I was a senior in high school when Barry Goldwater ran for president. I was active in his campaign in my hometown, Newport, Ky., a blue-collar community with a strong union presence.
Goldwater wasn't an easy sell in Newport. But what I remember most vividly about 1964 is the intolerance of the activists on the left. The backers of LBJ were willing to use any means -- fair or foul -- not only to beat Barry Goldwater, but to destroy him. And they sought to stigmatize us, his supporters. As high-school kids, we were called fascists. I learned then that people who call other people fascists are usually embittered ideologues who fear any real expression of the popular beliefs of everyday Americans. In order to win that campaign, liberals told the American people that their opponents were not simply wrong, but actually wanted to take the country into nuclear war. Liberals charged that the GOP candidate was not simply mistaken but probably insane. They sought to silence by name-calling what they could not oppose by reasoned argument. And they largely succeeded -- at least in 1964.
Barry Goldwater eloquently made the case for limited government. He understood that we could not simply co-exist with the Soviet Union; we had to defeat communism. There was, and is, no substitute for victory. Goldwater, of course, suffered what all the liberal commentators called "a crushing defeat." But he was not crushed. Nor were we.
Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty quickly degenerated into a racial spoils system, an unlovely political pork barrel. The Vietnam war soon broke his presidency. His management of the economy set off an inflationary spiral that lasted for over a decade.
America suffered a long, dark night of the soul. The protesters' youthful resistance to LBJ still inspires the Left, but some veterans of those years call them "that slum of a decade." Three hundred dead a week in a war we would not win and could not leave, riots on campuses, and cities in flames marked the Johnson legacy.
Against Johnson's "credibility gap," there was Goldwater's manly candor. Soon, the nation realized that Barry Goldwater was a genuine man, a true son of the frontier West. He inspired thousands of young conservatives, who ever afterward would be proud to say they had stood with him in '64. Lyndon Johnson died a broken man, reviled by the very youths who had called us fascists.
Yet there was something obviously missing in Goldwater's appeal. My father, a wounded World War II vet, defended my right to campaign for Barry, but he didn't share my enthusiasm. Goldwater's astringent libertarianism never rang true to millions of everyday Americans.
They would wait for the man who could put it all together -- Ronald Reagan. I remember watching Reagan's magnificent TV speech for Goldwater two weeks before the election we all sensed would be a disaster. I pointed to the screen and told my father, "That man is going to be president. And I'm gonna work for him in the White House." My father laughed off my prediction as "nuts." But he was proud to visit me in my West Wing office when I served as President Reagan's domestic policy adviser.
Reagan carried forward and completed the Goldwater message. For Reagan, too, knew that the "evil empire" had to be transcended. Reagan, like Barry, knew that government had grown too big and spent too much. Reagan followed Barry in honoring our military and beefing up our defenses. Barry supported him from his perch in the Senate.
But Reagan also went beyond Goldwater, for Reagan wanted not simply to shrink government, but to free Americans' native genius. He wanted not simply to cut taxes, but to sustain the family. Reagan spoke eloquently and unapologetically of traditional moral values. He trumpeted faith, family, and freedom. These were the successful answers to the liberals' vaunted compassion.
And Americans listened. Strong defense, smaller government, and traditional moral values proved to be a winning combination. Evangelicals and Catholics, two large communities that had been historically Democratic, responded to Reagan's call. For millions of these Americans, he was not only the first Republican in a generation to win their votes, he was also the first since Ike to win their love.
It was the Reagan message -- conservatism with a human face -- that brought all the great partners of the conservative movement together.
But Barry was first. We should honor him, even when, as I increasingly did, we disagreed with him. He was brave -- and that is the first of all the virtues.
Gary Bauer is president of the Family Research Council.