a brutal Republican convention in San Francisco, White was honored for his labors by being ignored by the Goldwater campaign staff.
To give a sense of the times, in his acceptance speech, Goldwater delivered the greatest line of that political era: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in defense of justice is no virtue.” The first phrase signaled all that led to Goldwater's political undoing. In the creative hands and words of pundits and opponents, this extremism would lead to a ground war in Vietnam, rioting in the streets at home, with political and social upheavals galore-if Goldwater had his way. (A note for younger readers: All those things happened after Johnson won the election.) In this campaign, like so many since, the sound-bite, the image (the most famous being the ad showing a little girl plucking a daisy with an atomic explosion in the background), and the spin counted for much more than substance.
Near the end of this miserable campaign, Ronald Reagan gave his maiden political address, called A Time for Choosing. Reagan's acting career was declining and his political involvement has been increasing. This speech, brilliantly delivered and as moving to hear now as then, did little to slow down Goldwater's political freefall, but it convinced key California businessmen that Reagan ought to run for governor in 1966.
There is much more to this story: All the key players in the Reagan years cut their teeth in politics during the Goldwater campaign. President Johnson was a first class scoundrel. Our large scale involvement in the Vietnam War began with outright lies and deceit by the administration, meaning, LBJ would have 'found' weapons of mass destruction in Iraq if he were President right now. Racism was a firm belief of many both in the north and the south. Anti-communist beliefs ranged from thoughtful and bold to wild-eyed and fanatical. Political powers of one era are quickly forgotten in the next (e.g. Nelson Rockefeller and William Scranton).
Several great lessons remain to be learned by conservative Christians today who are interested in politics. First, choose your battles well. (Those who argued that Eisenhower was a communist agent or those who defended segregation lost or were never heard.) Second, somebody on our side has to understand politics. Not just issues, not just principles, not The Federalist Papers and Lex Rex, but the political mechanics of actually getting someone elected. Second place in a political race does not count. This leads to the third point: The goal of political action is victory. Johnson focused on winning at all costs; Goldwater focused on principle. In the 1980 campaign Ronald Reagan showed that political wisdom and success can be achieved without forfeiting principles.
The other great lesson of this campaign is hope. The election results of 1964 shattered the conservative movement, or at least, so it seemed. But conservatives learned how to play politics. More individuals got personally involved in that campaign than ever before. To this day, many staunch Republican conservatives date their political beginnings to the Goldwater campaign. Ten times as many cars sported Goldwater stickers than Johnson stickers. An unlikely future leader, Reagan, emerged in the midst of the campaign. (Had the Republicans nominated Rockefeller in 1964, there would likely have never been a President Reagan). Defeat creates a new type of leader. Books emerged that educated a growing movement. Besides Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative, Everett Haley's A Texan Looks at Lyndon, John Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason, and Phyllis Schlafly's A Choice, Not an Echo were printed and distributed by the hundreds of thousands. This was the beginning of conservative book publishing that still dominates best sellers in political reading.
Conservative politics has, despite the predictions of the post-'64 elections, enjoyed quite a few incremental victories. In time, love and appreciation for Goldwater far exceeded that for LBJ. In this political election year, we are faced once again with a conservative and a liberal; an incumbent president and a senator; a war abroad and social problems at home. This time the conservative is in the White House. President Bush is much more conservative than even a President Goldwater could have been. The extremism is now in the liberal camp (e.g. gay marriages, abortion rights).
The political consensus of the nation is still much divided. The political process is most disgusting. The candidates are usually disappointing. But Christians, if we wake up, hold the key. Playing politics is not the same as writing a creed. In our culture, political candidates cannot be expected to pass muster on a Presbyterian and Reformed pastoral ordination exam before getting our votes. When we go to the ballot box, we have to compare George W. with John Kerry, and not compare George W. with George Washington. We all need to learn a little from Barry Goldwater, negative and positive. We need to learn a lot from Ronald Reagan, mostly positive. A few Christians out there need to know a lot more about Clifton White.
And a few of us need to read books like Before the Storm.