- Liberalism’s Last Hurrah: The Presidential Campaign of 1964
In 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson won big. He also lost big. These outcomes do not come as a surprise to students of American political history. Indeed, the irony that Johnson's unprecedented landslide election (one with a 61 percent margin and a 15-million-vote plurality) came just five months after he signed his landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act (one which, in his words, would deliver "the South to the Republican party for a long time to come") is well documented in many works on the Johnson presidency and the 1964 election.
Why, then, did Gary A. Donaldson write another book centering on Johnson's victory and loss? How does this text differ from the others on this heavily researched election? And, why might this one merit our attention? The short answers to these questions are: to focus on the ripple effect of this election for conservative and liberal organizations in the United States; in its detail and storytelling; and because this book encourages the reader to consider a variety of questions that are as relevant in 2005 as they were in 1964. It is almost impossible to read this book in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential contest without putting it down repeatedly to think about the intersections between 2004 and 1964. I imagine the book will continue to be a rich read as the nation heads into the 2006 and 2008 elections, for Donaldson does a thoughtful job of showing how the 1964 campaign set the stage for unprecedented outcomes in 1966 and 1968.
The book is organized into 12 chapters. The first 11 tell a set of stories that bounce back and forth between the candidates (Lyndon B. Johnson, Barry [End Page 712] Goldwater, and George Wallace), individuals waiting in the wings (Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon), an individual working to stay in the wings (Dwight Eisenhower), movement groups (namely, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party), and burgeoning grass-roots organizations (namely, Republican and conservative activists who worked to recruit Goldwater). These chapters draw from analyses of primary and secondary sources as well as news articles and media reports. The choice to hop from side to side introduces some redundancy to the text, but it is very nicely written and Donaldson's voice makes it an enjoyable read throughout. The book closes with an analysis of the preceding chapters.
The greatest strengths of this text stem from its vantage point: examining the 1964 presidential campaign with an eye on the major political parties and the conservative and liberal organizations forming each candidate's electoral coalition. This perspective offers fresh insights on political leaders, the tensions of organizing in any given election, and the challenges of organizing coalitions over time. Take Donaldson's discussion of Goldwater. A rich and often sympathetic description of Goldwater emerges when he is viewed in light of his commitments to conservatism and the ideological groups that hailed his candidacy. Specifically, Donaldson describes how Goldwater "thanked Johnson" for offering an election in which the candidates would give the voters a choice at the ballot box (200), met with Johnson and agreed that discussions on race and Vietnam should be minimized in the campaign (lest they unnecessarily rip the country apart ), did not push for television debates against Johnson (conceding that there were certain questions that should not be asked of the chief executive ), and resisted materializing on a scandal involving a Johnson staffer (regarding the situation as private and unfortunate rather than political ). In these instances, there was a purity to the conservative candidate witnessed through a deeper connection to his cause than a need to sell it, one that becomes difficult to imagine in party nominees today.
Donaldson's focus also provided for the discussion of obstacles related to organizing in specific elections and over time. Concerning the former, Donaldson recounts tensions between moderates and extremists; between cities, suburbs, and rural areas (not to mention the North and the South); and between groups...