In 1964, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller addressed the Republican National Convention. Nixon's defeat to Kennedy four years earlier had inspired a determined minority of conservatives to stage a coup to seize party operations and remake the GOP in its image. Though it sounds strange today, the Republican party was once home to progressives-- many of whom saw the social upheaval of the 1960s as an opportunity for the party of Lincoln to outflank the Democrats in matters of racial equality, caring for the poor, and social justice. While conservatives had always been a splinter group within the party, their power had been held in check by moderates like Eisenhower, who derided them as "negligible" and "stupid". After 1960, things began to unravel.
Two men felt that Nixon's defeat to Kennedy presented an opportunity for conservatives to gain ascendancy within the GOP. They argued that to win elections, the Republican party had to offer voters a new choice-- one between a clearly-articulated left and similarly defined right. National Review co-founder William Rusher and Young Americans for Freedom organizer Clifford White studied the organizational tactics used by Communist infiltrators and employed these methods to take over the Republican party, culminating in securing the presidential nomination for their hero, Barry Goldwater. A well-organized, determined minority thus staged a political coup which would eventually drive moderates and progressives from the party.
But not all supported this swing to the right.
Nelson Rockefeller was the face of Republican progressivism. Long alarmed by the growing power of the conservative wing, he addressed the convention in 1964 and urged his fellow Republicans to reject this new extremism as being alien to the spirit of the GOP. He warned that "The Republican party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed and highly disciplined minority... wholly alien to the sound and honest conservatism that has firmly based the Republican party in the best of a century's traditions, wholly alien to the sound and honest Republican liberalism that has kept the party abreast of human needs in a changing world, wholly alien to the broad middle course that accommodates the mainstream of Republican principles."
He was jeered by the audience, and had to stop speaking several times due to the unruliness of the crowd, which had been carefully populated with members of the right-wing associations by Rusher and White.
His remarks captured the precise moment when the Republican party turned away from its heritage as the party of inclusiveness and became the party of division. Within five years, Nixon staffer Kevin Phillips would publish his treatise "The Emerging Republican Majority", which argued that to win elections the GOP must actively court disaffected Southern racists left out in the cold by the Democratic party's turn toward civil rights.
Rockefeller was the last strong voice of dissent within the GOP-- a political Cassandra whose warning that extremists would destroy the Republican party went sadly unheeded. Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg all continue this tradition of progressive Republicanism today, despite being pariahs within their own party.
If the GOP hopes to find its way out of the wilderness, it will take more than a business school exercise in "restoring the brand". It will need to rediscover its progressive roots and cultivate a new liberal wing that offers real solutions to today's problems.
Rockefeller's speech begins at 15:40. Transcript below.
Remarks at the 1964 Republican National Convention by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller
Mr. Chairman, fellow delegates, I move that the following language be inserted in the proposed 1964 Republican Platform as a new full paragraph between the present sixth and seventh paragraph under the section headed "For a Free People."
"The Republican Party fully respects the contribution of responsible criticism, and defends the right of dissent in the democratic process. But we repudiate the efforts of irresponsible, extremist groups, Such as the Communists, the Ku Klux Klan, the John Birch Society and others, to discredit our Party by their efforts to infiltrate positions of responsibility in the Party, or to attach themselves to its candidates."
The time has come for the Republican party to face this issue realistically and take decisive action. It is essential that this Convention repudiate here and now any doctrinaire, militant minority, whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan, or Bircher which would subvert this party to purposes alien to the very basic tenets which gave this party birth.
Precisely one year ago today on July 14, 1964, I issued a statement wherein I warned that:
"....The Republican party is in real danger of subversion by a radical, well-financed and highly disciplined minority."
At that time I pointed out that the purposes of this minority were "...wholly alien to the sound and honest conservatism that has firmly based the Republican party in the best of a century's traditions, wholly alien to the sound and honest Republican liberalism that has kept the party abreast of human needs in a changing world, wholly alien to the broad middle course that accommodates the mainstream of Republican principles."
Our sole concern must be the future well-being of America, and of freedom and respect for human dignity-- the preservation and enhancement of these principles upon which this nation has achieved its greatness.
During this year, I have criss-crossed this nation fighting for these principles, fighting the keep the Republican party the party of all the people -- and warning of the extremist threat, its danger to the party and its danger to the nation.
The methods of these extremist elements I have experienced at first hand.
Their tactics have ranged from cancellation by coercion of a speaking engagement before a college audience to outright threats of personal violence.
These things have no place in America, but I can personally testify to their existence. And so can countless others who have also experienced:
- Anonymous midnight and early-morning telephone calls.
- Unsigned threatening letters.
- Smear and hate literature.
- Strong arm and "goon" tactics.
- Bomb threats and bombings.
- Infiltration and take-over of established political organizations by Communist and Nazi methods.
These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror. They have no program for America-- no program for the Republican party. They have no solutions for our problems of chronic unemployment, of education, of agriculture, or racial injustice or strife.
These extremists have no plan and no program to keep the peace and bring freedom to the world.
On the contrary-- they spread distrust. They engender suspicion. They encourage disunity. And they operate from the dark shadows of secrecy.
They have called President Eisenhower "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy."
They have labeled a great Republican Secretary of State, the late John Foster Dulles, "a Communist agent."
They have demanded that the United States get out of the United Nations and that the United Nations get out of the United States.
There is no place in this Republican party for such hawkers of hate, such purveyors of prejudice, such fabricators of fear, whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Bircher.
There is no place in this Republican party for those who would infiltrate its ranks, distort its aims, and convert it into a cloak of apparent respectability for dangerous extremism.
And make no mistake about it-- the hidden members of the John Birch Society and others like them are out to do just that!
These people have nothing in common with Republicanism.
These people have nothing in common with Americanism.
The Republican party must repudiate these people.
I move the adoption of this resolution.