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.”