Forty seven years ago this week, Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in the biggest landslide since 1936. Today, both left and right see in Goldwater’s defeat the beginnings of the conservative revolution that would bring Ronald Reagan into office in 1980. Missed in this thesis, though, is how 1964 was a prime example of modern Democratic campaigning with its allies — the mainstream media — that we suffer under today. It was also a historic turning point that might have been avoided.
It is fashionable for the Left to co-opt Barry Goldwater as they have Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton called him a “patriot” and James Carville characterized him a “principled conservative,” at odds with today’s “loony right.” But this was not so in 1964. The mainstream media, not called that then, labeled him a fascist. Walter Cronkite said of him that “Goldwater was going places, among them Nazi Germany.” Psychiatrists lined up behind the Johnson campaign, declaring Goldwater “emotionally unstable.” Reporters were aware that LBJ was heightening the conflict in Vietnam, but said nothing while LBJ promised not to send “American boys nine or ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”
Journalists on the campaign trail saw Johnson drunkenly board a plane armed with nuclear weapons and then accidentally drop them on the United States. Luckily, by the grace of God, they did not go off. None of this was reported, while newspapers editors worked in overdrive to portray Goldwater as eager to push the button. Today, pundits argue that dirty tricks by Carville and Begalia were something new on the horizon for Democrats and were borrowed from decades of Republican campaigns. But Johnson was a pioneer of the Clinton War Room. He used the FBI to wiretap the candidate, bought political information from Goldwater defectors, and in an eerie foretaste of Watergate, put domestic CIA chief Howard Hunt on the White House payroll to infiltrate, even burglarize, Goldwater headquarters (with Democratic blessing, Hunt filtered his findings and received cash through a dummy corporation called National Press). What is striking about these tactics was how unnecessary they were. Johnson beforehand knew he was going to win, but he wanted “to crucify” Goldwater nonetheless.
Buried under this onslaught was a libertarian, not a big government Nazi (small government Nazi is a contradiction in terms. Without a huge government behind Hitler he would have been, in the words of Bill Buckley, “a street corner racist”). Goldwater was pro-choice, feared the rise of the religious right (he once said of Jerry Falwell that the Republicans should kick him out of the Party), and supported gays in the military (“it isn’t important for them to be straight, just to shoot straight”). Camelot merchants speak of what might have been had Kennedy dodged the bullets in Dealey Plaza: Vietnam would have been avoided, racial apartheid ended, and détente would have come a decade sooner. It is instructive to see what would have happened had Goldwater won.
While LBJ was authorizing secret maneuvers in the Gulf of Tomkin, Goldwater proposed sending Eisenhower to Vietnam, a proposal that worked in 1952, effectively ending the Korean War. Eleven years of bombing might have been unnecessary. Where Johnson imposed the draft, Goldwater wanted to end it, prefiguring campaign advisor Milton Friedman, successfully achieving this libertarian goal while an official of the Nixon administration. Perhaps no draft cards would have been burned. The draconian nature of the Great Society–using taxpayer money to fund the street theatre of the Black Panthers, CONTELPRO infiltrations into the far left, which Goldwater denounced–might never have occurred, and a white backlash avoided.
All of this is difficult to ascertain since Goldwater was, indeed, crucified. Even though Goldwater humbly thought, “I don’t have enough brains to be President,” he prophesized events the master politician LBJ did not foresee. He saw Vietnam as having the potential to become a “quagmire,” years before journalists applied the term. While LBJ was cutting deals with Nixon, Goldwater predicted that, if elected, Nixon would be “the most corrupt president in history.”
Not bad for an “unstable fascist.”