July 16, 2013

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

On July 16, 1964, American Senator Barry Goldwater uttered his most famous quote in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination:

       “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And… 
         moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

The Democratic campaign for Goldwater’s opponent in the 1964 election, President Lyndon B. Johnson, used this “extremism” line and other saber-rattling comments by Goldwater to paint him as a dangerous war-mongering nut who might be crazy enough to start a nuclear war. (Epitomized by the Johnson campaign’s infamous “Daisy ad.”)

This characterization of Goldwater was over the top. But, unlike some political rhetoric, it wasn’t an entirely groundless reflection of his political positions.

In his acceptance speech and subsequent stump speeches, Goldwater did focus heavily on his belief that America needed a strong military and should use it aggressively it to fight Communism in Vietnam and elsewhere.

In the decades since then, Goldwater’s famous quote has often been misused to try to justify extreme positions or actions that bear little or no relation to what Goldwater actually believed or would have condoned.

For example, when the “Obamacare” health insurance legislation was approved by Congress, a protester hurled a brick through the office window of the Monroe County Democratic Committee headquarters in Rochester, New York. A note attached to the brick said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

Barry Goldwater had strong libertarian views and was generally against big government. However, it’s highly unlikely that he would have supported such vandalism or liked having his quote associated with it.

This seems clear not only from Goldwater’s political record, but also from the words he spoke right after the famous quote in his 1964 acceptance speech. Here’s what he said in that key part of the address:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

Why, the beauty of the very system we Republicans are pledged to restore and revitalize — the beauty of this Federal system of ours — is in its reconciliation of diversity with unity.

We must not see malice in honest differences of opinion, and no matter how great, so long as they are not inconsistent with the pledges we have given to each other in and through our Constitution.

Our Republican cause is not to level out the world or make its people conform in computer regimented sameness. Our Republican cause is to free our people and light the way for liberty throughout the world.

Ours is a very human cause for very humane goals.”

In this era of increasingly uncivil discourse, the sentences that come after Goldwater’s famous quotation are also worth remembering. 

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