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  • Johnson versus Goldwater: The 1964 Presidential Election
  • Nancy Beck Young (bio)

When Lyndon B. Johnson faced Senator Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) in a contest for the White House, he ran an avowed and unapologetic liberal campaign while also asserting a nonpartisan argument for his election. The odd and seemingly contradictory strategy worked for two reasons: in 1964, Goldwater’s Far Right rhetoric did not appeal to a large cross section of voters, and the liberal consensus Johnson sought to expand had existed since the 1930s and seemed like the default position in national politics. Between the two candidates, Johnson proved more nimble; he masked his liberal policy advocacy with inclusive rhetoric that appealed to voters across the ideological spectrum. In that way there was almost a Jekyll and Hyde feeling to Johnson’s campaign. On the one hand his strategy was to show himself as presidential, inclusive, and almost nonpartisan. But Johnson also ran a negative race against Goldwater, highlighting and perhaps also exaggerating the Republican contender’s sometimes flamboyant statements.

Johnson established what would later become the public, inclusive face of his campaign just days after tragedy propelled him into the White House. He delivered an address to a joint session of Congress before a nationally televised audience on November 27, 1963, days after President John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. In the “Let Us Continue” speech, LBJ helped turn Kennedy into a [End Page 37] martyr for liberal reform by calling on Congress to pass the dead president’s program. Johnson told lawmakers and the public: “The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into our Nation’s bloodstream.”1

The speech, though not intended as such at the time, provided a perfect counterpoise to Goldwater. Johnson, in those early days, did not take Goldwater seriously as a challenger. Neither did he view the Republican Party as a major threat to his election. Instead, Johnson believed that he could and should stake out bold positions on public policy problems, including civil rights. He told Texas governor John Connally on February 8, 1964: “I don’t see that they got anybody, though, that’s appealing to people much. Goldwater has gone crazy. He wanted to go in [to Cuba with] the Marines yesterday, and he’s just nutty as a fruitcake.” 2

Republicans disagreed, and Goldwater gained his party’s nomination. In early July, White House aide Henry H. Wilson asked whether Johnson had been told he could lose to Goldwater “despite having lined up all the press and the television networks, all the top labor leaders, most of the top business leaders, all of the Negro vote, and perhaps even [Henry Cabot] Lodge and [Nelson] Rockefeller.” Wilson understood that simplistic appeals to fear could, under the right circumstances, supplant more sophisticated arguments for a universal liberalism. Wilson cautioned racism could divide union members from union leaders, could cause people to lie to pollsters, and could create problems in suburban areas. He worried that Goldwater’s foreign policy recommendations—elimination of [End Page 38] foreign aid and ensuring total victory in military conflicts abroad—could not be easily dismissed and would appeal to voter “chauvinism.” Moreover, Goldwater’s strategy of giving “simple answers to complicated questions” might work with voters. He explained, “Readers Digest has built up a circulation of thirty million on just this premise.”3

After claiming the Democratic nomination, Johnson took a dismissive posture against Goldwater, ignoring in the process Wilson’s cautionary tale. He told newspaper publisher and friend Houston Harte that the Goldwater Republican Party was a “bunch of screwballs” who would bring about “the death of the” GOP because Goldwater advocated “drop[ping] atomic bombs on everybody. I don’t believe the people will stand for that.” He could make such claims because his convention had been a...


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