Some Republicans, especially those who are less-than-enthusiastic about Donald Trump’s candidacy, should reflect a bit on what happened Barry Goldwater captured the GOP nomination in 1964. He had supported the more moderate Nixon in 1960. He didn’t always agree with Nixon, but he understood that supporting his party’s standard-bearer was crucial to expecting any future support—a point that seems to be lost on some Republicans these days.
In the immediate wake of the Kennedy assassination in November of 1963 there was some initial speculation that the 1964 election might favor another Nixon candidacy, but the former vice president observed how effectively President Johnson positioned himself in his new office, and correctly saw him as virtually unbeatable. It’s true that he had some difficulty totally putting the idea of a run against Johnson out of his mind. He flirted here and there with it – but ultimately resigned himself to the inevitability of Goldwater. And this is where Richard Nixon demonstrated his political savvy and skill in a way that should be remembered by some Republicans this year.
The other big Republican guns in 1964 (all moderate Governors), Nelson Rockefeller of New York, Bill Scranton of Pennsylvania, and George Romney of Michigan, had little interest in supporting Barry Goldwater. Nixon, however, knew that anyone who really wanted to have a serious future shot at a presidential nomination could not afford to be a bystander, no matter how bad the results November might turn out to be.
He was not as conservative as Goldwater, but as a more moderate Republican he knew that faithfulness and diligence in such moments was crucial. Arriving in San Francisco that year for the Republican Convention, Mr. Nixon made his position perfectly clear: “I for one Republican don’t intend to sit out, or take a walk” – an obvious signal to Goldwater supporters and detractors. And while Rockefeller was shouted down as he addressed the crowd that week, Nixon was received warmly. In fact, historian Stephen Ambrose later suggested that Richard Nixon’s address at the 1964 Republican National Convention was the opening speech of his 1968 candidacy. The future president told his party:
“Before this convention we were Goldwater Republicans, Rockefeller Republicans, Scranton Republicans, Lodge Republicans, but now that this convention has met and made its decision, we are Republicans, period, working for Barry Goldwater…And to those few, if there are some, who say that they are going to sit it out or take a walk, or even go on a boat ride, I have an answer in the words of Barry Goldwater in 1960 – ‘Let’s grow up, Republicans, let’s go to work – and we shall win in November!”
Of course, not all Republicans went to work that year (most notably Rockefeller and Romney – a fact not forgotten by conservatives four years later) – but Nixon did. Immediately following the convention, he orchestrated a meeting between former President Eisenhower and Goldwater, gaining a valuable endorsement from Ike.
Then in the fall, Nixon took a leave of absence from his lucrative law practice and spent five intense weeks traveling to thirty-six states and delivering more than one hundred and fifty speeches on behalf of the national GOP ticket and state and local candidates. In doing so, he established (and, in some cases reestablished) relationships he would turn to for help when achieving stunning victories (credited by most to Nixon’s efforts) two years later in the 1966 mid-term elections. This paved the way for his ultimate triumph, the Republican nomination and general election victory in 1968. Goldwater and Nixon were never close friends, and disagreed on many matters of politics and policy – but they understood the importance of discipline and loyalty in a two-party system.
On January 22, 1965, just two days after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his new term, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon attended a meeting of the Republican National Committee. During his remarks, the man who had been humiliated by Lyndon Johnson turned to Richard Nixon and expressed his gratitude for making an extraordinary effort on behalf of his candidacy telling him: “Dick I will never forget it.” He then told him that he would happily return the favor in the future adding - “if there ever comes a time, I am going to do all I can.” That time came in 1968—and Barry Goldwater delivered for Dick Nixon.
Bystanders may snooze this year, but in doing so, they will lose any influence they have on the future of the Republican Party.