Before the Storm
by Rick Perlstein
Hill & Wang
671 pages, $30
For the 43 million Americans who voted against Barry Goldwater in 1964, the most widely shared reason may have been the issue framed by the famous "Daisy" commercial run by the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign. The ad appeared only once, but its fallout was fatal for Goldwater, who was given to apocalyptic banter about "lobbing" missiles "into the men's room of the Kremlin." The ad showed a little girl in a field picking petals off a daisy. "One, two, three, four, five, seven, six, eight, nine," she counts; then, startled, looks up from the flower. The next scene is of an atomic bomb exploding while Johnson's voice intones, "These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark...." An announcer breaks in, "Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." Soon Time magazine was reprinting jokes like, "Goldwater's first major address as President: "Ten ... nine ... eight ... seven..." And, "What would a Goldwater presidency be like? Brief." Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach (DDB), the ad agency that created "Daisy," had originally planned a series of ads lionizing Johnson as the new Lincoln for his just-passed Civil Rights Act, but by the time the fall campaign began, civil rights had become a liability for LBJ. As Rick Perlstein, born in 1969, shows in his imaginative and engaging history of the Goldwater Right, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, a good many of the 27 million Americans who voted for Goldwater did so because they were against civil rights for blacks. The "Daisy" issue long blinded many of us who scoffed at Barry at the time—"stupid to a degree that is incredible," is how one British newspaper characterized him—to the enduring significance of the 1964 presidential campaign: that Barry Goldwater, not Lyndon Johnson, spoke to the future of American politics. The Goldwater coalition was made up of southern whites opposed to civil-rights legislation, northern whites fearful of integration, conservatives, anti-government libertarians, anti-union businessmen, those who agreed with their candidate that it might be a good idea to use "low-yield atomic weapons" to defoliate the forests of Vietnam, and those who agreed that the draft should be abolished. Swelled by riots and division at home and war abroad, the Goldwater coalition elected Richard Nixon; gave Ronald Reagan an even bigger victory in the Electoral College over the liberal Walter Mondale in 1984 than LBJ had won over Goldwater twenty years before; elected a Republican House in 1994; and has just elected George W. Bush. From today's perspective, the winner of the '64 election was Barry Goldwater.
It is LBJ, not Goldwater, who looks out of it today. Here is LBJ speaking on national television on July 2, 1964, the day the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate by a margin of seventy-one to twenty-nine, Goldwater among the twenty-nine: "We believe all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings—not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.... We can understand how this happened, but it cannot continue. Our Constitution ... forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I signed tonight forbids it." According to an account in Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973 by the historian Robert Dallek, later that evening Johnson seemed downcast to his aide Bill Moyers, who asked why. "Because Bill," LBJ replied, "I think we have just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come." And here is Goldwater, repeating the words of his constitutional expert William Rehnquist, who—chalk up another one for Barry—is now the chief justice of the current Supreme Court (with another Goldwater protégé, Sandra Day O'Connor, poised to succeed him): "Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society. It is to preserve a free society." Goldwater again: "We want to make it safe to live by the law; enough has been done to make it safe to live outside of the law." And: "Our traditional values of individual responsibility ... have been slipping away at a quickened pace." "The moral fiber of the American people is beset by rot and decay." And here, again, is LBJ, appealing to hope not fear at the University of Michigan commencement in May, 1964: "For a century we labored to settle and to subdue a continent. For half a century we called upon unbounded invention and untiring industry to create an order of plenty for all of our people. The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to use that wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization. For in your life we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society." He continued in this, to us, antique vein: "So will you join the battle to give every citizen the full equality God enjoins.... Will you join the battle to give every citizen an escape from the crushing burden of poverty?... Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society?" Goldwater talked about individual freedom and responsibility, about how a big central government in Washington had no business telling local folks how to handle local problems like segregation and private matters like to whom you should rent your apartment or sell your house. He talked about taxes, crime, welfare, and decaying values, using the same language as Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Gingrich, and Bush. Who today speaks LBJ's language?
The "white backlash" of the 1960s is usually dated to the Watts riots of the summer of '65 and the worse to come in Newark and Detroit. Chronology becomes exculpation: in reaction to the black riots, whites voted for the backlash candidates in 1968—George Wallace and Richard Nixon. That chronology, Perlstein shows, is wrong. The backlash first registered politically in 1962, after President John F. Kennedy sent 23,000 federal troops to Oxford, Mississippi, to put down the white riot that broke out over James Meredith's attempt to integrate "Ole Miss." This "premeditated effort to crush the sovereign state of Mississippi," to quote a GOP Senate candidate in South Carolina, came in the midst of the 1962 congressional election campaign, which saw the Republican vote in the South rise from 660,000 in the last off-year election, in 1958, to more than 2,000,000. In Alabama, Lister Hill, the Democratic senator, faced his first Republican challenger in thirty-seven years and won by only .9 percent of the vote. In South Carolina, the GOP candidate mentioned above, who compared JFK to Hitler for his "invasion" of Mississippi, won 44 percent of the vote.
By 1964 the backlash, fanned by black protests—sometimes violent—in northern ghettos, had gone national. Terror was being employed against civil-rights workers, black and white, in the South. The year saw seventy-one "racially-motivated" bombings in the Chicago area. "Martin Luther King said that Chicago was the most segregated city in the country," George Wallace said on Chicago TV. Wallace, running against LBJ in the Democratic primaries, made a specialty of pointing out that mote in the northern eye. At a Serbian-American meeting hall in Milwaukee, which JFK had rocked during a 1960 campaign stop, it took a chorus of "Dixie" to quiet the crowd enough for Wallace to begin speaking and it took Wallace an hour to shake off his admirers and get out of the building after telling them, "A vote for this little governor will let people in Washington know that we want them to leave our houses, schools, jobs, businesses, and farms alone...." Even though Wisconsin's Democratic Governor, the AFL-CIO, and the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish clergy joined to attack Wallace as "a threat to the moral quality of our nation," he got a quarter of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent of the vote in Milwaukee, and 47 percent in a new congressional district "carved out of Milwaukee's wealthiest, best-educated suburbs," writes Perlstein. South Boston's Louise Day Hicks, running for reelection to the Boston School Committee, won "an unbelievable landslide" after resisting black demands to integrate the city's schools. In California, even as LBJ was beating Goldwater by more than a million votes, open housing was going down by a margin of 2 to 1. At the centennial of the Civil War, white supremacy still reigned in America—as it had since the sleep of justice following Reconstruction.
Goldwater was no Wallace; his economic libertarianism appealed beneath the threshold of conscious shame to the racial fears of whites, so that, in voting for him, they did not have to think of themselves as racists but as opponents of big government, friends of federalism. "In Your Heart You Know He's Right," the slogan of his campaign, was as close as Goldwater came to breaking the code. He was a boring speaker who numbed even audiences of the faithful. In TV interviews he waxed obscure on weapons systems and the villainous complexities of the progressive-income tax. His one memorable utterance of the campaign sunk him. "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, introducing himself to the millions who were focusing on him as a potential President for the first frightening time. "And let me remind you also—that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" He had underlined the lines twice in his copy of the speech. They were his favorite. F. Clifton White, who had not seen them and who had been engineering Goldwater's nomination since 1959, switched off his TV, enraged by the political equivalent of a nuke lobbed into the Kremlin men's room. Commenting on the speech, Pat Brown, the Democratic Governor of California, said, "The stench of fascism is in the air." (In two years Brown would lose his seat to Ronald Reagan, who made an electrifying television speech for Goldwater and later ran on a Goldwater law-and-order platform in the wake of the Watts riot and the Berkeley student rebellion.)
The campaign Goldwater went on to wage against LBJ was among the most inept in American political history. Coming out against the Tennessee Valley Authority in Tennessee, against a jet fighter made in Fort Worth in Fort Worth, against aid to farmers in Iowa, and suggesting that battlefield commanders be given permission to launch nuclear weapons without checking first with their Commander in Chief, Goldwater was both too principled and too reckless to be elected President of a shaken United States. Yet he captured 38 percent of the vote. Nearly 4 million Americans volunteered to work for his campaign. He raised $12 million to LBJ's $17 million. Whereas 22,000 people donated to JFK and 44,000 to Richard Nixon in 1960, more than one million donated to a campaign everyone knew was an express to defeat. Barry Goldwater was a candidate of a movement not a moment. The movement had many voices, but its uniting aim was the defeat of communism and the rollback of "socialism"—Goldwater's word for New Deal liberalism. The movement lives on.
Goldwater was premature in talking about privatizing Social Security—the Democrats used the issue against him to lethal effect in 1964. With a little help from his friends on the Supreme Court, George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 running on a promise to privatize Social Security, to allow workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market—this at a time when the stock market was losing trillions of dollars in value in the dot-com crash, which would have cost millions of retirees on Social Security their rent or bread money if Bush's policy had been law. Several of the most likely Bush nominees to the Supreme Court want to repeal as unconstitutional the New Deal's restraints on the economic freedom of business. Among Bush's first actions was to rescind new workplace safety rules issued by the Clinton Administration, a decade in the making, that would have protected office workers against repetitive stress injuries but cost industry billions to implement. This was a premonitory hit at organized labor, the one surviving though ever-weakening backbone of the New Deal coalition, and it was followed by Bush's signing of GOP-sponsored legislation, pushed by the banking and credit-card industries, that weakened protections of debtors against seizure of their assets. The libertarian economics with which the GOP pulled in the shy white backlash voter is now the conventional wisdom—cut taxes for the rich, cut domestic spending, cut regulation, eliminate, if Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has his way, the corporate income tax. The goal is to remove the federal government from the economy, to put ordinary Americans back where they were in 1929: un-championed, naked to the whetstone of the market. "You're on your own"—that's the message the conservative movement has for Americans, according to David Frum, a leading conservative intellectual and now a Bush speechwriter. These are the stakes.