After losing the 1964 presidential election, Barry Goldwater remarked of his own candidacy, “If I had to go by the media reports alone, I’d have voted against the sonofabitch, too.”
John McCain can probably sympathize. In the closing days of the presidential election, Goldwater’s successor in the Senate faces a similarly uphill battle for the White House against a crafty opponent and a compliant media.
Though it was hardly the first negative presidential campaign in American history, the 1964 presidential contest was groundbreaking in the sheer ruthlessness of President Lyndon Johnson and his aides in their ambition to destroy their opposition at all costs — and the willingness of the press to play along while giving the president a free pass.
Barry Goldwater was a dedicated public servant, a World War II pilot, and a patriotic American who fought to end segregation in Phoenix schools and supported the NAACP. By the time November 1964 had rolled around, he was transformed into a race-baiting neo-Nazi hell-bent on nuclear war.
This skewed image was the result of Johnson’s campaign tactics, which ran the gamut from underhanded — the “Daisy” television spot featuring a young girl interrupted by the detonation of a nuclear bomb, implying a vote for Goldwater would be a vote for Armageddon — to unconstitutional — the White House used the CIA to acquire inside information on Goldwater’s campaign to circumvent its strategies and tactics.
Johnson’s allies on the American left egged on the image of Goldwater as an unhinged authoritarian. “We see dangerous signs of Hitlerism in the Goldwater campaign,” remarked Martin Luther King, in one of his less eloquent moments. George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, said a Goldwater victory would place power in “the hands of union-hating extremists, racial bigots, woolly-minded seekers after visions of times long past.”
Meanwhile, the American press did its part to frighten the public into voting for Johnson. Fact magazine ran a story titled “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater,” which publicized the results of a bogus survey of 12,356 psychiatrists on the candidate’s mental suitability for the presidency. The survey revealed that 1,189 psychiatrists (none of whom ever met Goldwater) believed he was too unstable to be president.
CBS produced and aired “Thunder on the Right,” a sensational documentary connecting Goldwater to the extreme John Birch Society. Though the claims were largely untrue, the show was a great favor to Johnson.
White House tapes capture Johnson plotting with aide Walter Jenkins to use the documentary against Goldwater. “Get Stanton [CBS president Frank Stanton] to send you three or four copies of that transcript on the [John] Birch Society …and we got to get some of the editors like Palmer Hoyt [editor and publisher of the Denver Post] to make AP and UP to write features about it and ask him questions about it,” said Johnson.
The press, however, did little to investigate the feasibility of Johnson’s Great Society. Nor did it scrutinize his most notorious campaign promise: “I’m not going to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves” — words said while his advisors secretly planned to deploy thousands of U.S. soldiers to Southeast Asia.
Forty-four years later, Barack Obama and his aides — with considerable help from their friends in the American media — have turned McCain, a man who made unheard of sacrifices for his country in Vietnam, into a doddering, warmongering “troll” in adult diapers who has “lost his bearings.”
Raising the specter of race, Obama approved Spanish language ads accusing McCain (the man who stuck his political neck out to push for moderate immigration reform) of being an anti-Mexican bigot.
Congressman John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement and Obama supporter (and a man McCain has publicly expressed admiration for), believes the Arizona senator’s candidacy is reminiscent of “another destructive period in American history.” Lewis even linked the Republican ticket to George Wallace while accusing McCain of “sowing the seeds of hatred and division…Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.”
All this while Congressman Alcee Hastings warned that McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin “don’t care too much about what they do with Jews and blacks.”
The American media, from news outlets to Hollywood, have done their part to foster this image while helping Obama keep his many skeletons safely in the closet. Any mention of ACORN, Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, and the Born Alive Infants Protection Act is deemed, at best, a distraction from real issues, at worst, racism.
At the same time, the press, the guardians of the sacred First Amendment, has been silent while Obama’s truth squads have pressured federal and state legal agencies to squash dissent about or criticism of their candidate, while intimidating reporters who dare investigate Obama’s hazy background and alarming associations.
The Obama campaign and the media have colluded to sell the American people a product without giving them the whole story. Voters seem eager to buy the fabricated image of the Democratic candidate as a wholesome moderate from Middle America and reject the Republican as a senile grinch.
The country did not get the whole story in 1964 either. Americans enthusiastically retained Johnson’s services, giving him a landslide victory over Goldwater. However, four short years later, Johnson’s Great Society was a failure — to the tune of a trillion dollars, thousands were dead in Vietnam, American cities were going up in smoke, and still lingering questions of patriotism and American greatness blossomed.
Looking towards Election Day and beyond, Democrats and their allies in the media have many reasons to be happy; we may see a repeat of 1964. However, they should keep this in mind: just as elections sometimes have striking historical synchronicities, their aftermaths often do as well.