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Jaffa on that Goldwater Speech

Jaffa on that Goldwater Speech

By Brian Gaffney, Director of Special Programming at Fox Business Network

Originally posted January 14, 2015 at

One of the most original and influential thinkers in American conservatism died Saturday. Professor Harry Jaffa, a political philosopher who emphasized the primacy of the Declaration of Independence in the American political tradition, was 96.

An expert on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Jaffa’s scholarly Crisis of the House Divided has been called “the greatest Lincoln book ever.” But the soft-spoken academic is mostly being remembered as the unlikely writer of one of the most controversial speeches by a U.S. presidential candidate.

Jaffa — a product of Yale, The University of Chicago and the New School — was a little-known professor at Ohio State University when Goldwater drafted him at the last minute to pen his acceptance speech at the 1964 GOP convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Jaffa met head-on the charges that Goldwater was an extremist with this line: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Many felt those words killed Goldwater’s chances to defeat Lyndon Johnson.

A few years back I interviewed Jaffa, and he recounted how that speech came to be. It’s a story that sounds almost unbelievable today — and differs somewhat from The New York Times’ version of it in their Jaffa obit:

GAFFNEY: You’re an academic. How did you get involved with the Goldwater campaign?

JAFFA: I had joined a grassroots Goldwater movement in Ohio sometime in 1963, and Bill Baroody, a top executive in the Goldwater campaign, asked me if I’d like to go to San Francisco as one of the so-called “Rhodes Scholars,” meaning those who would be under the umbrella of Congressman John Rhodes from [Goldwater’s home state of] Arizona.

GAFFNEY: What about Goldwater did you like?

JAFFA: Well, the political passion which I had during those years was overwhelmingly against Communism abroad and against Socialism at home. I mean, as an undergraduate at Yale I was certainly an enthusiastic New Dealer — like Ronald Reagan. I thought FDR was a great president. During the 1950s I remained a Democrat largely because the hawks on the question of the Cold War were the Senate Democrats — Scoop Jackson, people like that. But I became very disillusioned with the Kennedy administration. Kennedy tried to imitate Churchill’s rhetoric but when he called off the air cover for the people in the Bay of Pigs…

I changed my party registration in 1962, the same year that Reagan changed his.

GAFFNEY: So in the summer of 1964 you’re at the GOP convention…

JAFFA: I was there at the hearings of the platform committee and they were talking constantly about extremism this, extremism that. So I wrote a paragraph about “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” And that paragraph was somehow transmitted to Barry Goldwater. Meanwhile, Goldwater’s regular speech writer, Karl Hess, had drafted an acceptance speech the candidate didn’t like and threw away. Goldwater looked at my paragraph and asked, “Who should incorporate this in the speech?” Well, if I wrote the paragraph, I could write the whole speech, which I did.

GAFFNEY: Had you written a political speech before? Did you know the style and the cadence and all that?

JAFFA: Well, I’m a teacher of the American political tradition. I’ve read lots of Lincoln and lots of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and also Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster.

GAFFNEY: How long did it take you to write the Goldwater speech?

JAFFA: I stayed up all night. Warren Nutter was with me. He was an economist from the University of Virginia, a specialist in the Russian economy. We talked as I was writing it. All the writing was mine, and you could see the speech does not reflect the preoccupations of a specialist in the Russian economy. I mean Aristotle and Lincoln are spread all over the speech.

GAFFNEY: You wrote it in one night? Did Goldwater and his advisers make changes?

JAFFA: When the speech was being drafted, there was a group of five people who were commenting on each unit of the text. And I would then take what they said and redraft it or revise it.

GAFFNEY: Did people understand what you were doing with the speech? It was pretty unique, as acceptance speeches go.

JAFFA: Well, I think it has a certain historic significance.

GAFFNEY: Tell me about that.

JAFFA: I think the first duty of any government is to make its citizens safe at home and safe from foreign invasions from abroad. There was a great deal of discussion in those years of the rising crime rate. And part of that speech was taken right out ofLincoln’s Lyceum speech [1838] which denounced mob violence and said people will turn, if they can’t be secure, to tyranny. If the alternative is between anarchy and tyranny, they’ll always choose tyranny.

GAFFNEY: How did the Goldwater speech go over with the public?

JAFFA: All I know was that it was the major subject of news of the world for days afterwards, and I could see that everyone was denouncing it. Talking about fascism and so on and so forth.

GAFFNEY: How did you feel about that?

JAFFA: It was a new experience for me. I wrote an interpretive essay to try to explain what the speech was about but I couldn’t find anybody who would publish it. I tried to point out that just the year before Goldwater’s speech, Martin Luther King in one of his greatest productions, his letter from Birmingham Jail, had a long section on extremism. He went from Moses and Jesus and Thomas Aquinas and Jefferson and Lincoln and at the end, each one was a different kind of extremist. And he said the important thing is not whether we should be extremist, but what kind of extremist we should be. I obviously picked up on that theme, but nobody wanted to hear it. So I learned that the press can be biased and could be uninterested in the truth.

GAFFNEY: What did Goldwater think in the end?

JAFFA: I have a letter from him which said that the speech was the best he’d given in his life and he wished he could give it three times everyday. Everybody says that I caused Goldwater’s loss. That’s silly. The outcome of the election was determined the day that John F. Kennedy was shot. That put a Southerner in the White House. And the Kennedy tax cuts were working. The country was prosperous, the Vietnam War had not really taken hold. There was no possibility that Goldwater would have defeated Johnson no matter what the campaign was. If Reagan had been the candidate in 1964, I don’t think he would have gotten any more votes than Goldwater. And if Goldwater had been the candidate in 1980, I think he would have been elected the same way Reagan was.

GAFFNEY: Was Goldwater campaign the first time you dabbled in electoral politics?

JAFFA: First, last, and only.

GAFFNEY: Because no one asked you or you had enough?

JAFFA: Nobody’s asked me.


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