The 50th anniversary of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for the presidency has been surprisingly muted in a year of anniversaries: 50 years also for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the British Invasion; 75 years for the beginning of World War II; 100 years for the beginning of World War I.
Under the slogan, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right,” Goldwater suffered a monumental defeat at the hands of Lyndon Johnson, who garnered 61.9 percent of the vote, more than any presidential candidate except George Washington. LBJ enjoyed a booming economy from his tax cuts earlier that year—paid for by actually cutting pork in the federal budget, not by running a deficit. The death of President Kennedy a year before left the country in no mood to change presidents again.
And Johnson ran a vicious campaign, painting Goldwater, who believed in a strong defense against communism, as a mad bomber who would plunge the country into war. The culmination was the infamous “Daisy” attack ad LBJ launched like a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb. It showed a little girl in a field picking daisy petals, counting each one. As a man’s voice counts down to zero, she looks up. An atomic bomb explodes. We then hear LBJ’s voice-over: “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 either love each other, or we must die [sic].”
Just two months later, Johnson escalated the Vietnam War by inserting the first major U.S. combat troops. That generated the bitter joke, “Liberals said if I voted for Goldwater, we would go to war. I voted for Goldwater, and we went to war.”
Many issues of that year—confronting the Soviet Union, for example—no longer resonate. And many issues of today would have baffled the less-psychotic America of 1964: same-sex “marriage,” diversity, multiculturalism, transgenderism, open borders, occupying the Middle East.
But in many areas Goldwater’s campaign is as important as ever. He warned that welfare spending would debilitate the poor and bankrupt the country. “Government must do everything within its power to guarantee a sound dollar,” he said:
It can do this by reasonable budgets, by living within the means of the people who pay the bills, and by encouraging the individual enterprise from which the real value of money is formed. . . . We can meet our obligations and not postpone the debt payment and place that burden on the next generation.
At that time, the government actually had paid down the World War II debt. But three years later the combined expenses of the Vietnam War and the Great Society buckled the economy, and LBJ began moving us off the gold standard, sparking inflation. In 2014, the dollar holds less than five percent of its value in 1964, and federal debt has run up to an incomprehensible $17 trillion.
The biographies show Goldwater was a diffident candidate. The late Robert Novak, who covered the campaign and wrote a book on it, said Barry was just lazy and wanted to be a country-club Republican. Contrast that with Robert Caro’s depictions of the manic campaigns of LBJ and JFK.
Goldwater missed a grand opportunity to build and lead a coalition of the various strains of conservatism. After the campaign, he returned to his Grand Canyon State ranch for four years, then was elected again to the Senate in 1968. His presidential campaign did bring together many young conservatives and launched the political career of Ronald Reagan, whose recorded and televised campaign speech for Goldwater of October 27, 1964, “A Time for Choosing”—better known as “The Speech”—led to the Gipper’s 1966 gubernatorial election in California.
Goldwater stands in stark contrast with today’s conservative ciphers. “I will not change my beliefs to win votes,” he said, announcing his campaign. “I will offer a choice, not an echo.” For nearly the entire intervening period, including this year from House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, all we have heard are echoes.
Imagine any Republican today—including the trimming Sen. Rand Paul—intoning these famous words from Goldwater at the 1964 GOP convention in San Francisco: “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.”
Goldwater’s GOP Rockefeller nemesis remains. In 1964, liberal Gov. Nelson Rockefeller of New York and his sidekick, Michigan Gov. George Romney, huffed out of the Republican National Convention when Goldwater wouldn’t cave in to their demands. The Bush family, which has dominated the GOP in recent decades, were Rockefeller allies. And in 2012 the party actually nominated George’s son, Mitt, even though RomneyCare was the model for ObamaCare.
What remains is the sense of the possibility of 1964, of a young conservative movement on the march, fighting the GOP’s Eastern Establishment as much as LBJ. The fight for a real choice continues.