After winning a Pulitzer Prize with his groundbreaking, dramatic, psychologically intense depiction of the 1960 presidential campaign, Theodore White tried it again in 1964. But, this election lacked the drama of 1960 (most elections have) and instead, White came up with a somewhat confused narrative that paints the winning candidate, Lyndon Johnson, as both a saint and sinner, and the loser, Barry Goldwater, as a man with crazed followers with only a passing grip on reality.
White’s book was published in 1965 and it came out before the United States started to come apart at the seams because of the Vietnam War and race relations, taking down Johnson’s presidency. Goldwater, who is presented as one of the least mainstream candidates ever, could have become the Conservative movement’s icon, if only the people of California hadn’t elected Ronald Reagan as governor in 1966, changing the course of American politics.
The book opens with the assassination of Kennedy and the reactions to it by Johnson, the Cabinet, and the leading Republican contenders of the era: Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, and Richard Nixon. White, who had authored a long, laudatory piece for Life Magazine on the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, almost wants you to get on a plane to ask the Pope to make Kennedy a saint.
Fortunately, the rhetoric dies down a bit. Most of the book is dedicated to the Republican campaign, which was the only contested one as Johnson opted to run in his own right.
There were just 16 state primaries in 1964 (along with one for the District of Columbia for the first time). Then, as now, New Hampshire started things off. Ambassador to Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge won that primary, mostly because of name recognition from his time as a Massachusetts senator. Goldwater and Rockefeller decided to duke it out in the last two major primaries: Oregon and California.
Rockefeller won in Oregon, but Goldwater won decisively in California. Goldwater was hurt by a recent divorce and, even worse, by fathering a child from his second wife during the campaign. (Two years later, the divorced and remarried Reagan would be elected governor of California.) Goldwater was then able to out organize Rockefeller in the state caucuses to sew up the nomination.
Before the convention, Pennsylvania governor William Scranton tried to enter the race, hoping for a draft from liberal Republican delegates. Scranton planned to make an appearance at a governors’ conference in Cleveland with Dwight Eisenhower, but the former President would not make a public appearance with Scranton, whose candidacy quickly died.
The Republican Convention in San Francisco turned out to be a contentious affair. Goldwater supporters openly heckled and booed Rockefeller when he addressed the delegates. The Republican Party, long controlled by Eastern financial interests, was now in the hands of a much different type of Republican. These Republicans wanted smaller government. They wanted a strong defense. They wanted law and order. The Republican power base had now shifted to the west and to the south. (Representative William Miller of New York was Goldwater’s running mate.)
Goldwater famously said during his acceptance speech,
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
Johnson’s biggest problem during his campaign was finding a running mate. Some assumed that Robert Kennedy would be a logical and/or sentimental choice. But, the two men never got along (a bit of an understatement) and Johnson turned to two Minnesota Senators: Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Since Humphrey had helped passed the Civil Rights Bill earlier in 1964, Johnson owed him the favor. Ahh, but how would have things been different if McCarthy had won the job.
Goldwater had many obstacles to overcome in the election. In one early campaign speech, he spoke about giving NATO “commanders” the option to use nuclear weapons on their own accord. This was interpreted as meaning that Goldwater wanted to remove command and control of nuclear weapons from the White House and entrust them to potentially unknown generals. The term “commanders” actually referred to the head of NATO, but the damage was done. Goldwater was painted as a guy who wanted to nuke everything. (You can find many other ads here.)
Johnson and the Democrats also claimed that Goldwater wished to make Social Security a voluntary system, something which Goldwater hadn’t quite staked out. But, it was the start of a Democratic tradition of blaming Republican candidates for wanting to gut Social Security. (50 years later, it’s still around. And the accusations still get made.)
Goldwater also voted against the Civil Rights Bill, although he said he did so on Constitutional grounds. Goldwater refused to play his version of the race card against Johnson by playing to the fears of white Americans, but he had those voters sewn up already.
White pointed out that Johnson ran as an almost nonpartisan, apolitical candidate who would unite the country. This was in spite of the fact that Johnson was one of the most partisan politicians ever elected President.
The book hints at future problems. There is a chapter on “the Negro Revolution” as well as some discussion about the foreign policy problems facing the country, namely in Southeast Asia. And those situations ended up playing out even worse than White feared. (White briefly discusses one of the first big protests of the time, the 1964 Free Speech movement at UC Berkeley. But, he misses the point and claims that Berkeley students were hypocritical because they didn’t pass a free housing measure. White was likely not aware that the vast majority of students were registered to vote outside of the Berkeley city limits. Or they couldn’t vote because they weren’t 21. The permanent residents of Berkeley in 1964 were still fairly conservative.)
The election was not close. Johnson took home 61.1% of the popular vote, a record at the time. He won 446 electoral votes to 52 for Goldwater, who won five states in the Deep South as well as Arizona.
Johnson came back to the White House figuring that he would be the most popular President since Franklin Roosevelt in 1936. He could only dream of that.