The death this week at age 96 of former Pennyslvania Gov. Bill Scranton, briefly a Republican presidential candidate in 1964, was also in a sense a final obituary on moderate Republicanism that began fading from the political scene half a century ago.
In the presidential campaign in which Barry Goldwater carried the banner of ultraconservatism to the Republican nomination, Mr. Scranton was offered by moderates as an 11th-hour savior. But he was summarily rejected on the first ballot at the GOP convention in San Francisco, leading to Goldwater's resounding defeat by President Lyndon Johnson.
After the Republican liberal-moderate wing's darling, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, lost the decisive California Republican primary to Goldwater, Mr. Scranton was summoned by former President Dwight Eisenhower to his Gettysburg home and urged to run.
Subsequently, he went to a Republican Governors Conference apparently poised to do so when Ike, pressed by Goldwater backers, informed him by phone he wanted no "cabal" against the Arizonan. In a disastrous television appearance, Mr. Scranton said he was "available for the nomination" but had no "intention" of actively trying to defeat the frontrunner.
At the raucous national convention at the Cow Palace, Goldwater easily brushed aside the mild-mannered Pennsylvanian in what turned into an abattoir of suicidal right-wing fervor, fired up by Goldwater himself. Rockefeller was all but booed out of the hall, and Goldwater added the frosting by inviting the liberals and moderates to take a walk.
"Anyone who joins us in all sincerity, we welcome," he declared. "Those who do not care for our cause we do not expect to enter our ranks in any case." Then, in answer to critics, he bellowed: "I would remind you that that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice [and] that moderation is the pursuit of liberty is no virtue."
According to Mr. Scranton later, another Republican who urged "somebody else" to challenge Goldwater was the party's defeated 1960 nominee, Richard Nixon, nursing the hope that the party might again turn to him. "It was such a beating about the bush," Mr. Scranton said, he finally told Nixon in effect: "Dick, if you want to run for president, why don't you just go ahead and run?"
Nixon instead unsuccessfully urged on Gov. George Romney of Michigan until deciding to bide his time before running again, and winning the nomination and the presidency in 1968. Mr. Scranton ultimately became a special Nixon envoy to the Middle East and, under President Gerald Ford in 1976, the American ambassador to the United Nations.
Out of the whole Republican fiasco of 1964, Mr. Scranton in retrospect offered one of the last moderate alternatives to the Goldwater political hara-kiri. From it, nevertheless, rose the Reagan revolution, which dominated GOP politics for most of the next decade and beyond. A 1964 Ronald Reagan speech in behalf of Goldwater eventually led to his own election as governor of California in 1966 and ultimately the presidency, though in much less extremist rhetoric than had brought Goldwater's downfall.
The pillars of the 1960s Republican moderation — Rockefeller, Scranton, Romney, Sens. Jacob Javits of New York, Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, Howard Baker of Tennessee, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Charles "Mac" Mathias of Maryland and a few others — eventually vanished from the political scene. With them went a leavening of the Grand Old Party's conciliatory mood and message that had encouraged open communication and compromise within its ranks and across the partisan aisle.
One wonders what the ghosts of these old moderate occupants of the Senate and their House counterparts would think of today's congressional dysfunction, fueled by failure to engage in bipartisan discussion and negotiation, in favor of obstruction and assailing of motives.
It's somewhat ironic that among the few current Republican senators now demonstrating a willingness to talk to and work with the opposition party is the man who succeeded Barry Goldwater in the Senate: John McCain of Arizona, who is leading the fight for immigration reform. As the 2008 GOP standard-bearer, and as a conservative, he led the Republican right wing to defeat then after a long career of relative independence. Whether he can bring enough colleagues to see the light now is a major challenge in his twilight Senate years.