Sunday, August 28, 2011

Goldwater

I just finished reading A Glorious Disaster by J. Middendorf II, which chronicles his involvement in the 1964 presidential election, where Lyndon Johnson absolutely crushed Barry Goldwater. I'm an electoral junkie by heart, of course, so hearing the inside story of one of the worst Presidential campaigns in recent memory was quite interesting.

Although as an aside--and a review, I guess--the book doesn't nearly go into as much depth as an "insider" book should. There is very little new information aside from some tales of absolutely laughable disorganization, such as booking two Goldwater half-hour televised spots against each other. A few nuggets were interesting, which we'll get to in a second, but I was disappointed that this really wasn't the good, solid authoritative electoral history of the contest I have yet to find. The usually reliable Theodore White wrote The Making of the President: 1964, but his shockingly biased sympathy after the death of Jack Kennedy spoils the entire book's use as a decent bystander's account. (The other elections he wrote about--1960, 1968, and 1972--are all reasonably well-balanced.)

Of course, the conventional wisdom is that, while it was a crushing blow to the conservative right, it set the stage for the ascendency of a valid right wing block of the electorate, with the final product of one Ronald Reagan. Less acknowledged was that Goldwater's loss need not have happened. But so many factors unrelated to his stance as the far-right standard bearer were in the mix that a simple rejection of his extremism is not what the electorate was looking for. There was the citizens' still-lingering emotional state after the assassination of JFK--it's easy to forget the election was barely over a year away, and had Goldwater been elected there would have been three different presidents in 14 months. There was LBJ's unrepentant use of illegal tactics to disrupt the campaign (but, just like Nixon after him, there really wasn't much need.) And the Goldwater camp couldn't shake a few so-called "truths" from the minds of the electorate, namely that he was going to gut Social Security and that he was careless in the treatment of nuclear weapons. Despite repeated assurances to the contrary and simple semantic mistakes (he accidentally said "a NATO commander" instead of the NATO commander regarding the use of tactical nukes, making it sound like any low-level button-pusher had the authority to launch a nuclear strike), the population had it set in their mind that Goldwater was a trigger-happy zealot ready to kick the elderly onto the cold streets.

Anyway, one of the most surprising points in the book is that the Goldwater campaign was very well-funded, and in fact towards the end of the race they had around a million dollars left. The staff wanted to try a full-on advertising blitz the last two weeks of the election. Goldwater pulled them aside and told them not to do it; rather, save the money and try and rebuild the party after the election. To have a candidate of a major political party effectively give up about a month before the election is just so strange as to be fictitious, but given subsequent events it's exactly what happened. Partly, the election was a huge disaster at the time, but it had the benefit of launching a few careers (see: Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton), culling the old-guard incumbents and allowing fresh new talent in; and, most importantly, creating a vast, grass-roots network of localized support that was used for the next two or three election cycles. 

It also reminds me that it's possible that the days of the landslide are over. Sure, pundits stated that the elections in 1996 and 2008 were landslides, but that's just ludicrous. Landslides are what we saw in 1964, 1972, and 1984, where one candidate is getting in the 400s. Even our latest elections, 2008, where it was plainly clear that Obama was going to win, I would hardly consider it a landslide from an electoral standpoint. (Decisive victory, yes, but it was hardly lop-sided.) Now that forms of communication and the professionalism of mailing lists and organizations have improved dramatically, I find it hard that, barring a very unlikely disclosure or event*, candidates and spin doctors will let an election spiral that far out of control.

Anyway, if you are like me and enjoy electoral history, I suggest taking a look at the book. You probably won't learn much new, but it will grant you some insight into a reasonably neglected election. It's a fast, quick read and I wouldn't consider it essential, but it works as a valid supplement.

*About the closest thing I can think of in recent times is John Edwards. It was probably a near miss that he lost as the vice presidential candidate in 2004, because had he won--or won the nomination outright in 2008--the disclosure of his horrible actions could have caused an electoral landslide. Politics will have little to do with such things anymore; even far-right or far-left candidates will manage to pull in more than six states like Goldwater did.

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