My Father Harry Jaffa and the Birth of Modern Conservatism

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tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Barry Goldwater, Harry Jaffa

On July 16, 1964 Barry Goldwater strode to the podium at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California and accepted the Republican party’s nomination for president. “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he famously said. “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Modern conservatism was born.

Harry Jaffa, a college professor of political science, liked to say that those words would have ended any chance Goldwater had at a victory—if indeed he had had any chance. (He did not, of course, just months after the assassination of JFK.)

Certainly Jaffa ought to know. He wrote those words—along with the rest of the speech.

Harry Jaffa was my father. I was only 12 at the time, but I clearly remember the excitement following the convention. The first thing my father did when he got back was grab me and go down to City Hall to register as a Republican. He swore me to secrecy. He did not want it to get out that Mr. Republican’s acceptance speech had been written by a Democrat.

The impact this speech had on my father’s life was profound. In my father’s words, he went from being an obscure professor of political science whose teachings were ignored to a famous professor of political science whose teachings were ignored!

The speech my father wrote for Goldwater had two purposes: a tangible political objective and a great philosophical goal.

The Republican party in 1964, like most political parties, was a collection of different groups with differing goals and objectives. Many of them my father considered unsavory. The differences among the party’s factions sometimes seemed as large as the difference between Republicans and Democrats. My father thought that if the core mission of the Republican party could be reduced to two things—fighting communism abroad and socialism at home—that the conservative movement would coalesce and ultimately be victorious.

“Back in 1858,” said Goldwater, “Abraham Lincoln said this of the Republican party—and I quote him, because he probably could have said it during the last week or so: ‘It was composed of strained, discordant, and even hostile elements.’ . . . Yet all of these elements agreed on one paramount objective: To arrest the progress of slavery, and place it in the course of ultimate extinction.


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