1964: A Distant Mirror of Today’s Situation

The other day, while puttering around the house, I was listening to the latest Steven Crowder program on YouTube. I was apparently not listening very attentively, because I failed to notice when Crowder’s show concluded and YouTube, in its inscrutable way, began playing another video.

It was Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing.”

It wasn’t my first encounter with the speech, which Reagan delivered on the NBC network in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. I’d read it a long time ago. But I’d never seen Reagan deliver it. So I sat down and watched. 

It was magnificent. No wonder it had the immense impact that it did. Reagan would later say that it had drawn more fan mail than any performance he’d ever delivered in a Hollywood movie. It turned him overnight from an actor into the standard-bearer of the conservative movement and a leading prospect for high political office. Two years later he would be elected governor of California.

Alas, the speech, which drew a vivid contrast between Goldwater’s devotion to individual freedom and Johnson’s enthusiasm for the welfare state, failed to accomplish its real aim: to help win victory for Goldwater in the contest with Lyndon B. Johnson. Goldwater went down to a record defeat, with Johnson receiving 486 electoral votes to his 52—a landslide that would afterward be eclipsed only by Nixon’s 520-17 win over George McGovern in 1972 and Reagan’s own 489-49 trouncing of Jimmy Carter in 1980.

It was a great era for the Democrats. Vietnam had not yet come to be viewed as a quagmire. The Great Society programs had just been introduced and were not yet recognized to be an unmitigated disaster. Perhaps most importantly, the ghost of John F. Kennedy, martyred in Dallas only a year before, was still hovering over the White House, shining a holy light on his sometime Texan vice president. To many Americans, voting against LBJ in 1964 would have felt like a betrayal of JFK. So it was that voters not only returned LBJ to the White House but also gave his party supermajorities in both houses of Congress, enabling him, a master at bending legislators to his will, to rule like a king.

There was one other factor in LBJ’s massive triumph: namely, that Goldwater was out of step with the spirit of the hour. Then as now, the mainstream media were largely a cheering section for the Democrats, depicting their massive programs for social justice and economic equality as bold, brilliant steps into a brighter future. Against this backdrop of Washington-orchestrated social engineering, Goldwater’s passionate talk about the heritage of liberty and the American Founding and the limits placed by the Constitution on the powers of the federal government sounded quaint, at best.

Reagan, in his speech, quoted prominent Democrats of the day who preached that “the Cold War will end through our acceptance of a not undemocratic socialism,” that the concept of individual liberty was “outmoded,” that capitalism should be replaced by “the welfare state,” and that the “antiquated” Constitution must be scrapped so that LBJ, “our moral teacher and our leader,” could do for Americans “what he knows is best.” It would take Reagan, 16 years later, to put America fully back on track and call out Communism unashamedly.

While Goldwater refrained from directly attacking LBJ during the 1964 campaign, Johnson didn’t feel obliged to put similar restraints on himself. His anti-Goldwater propaganda was ruthless. The centerpiece was one of the most notorious TV political ads ever. We see a little girl counting petals aloud as she plucks them off a daisy. Then the picture freezes, a deep male voice counts down from 10 to zero, the camera moves in for a close-up of the girl’s eye, and at zero, we see a nuclear bomb exploding. In voice-over, Johnson, channeling his inner W.H. Auden, tells us: “These are the stakes: to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love one another, or we must die.”

In a time when the media’s message about the Soviet Union increasingly was that it wasn’t really all that bad, and when the U.S. government itself was establishing programs that invited comparison with Soviet five-year plans, the LBJ ad, known as “Daisy”—which implicitly encouraged peaceful coexistence with, if not outright appeasement of, Communism—played well. Although it didn’t mention Goldwater by name, it plainly implied that his staunch anti-Communism was a danger to world peace. As LBJ’s own voice-over suggested, he was the candidate of love—which made Goldwater, apparently, the candidate of hate.

Which was supremely ironic to anyone who really knew both men. If you’ve read Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography, you know that Johnson was a thug and vulgarian of the first order, at once crude and cruel, adept at stealing elections, at humiliating his subordinates, at crushing anyone who got in his way, and at parlaying political power into personal wealth. Goldwater, by contrast, was an authentic gentleman of uncommon decency. As Reagan said in his speech, “I’ve never known a man in my life I believed so incapable of doing a dishonest or a dishonorable thing.” At his own business, noted Reagan, Goldwater instituted profit-sharing, health-insurance, retirement, and day-care plans; at Christmastime during the Korean War, he ferried Arizona soldiers on leave back home from L.A. in his private plane. “This is not a man,” Reagan concluded, “who could carelessly send other people’s sons to war.” 

It was hard to watch Reagan’s speech, and contemplate the 1964 election, without being reminded of what we’ve all been through in the last four years, and especially during and after the recent election campaign. Like LBJ, Biden is a sordid, self-dealing scapegrace who has little respect for the average citizen and a love of power for its own sake, but who has been relentlessly portrayed by the media as a hero of the downtrodden. Like Goldwater, Trump is a lover of freedom and of the ordinary American who has been smeared as an ugly racist and dangerous extremist. 

Fifty-six years ago, the electorate bought the Democratic spin only to experience buyer’s remorse within a year or two. The final results of the 2020 election are not yet entirely clear, but one thing is certain: as in 1964, the Republican candidate is right about virtually everything on which he and his opponent differ, while the Democrat, if put in the Oval Office, will surely lose his luster before very long—provided, indeed, he doesn’t expire or get put out to pasture before wearing out his welcome. 

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