Column: The dance of the elephants

The Republicans meet in Cleveland next week.

As we brace ourselves for the big Trump extravaganza in Cleveland next week, I keep thinking back to the summer of 1964.

For that was the first time (at least in the modern era) that angry Republican rebels seized control of their party and chose a nominee who was clearly outside the political mainstream.

I have vivid memories of that uprising within the GOP because it reached its climax at the first of several national conventions I’ve covered over the years. As a young reporter for UPI, I was dazzled by all the bombast and commotion.

In 1964, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona was widely viewed as an arch-conservative, and his nomination at the Cow Palace in San Francisco that summer was a radical departure from what had been the norm.

Over the previous three decades, dating back to the early Roosevelt years, the conservative wing of the Republican Party had to endure one humiliation after another. At every critical turn, their cause and their candidates had been crushed by the party’s moderate wing — the so-called establishment. Now, at last, it was pay-back time.

So how did Goldwater pull off the stunning reversal?

For one thing, he won the only primary that truly mattered in 1964, the big showdown in California with his main rival and bête noire, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Without that narrow but crucial victory, the conservative insurgency he led almost surely would have run out of steam.

But the strongest edge the Goldwater forces had going for them was a furtively subversive campaign they waged across the country. In most of the key states that year, delegates were chosen in obscure contests — precinct caucuses and the like — that did not attract the attention of the big-time media.

By exerting their influence on these grassroots events, the Goldwater guerrillas gradually, and stealthily, assembled enough delegates to secure the nomination for their hero. And by the time the power brokers of the Republican Establishment became aware of these adroit infiltrations, it was too late to stop them.

In essence, the Goldwater triumph in 1964 was more like a coup d’etat than a vox populi verdict at the polls.

In his book on the 1964 race for the White House, Theodore H. White, the celebrated chronicler of several presidential campaigns, devoted a long chapter to the inept response by the high-ranking Republican moderates to the Goldwater machinations. The title he chose for that part of the story was, “The Dance of the Elephants.”

Yet even though they had been thoroughly outmaneuvered in the quest for delegates, the leaders of the moderate wing were not ready to give up the fight and make peace with Goldwater.

Rockefeller and his cohorts came to the convention loaded for bear, and in an orchestrated series of fiery speeches from the podium, they denounced Goldwater as a right-wing zealot whose views on some major issues were so extreme that he was certain to be rejected by a vast majority of voters in the general election.

Every political season has its pet buzzwords and the big favorite in San Francisco that summer was “extremism.” That was the accusation that the moderates, in their barrage of fulminations, hurled at

Goldwater and in his acceptance speech he dealt with that charge head-on.

In words that would reverberate through the campaign to come, Goldwater proclaimed that, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Then, twisting the knife a bit, he added, “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

In the early days of the convention, the pundits and their ilk confidently predicted that Goldwater would modify some of his extreme positions in a pragmatic effort to broaden his appeal beyond his base of hard-line conservatives. Or, to borrow a buzzword from this year’s politics, the know-it-alls expected him to “pivot.”

But in the defiant tone and language of his acceptance speech, the senator made it clear that the last thing he had in mind was compromise. He would not yield any ground on any issue to his moderate critics. So much for conventional wisdom.

Moments after his speech, with its closing flourish of praise for extremism, a veteran Washington reporter in the press gallery rose to his feet and exclaimed in a voice of mock alarm: “My God, I don’t believe it! He’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”

Which he did. Just as his moderate foes had feared and predicted, the result was a disaster for Goldwater and his party. The incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, won in a landslide of epic proportions. LBJ garnered 61 percent of the popular vote, which still stands as the highest percentage in a national election since 1820, when President James Monroe ran unopposed.

So let’s hear it for the establishment elephants. They may have been clumsy dancers who stumbled through missteps in the arena of campaign strategy and tactics, but they earned high marks for prophecy.
In the aftermath of Goldwater’s devastating defeat, the prevailing consensus was that the Republicans would never again allow themselves to be seduced into nominating a candidate from the conservative wing of their party. And once again, the conventional wisdom had it wrong.

In the years ahead, the conservative movement would rise from the ashes of 1964 and eventually lead the Republicans to triumphs far beyond anything Goldwater had been able to achieve.

And if you have any doubts about that, just ask the folks who voted for Ronald Reagan.