The Losing Winner and the Winning Loser of 1964

It is difficult to imagine two politicians more opposite in their political philosophies than Senator Barry Goldwater, the uncompromising apostle of conservatism, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a true believer in New Deal liberalism.

Goldwater came to Washington, D.C., not to pass new laws but to repeal old ones. Johnson never met a federal program he didn’t like.

The Arizona Republican’s favorite President was Thomas Jefferson; his favorite thinker was Russell Kirk, who ghost-wrote speeches for him. The Texan Democrat’s favorite President was Franklin D. Roosevelt; the political thinker he most resembled was Niccolo Machiavelli. Former LBJ aide Eric Goldman called his boss “Machiavelli in a Stetson.”

Goldwater believed in individuals. Johnson thought in electoral blocs. Goldwater swore by the Constitution, Johnson by the New Deal.

In the 1964 presidential election, these two men offered the American electorate starkly different visions of the future. When the contest was through, and it became clear that the incumbent President had crushed his challenger in a historic landslide, it seemed that liberalism would prevail in American politics for generations and that conservatism had suffered a fatal defeat.

Just four years later, Barry Goldwater was easily reelected to the U.S. Senate while the President, who had won 44 states and received 61 percent of the popular vote, dared not seek reelection. And when Ronald Reagan easily won the presidency in 1980, it was after campaigning on the same conservative issues as Goldwater: limited government, individual freedom, and victory in the Cold War (although Reagan, unlike Goldwater, did not try to repeal the New Deal).

In Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle between Liberalism and Conservatism, Nancy Beck Young, a history professor at the University of Houston, tries to unravel the paradox of why the loser turned out to be the winner while the winner’s vision fell into eclipse for the next four decades. Despite impressive research and a laudatory use of the English language, Professor Young fails in the end to explain the outcome of that definitive election.

Same Old Caricature of the Junior Senator from Arizona

Echoing most historians on the Left, Young describes Goldwater as “far right of center” and an extremist who “played off the civil rights backlash.” According to the author, Goldwater followed a Southern strategy of ignoring blacks and “hunting where the ducks are”—that is, among Southern whites. Summing up Election 1964, Young writes that “southern segregationists staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”

That would be news to Senator Goldwater and his campaign team. (For the record, I was director of information for the Goldwater for President Committee, and then deputy director of public relations for the presidential campaign.) When campaigning in the South, Goldwater repeatedly promised to abide by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which he had voted against on constitutional grounds) and rejected the support of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist groups like the White Citizens Councils. When the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who was a Democrat at the time, suggested through an intermediary that he would like to be Goldwater’s running mate, Goldwater’s quick response was, “Go to hell!” (Young includes Wallace’s offer but not Goldwater’s emphatic dismissal of the idea.)

With the advice of legal experts like Yale law professor Robert Bork, Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the belief that its Title VII, which dealt with “fair employment,” would inevitably lead to preferential treatment (“affirmative action” in modern terminology). Senate sponsors of the legislation denied it, but Goldwater was proven right when President Johnson created the Office of Federal Contract Compliance with a mission of implementing “goals and timetables for the prompt achievement of full and equal employment opportunity.” President Nixon then approved new guidelines to “increase materially the utilization of minorities and women.”

The only way that Goldwater could have ridden a white backlash into the White House would have been to exploit the riots that began with the death in New York City of a black teenager named James Powell, disturbances that raged up and down the Eastern Seaboard in July and August of that election year. At this critical moment, with voters wondering if the presidency would be decided on the issues of race and violence, Goldwater initiated a meeting with President Johnson.

The two men released a statement in which they agreed “to avoid the incitement of racial tensions” in the campaign. Johnson gladly cosigned the pledge because it would reduce the possibility of more such strife—and because his opponent had surrendered an explosive issue that might have tightened the race and denied Johnson the historic victory he sought. Goldwater kept his word down to the final days of the campaign, even stopping the distribution of Choice, an inflammatory documentary film that featured multiple close-ups of black Americans rioting in the streets.

I have detailed Goldwater’s commendable civil rights record because it is a major argument of Young (and most liberal analysts) that Goldwater conservatism is based on the politics of race and resentment. Such a finding is possible only if the author emphasizes Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 without providing any context.

Missing the Youthful Energy of 1964

Young never captures the evangelical zeal of conservatives in 1964, who believed that if they helped get Barry Goldwater reach the White House, he and his administration would return the country, not to a constitutional democracy without the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, but to a democracy mindful of the first principles of the Founding: limited constitutional government, free enterprise, and American values based on our Judeo-Christian heritage. These principles serve all Americans.

The historian fares better in her portrayal of President Johnson, who was obsessed with winning by a greater margin than his predecessor Roosevelt did in 1936 so that he could enact his Great Society programs and surpass the New Deal. For Johnson, extremism in pursuit of a landslide was no vice. He approved the Anti-Campaign, which, as Young explains, was a clandestine “black propaganda” effort run out of the West Wing of the White House by a dozen Washington-based Democrats. They prepared LBJ’s responses to what Goldwater said in his speeches, handed members of Goldwater’s traveling press corps questions to ask the challenger, and persuaded friendly newspaper columnists to write anti-Goldwater commentaries.

Young does not mention that the Anti-Campaign obtained advance copies of Goldwater’s statements from a spy planted in the Goldwater campaign headquarters by the CIA. Nor does she mention that it received inside information about Goldwater’s campaign plans through a bugging device installed by the FBI in the Goldwater campaign plane. The CIA’s illegal action came to light in a Senate hearing in 1974. Moreover, I detailed the FBI’s illegal surveillance in my 1995 Goldwater biography, quoting J. Edgar Hoover, who explained: “You do what the President tells you to do.”

The “Daisy Ad”

Worried that Goldwater might try to “shuck” his extremist reputation, Johnson had his young political aide, Bill Moyers, discuss this concern with their Madison Avenue advertising agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach. The agency’s response was the infamous “Daisy Ad,” which featured a pretty little girl picking petals from a daisy until the camera closes in on her eye, which dissolves into a nuclear bomb explosion while President Johnson provides a voiceover: “These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must love each other, or we must die.” An announcer ends, “Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The Daisy ad, points out Young, “was the first television ad to use fear as a motivator.” Goldwater was never mentioned—there was no need to do so. The image of Goldwater, the nuclear bomb-thrower, had been planted in the minds of millions of Americans by liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller during the primaries, and was being reinforced by Johnson in the fall campaign.

While the Democrats relied mostly on minute-long commercials, the Republicans stuck with more traditional 30-minute programs featuring Goldwater. Young acknowledges how important was the television address of one of the challenger’s biggest supporters. Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” was rebroadcast multiple times in the last week of the campaign. She does not report that the Goldwater campaign tried to kill the program because it featured Reagan, not their candidate; the idea (and a rather lackluster one it was) was to replace it with a lengthy conversation between Goldwater and former President Eisenhower at the latter’s Gettysburg farm. The conservatives who had raised money for the Reagan telecast refused to sponsor any program but “A Time for Choosing.” Their sponsorship made political history, since Reagan would not have been asked to run for Governor of California if “A Time for Choosing” had not made the actor and General Electric pitch man a political star overnight.

Twin Failures

In the interest of accuracy, it must be said that 1) Goldwater never called for the “use” of nuclear weapons by “NATO troops” but pointed out that U.S. policy under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy allowed the commander of NATO to employ battlefield nukes in the event of a major Soviet invasion of West Germany. 2) William F. Buckley, Jr., William Rusher, and L. Brent Bozell did not play any role in the campaign because they were excluded by order of William Baroody, Goldwater’s principal adviser, who determined that only he would have the candidate’s ear.

Sometimes the author gets Goldwater right, stating that he was not a “cartoon character” but a “compelling figure” for many Americans, from suburban Sunbelt women to young conservatives. She summarizes correctly that, not long after the 1964 debacle, conservatives were able to convince their countrymen and women that liberals primarily worked for entitlements through social engineering and “ever more federal power over individual lives.” Young says that conservatives strengthened their case by modifying the meaning of conservatism in areas like morality and sexuality, but she does not spell out what the modifications were.

In her conclusion, Young argues that Johnson “wanted his Sunbelt sun to shine consensual liberalism,” but that instead, “partisanship intensified in Washington over the course of his administration.” Such an explanation leaves out the reasons why consensus was not possible in the nation’s capital, in the American Southwest, or anywhere else in the country in the 1960s: the twin failures of the Great Society and the Vietnam War.

After receiving the greatest public relations build-up in modern politics, the Great Society turned out to be a Potemkin Village, disappointing black Americans and other members of racial and ethnic minorities who remained mired in broken families and burned out inner cities. From the basement of the White House, President Johnson micromanaged the Vietnam War so badly that 58,220 Americans died in the paddies and jungles of Vietnam and the people of South Vietnam lost their freedom. The man who wanted to be a greater wartime President than FDR turned out to be the first American President to lose a war.

As for the challenger, who allegedly followed a racist Southern strategy, he bequeathed a winning strategy to his conservative successor, Ronald Reagan, who twice won the Governorship of California and then the presidency running on much the same issues as Goldwater in his 1964 presidential attempt. As George Will wrote, “We who voted for [Goldwater] believe he won, it just took 16 years to count the votes.”