Fifty years ago, in the spring of 1964, three paperback books jolted the political and publishing worlds. Within six months of their publication, 16 million copies were in circulation, a quantity 60 times greater than 1963’s best-selling novel. “The standard book publishing world looks on in bewilderment,” marveled the Baltimore Sun. The Chicago Tribune called it “one of the strangest publishing phenomena of American political history.”
The three books, which argued America urgently needed a conservative in the White House, were more than just a publishing phenomenon. They were the leading edge of conservative media’s first presidential campaign.
Whether they laud or lament it, most Americans today think of conservative media’s role in electoral politics as a recent development. Rush Limbaugh’s radio program went national in 1988; six years later Republicans credited him for their historic midterm victories. Four rumored contenders for the Republican nomination in 2012—Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum—had contracts with Fox News. Yet long before Limbaugh and Fox, conservative-media activists were remaking American elections. They started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater announced his presidential bid.
At the heart of the conservative campaign were the three best-selling books. By 1964 it was common for candidates to put out a statement of principle or glossy biography to introduce themselves to the nation. But the trio of low-priced, mass-distributed paperbacks was something new. They were self-published by unknown authors. They contained few mentions of Goldwater. And while they seldom appeared in traditional bookstores, each sold millions of copies, making tidy profits for their authors-cum-publishers.
Appearing in rapid succession, the books startled observers with their dark and conspiratorial interpretation of American history. In None Dare Call It Treason, John Stormer spun a tale of internal subversion and weak-willed foreign policy that marked “America’s retreat from victory” in the Cold War. “Every communist country in the world literally has a ‘Made in the USA’ stamp on it,” he wrote. Phyllis Schlafly, author of A Choice Not an Echo, accused “a few secret kingmakers” in the Republican Party of conspiring to keep conservatives out of power. J. Evetts Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon served up 200 pages of greased palms, stolen elections, and suspicious deaths to argue that President Johnson was better suited to the penitentiary than the presidency. Haley’s claims rivaled the darkest and most bizarre Clinton conspiracies. The author, a Texas cowman, called Johnson an “inordinately vain, egotistical, ambitious extrovert” and claimed Lady Bird Johnson mirrored “Lady Macbeth’s consuming ambition for the growth of her husband’s power.” Of the Kennedy assassination he wrote, “What a strange coincidence.”
These “hatchets with soft cover sheaths,” as the Chicago Tribune characterized them, owed their success to the conservative movement’s innate populism and its institutional architecture. Conservatives, like most populists, harbored deep suspicions of institutions not under their control, particularly the media and the Republican Party. If the newsmen of the Washington Post and the grandees of the GOP were left to shape the campaign narrative, the right believed, Goldwater’s campaign would be over before it began. So conservatives used their own media to craft an alternative campaign unmediated by outside institutions.
But the campaign paperbacks would never have become a phenomenon without the conservative networks meticulously constructed during the 1950s and early 1960s. Deep-pocketed donors goosed sales by buying in bulk—the 75-cent books could be had as cheaply as 20 cents a copy for orders of a thousand or more. A generous donor ensured that each of the delegates to the Republican convention in July received a gratis copy of A Choice, Not an Echo. In Dade County, Florida, campaign workers canvassed neighborhoods, and in place of flyers and leaflets handed out nearly 200,000 copies of None Dare Call It Treason.
Such distribution methods were necessary, because placing the books in traditional outlets proved difficult. Copies could be readily found at tiny, Birch Society-sponsored bookstores that peddled right-wing literature in communities across the country. But snagging shelf space in regular bookstores wasn’t easy. Even getting space for Stormer’s book, which claimed 7 million in sales by Election Day, often required red-baiting reluctant booksellers.
The head of the Democratic National Committee, John Bailey, called on Goldwater to publicly repudiate the books. “Never before has a president been attacked so viciously as in the flood of pocket books, none published by a company of recognized standing, as in the paperbacks which keep turning up at Goldwater rallies and in Goldwater headquarters.”
On the local scene, the books created even more discord. In New Hampshire, the state’s Republican national committeeman called for a ban on None Dare Call It Treason at all Republican functions in the state because he believed the book “represents a radical extremist philosophy which is totally inconsistent with Republican Party principles.” In upstate New York, 60 students picketed the home of Elmira College President J. Ralph Murray after he distributed nearly a thousand copies of the book to students. Nor were liberals the only ones using the books to make a political point. In Utah, the Republican secretary of state banned sales of the Rocky Mountain Review in the state capitol because the paper had criticized None Dare Call It Treason. Though he admitted “it might be considered censorship” (and that he had only read “about half the book”) the secretary insisted, “I have a perfect right to do this.”
Analyses of right-wing media—discussions of “the Fox News primary” and “the Limbaugh effect,” for example—often focus too heavily on major institutions, overlooking the most effective form of conservative media activism: the moments when unknown grassroots activists intersect with powerful right-wing distribution networks. The role these books played in the Goldwater nomination drive show just how powerful such moments can be.
This isn’t just populism. It’s populism-plus. The central figures are not big-name stars but ordinary people whose messages are amplified by the network of personalities and donors who make up conservative media. Conservatives discovered the power of populism-plus activism during the 1964 campaign, when the most important right-wing media products weren’t major publications like National Review or Human Events but the three self-published paperbacks. These books energized grassroots conservatives, helped Barry Goldwater secure the GOP nomination, and framed the right’s alternative campaign. But they also proved how powerful—and profitable—the combination of populist messengers and established networks could be.
It is a lesson conservative media activists learned well. Such activism has become increasingly common in conservative media, especially in election years. In 2004, it took the form of bulk sales of the swift-boat book Unfit for Command, put out by the conservative house Regnery Publishing. Four years later Fox News conducted countless interviews with Joe the Plumber to advance a class-warfare narrative. Talk radio in 2012 featured nonstop ads for the film 2016: Obama’s America, which promised to expose President Obama’s “Third World, anti-American view.”
This dynamic also explains why conservative media phenomena are so difficult to harness. Consider the fate of conservative publishing imprints, where the rush to capitalize on newly discovered right-wing readers in the early 2000s has both glutted and gutted the market. These imprints engage in fierce, expensive competition, because a book that sparks in the conservative market can sell millions. But most wind up not on the best-seller list but in the remainder bin. As one such publisher told BuzzFeed, “The publishing business is more like a casino than a real business.”
This was true in 1964 as well. Henry Regnery, whose conservative publishing house was well into its second decade by the time Goldwater secured the nomination, tried to copy the success of the self-published paperbacks. The normally cautious publisher printed 200,000 copies of The Bobby Baker Affair but sold only 10,000 or so. He made the same mistake today’s conservative imprints make: believing that because conservatives can cause some right-wing books to rocket up the best-sellers list, they will make all right-wing books do so. Populism-plus, it turns out, is exceptionally tough to institutionalize.
But there’s a reason the right keeps trying. Unfit for Command, Joe the Plumber, 2016: Obama’s America: None of these moments decided elections, any more than the three paperbacks prevented Goldwater’s landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson. But they shaped conservatives’ interpretation of the campaigns, ultimately influencing the thrust of each election. That influence is why conservative media so aggressively pursue and promote stories like Cliven Bundy's. Not every populist moment works out as planned, but when one does, it has the power to remake the political landscape.