"This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen." Standing before the hostile crowd at the 1964 GOP Convention in San Francisco, a defiant Nelson Rockefeller could barely make his words heard above the booing. After six months of heated campaigning, the convention was about to deliver the Republican nomination to his arch-rival, Barry Goldwater. A free country -- and yet it was by exercising that very freedom in his personal life that Rockefeller had effectively shattered his best shot at becoming president of the United States.
The scandalous news of Rockefeller's wedding in May of 1963 spread quickly. Nelson, who had divorced his first wife Tod 18 months earlier, was finally tying the knot with the woman he had been having a relationship with for over five years, Margaretta "Happy" Murphy. Public reaction to Nelson's divorce had been muted, but the headlines announcing his remarriage prompted the outrage and incredulity of many. Adding to the public's disapproval was the fact that in her recently settled divorce, Happy had surrendered custody of her four children.
Yet the political impact of Nelson's second marriage was even more irreversible than its moral implications. The polls, which had given him a comfortable lead over other potential candidates just weeks before, saw his popularity take a dive. Pundits called it an act of political self-destruction, noting that his presidential hopes seemed now more unattainable than ever. But the ever-confident Rockefeller forged ahead. Determined to regain the upper hand, he set out to turn the public's attention to the ideological battles heating up within the Republican Party. In July 1963, he publicly declared war against what he called the "extremist groups" that threatened to subvert the GOP from the right, taking aim at his main opponent for the nomination, conservative Barry Goldwater.
The scene was set for the battle over the heart and soul of the Republican Party. After years as the target of ridicule, the conservative wing of the party had staged an impressive comeback through a grassroots campaign in the South, the Southwest and the West. Their leader was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a staunch critic of the liberal slant he perceived among his fellow Republicans. Accusing Rockefeller of blurring the lines between Democrats and Republicans, Goldwater called for harsher policies on the issues that then preoccupied the nation. He supported states' rights, lower taxes, and a strengthened military.
Rockefeller was a Cold Warrior himself, but he strongly disagreed with the Arizona senator on most social and fiscal issues. He argued for a more mainstream and progressive Republican agenda, one that would not turn its back on people in need, and warned voters against Goldwater's shoot-from-the-hip conservatism: "Americans will not and should not respond to a political creed that cherishes the past solely because it offers an excuse for shutting out the hard facts and difficult tasks of the present," he said, accusing Goldwater of being out of touch with reality. Barring a miracle, Republicans had few chances of winning the presidential race in the wake of Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963. But as the campaign rhetoric escalated, it became clear that the real issue was not who would win in November. What was at stake was a major shift in the control of the Republican Party -- and the end of the hegemony of the so-called liberal Eastern wing. "First let's take over the party," Goldwater told his aides. "Then we'll go from there."
Nelson, however, was not about to give up without a fight. Displaying his usual charm and the fondness for pressing the flesh that had won him two gubernatorial races, he campaigned tirelessly. In May 1964, after lagging behind most of the spring, Rockefeller scored his first primary victory in Oregon. Suddenly the possibility of stopping Goldwater, whose campaign had been gathering momentum and delegates at a steady pace, seemed more than ever within reach.
Indeed, two weeks before the last Republican primary, in California, Rockefeller held a comfortable 13-point lead over his opponent. Confident that he could win the final prize, Nelson pulled out all the stops in a relentless (and extremely costly) negative campaign aimed at portraying Goldwater as a dangerous politician. "Who do you want in the room with the H-bomb button?" asked a Rockefeller pamphlet mailed to over two million voters across the state. Goldwater followers retaliated with their own smear campaign, engaging in disruptive tactics that included bomb-threats made to the Rockefeller headquarters.
Rockefeller was still leading the polls when, three days before the election, Happy gave birth to a baby boy, Nelson Jr. As Rockefeller interrupted his campaign to fly to New York, Goldwater went into high gear, filling the airwaves with ads that touted his impeccable family background and questioned his opponent's morality. On June 2, California voters chose Goldwater over Rockefeller by a narrow margin of less than three percent, ensuring the Arizona senator's nomination at the Republican convention to be held in July. Rockefeller would have to wait another four years to pursue his dream.
The atmosphere at the Republican convention was heated as Nelson Rockefeller stepped up to the podium to address the belligerent crowd: "During this year I have crisscrossed this nation, fighting … to keep the Republican party the party of all the people ... and warning of the extremist threat, its danger to the party, and danger to the nation," he said, taking his time as the crowd cheered "We want Barry!" "These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror, [they have] no program for America and the Republican Party... [they] operate from dark shadows of secrecy. It is essential that this convention repudiate here and now any doctrinaire, militant minority whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Birchers." It was, according to many, Nelson Rockefeller's finest moment -- but it did little to stop the conservative wave that was transforming the GOP.
Goldwater would articulate some of these conservative principles in his controversial acceptance speech: "Let our Republicanism, so focused and dedicated, not be made fuzzy and futile by unthinking and stupid labels," he summoned the crowd. "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice -- and let me remind you also, moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue."
But the country wasn't ready for the hard-line agenda championed by Goldwater and his avid supporters. After a Democratic landslide in the general election of November 1964, he had no choice but to step aside and make way for Nixon's presidential hopes. The legacy of Goldwater's "conservative revolution," however, would be felt for decades to come -- eventually ushering into the presidency one of the men who had helped him win the decisive California primary: Ronald Reagan.
Rockefeller would try once more to win the Republican nomination, but by 1968 the tide had turned, leaving the ultimate "Rockefeller Republican" out of the mainstream of the party he had sought to renew.