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Commentary: 1964 Presidential Campaign, 50 Years Later

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The 1964 United States Presidential Election between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater is regarded as both a landslide win for the Democratic Party, followed by Johnson's "Great Society" programs: the Voting Rights at of 1965 and the War on Poverty; and also the foundation of the conservative values of the modern Republican Party, leading to the "Reagan Revolution" in the 1980s. Commentator and Murray State History Professor Dr. Brian Clardy reflects on the legacy of the 1964 campaign for president, 50 years ago.

Note: the views expressed in this commentary are those of the commentator, and don't necessarily reflect the views of WKMS.

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1964 Electoral College

Fifty Years Later: The 1964 Presidential Campaign

By Dr. Brian K. Clardy

Nearly a year had passed since the tragic events of that cold Dallas afternoon when the nation mourned the death of President Kennedy. The nation had undergone major social and political changes that would have been unthinkable ten years before. Former Texas Senator (and Majority Leader) Lyndon Baines Johnson was now President of the United States, having been Kennedy’s running mate three years prior to assuming the nation’s highest office.

LBJ, as he was commonly referred, had a depth of knowledge of the legislative process unless many of his predecessors and had shepherded through massive civil rights and economic legislation under the larger umbrella of the “Great Society.” It would seem as though, President Johnson was in command of the political universe and an apparent shoe-in for election in his own right come 1964. However, a substantive question about the nature, role, and reach of the Federal Government was about to occur, and one that would have future implications for Presidential elections later in the century.

While President Johnson enjoyed the support of larger numbers of American voters in the months after the Kennedy assassination, it would be unwise to think that such acclaim was universal. Indeed the reforms that Johnson supported raised questions to whether or not businesses could hire, fire and serve whom they pleased; and Johnson’s detractors questioned whether or not the social safety net should be strengthened in order to eliminate poverty? That task would be left to his opponent, Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.

Since his arrival on the American political scene in the early 1950s, Senator Goldwater echoed many of the musings of many of his fellow conservative contemporaries, that the role of government spending and regulation had been too expansive and encroached upon individual liberty and initiative. His acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, California brought many of those concerns into stark contrast with the Johnson Administration when he said:

"Those who seek to live your lives for you, to take your liberties in return for relieving you of yours, those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for divine will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom."

And his criticisms of the Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy were as emphatic as the ones on domestic policy as he hammered home his disdain for their policies on Vietnam, the U.S. Soviet conflict, and perceptions of weakness in US military preparedness.  In all of his critique of the Administration’s policies, Goldwater saw “The Whirlwind President” as another threatening Constitutional storm front and called upon voters to make a change come November. Goldwater concluded: 

"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."

Meanwhile, Johnson’s campaign sought to frame Senator Goldwater’s musings into that of a fanatical ideologue: a short sighted bigot who would roll back American economic progress that had been made since the New Deal and who would rush the United States into a suicidal conflict with the Soviet Union.

And on the evening of September 7, 1964, the Johnson campaign drove the point home in a very stark and graphic manner.

What is known as the “Daisy Girl ad” featured a pre-adolescent girl in a field picking flowers and engaging in child’s play. Her innocent frolicking was interrupted by the voice of a countdown, an atomic explosion, and the booming voice of President Johnson that intimated that a failure to elect him to the White House in 1964 could result in a new and belligerent administration that would lead the nation down the path to nuclear war.

It was clearly a defining moment in American political history, and set the stage for effective political attack ads in future years.

It worked. 

This ad, as well as perceptions about Goldwater’s readiness for the Presidency, resulted in a landslide victory for President Johnson.

However, Goldwater’s followers carried on his message of less government regulation, low taxes, and military preparedness well into the 1970s, 80s, and beyond. This was the continuation of the modern conservative movement.

And so fifty years later, we still re-litigate the old political battles about the role of government in domestic and foreign affairs and our discourse is still haunted by the specter of negative campaign ads that seer images of opponents in the psyche of voters. 

I think that it’s a safe bet to say that 1964 was the intellectual and practical seed pod of modern political campaigns. 

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Dr. Brian Clardy is an Assistant Professor of History and Coordinator of Religious Studies at Murray State University. He is also the Wednesday night host of Cafe Jazz on WKMS.

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