- Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle between Liberalism and Conservatism by Nancy Beck Young
In July 1964, as Barry Goldwater was crafting his address to accept the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention, a poll showed his opponent with an 80–20 percent lead. “Instead of writing an acceptance speech,” Goldwater told his advisers, “we should be putting together a rejection speech and tell them all to go to hell” (pp. 104–5) His campaign challenged the elite, East Coast moderates who dominated the Republican Party, and he saw himself leading a people-powered movement to the right. Goldwater did accept the nomination, of course, but maintained a stance of right-wing defiance. In his famous speech in San Francisco, he proclaimed, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! . . . Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
One month later, at the Democratic National Convention, Lyndon Johnson held a firm grip over his party. He employed FBI surveillance on his intraparty rival, Robert F. Kennedy. He bullied his prospective running mate Hubert Humphrey into engineering a compromise with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was challenging the [End Page 192] “regular” all-white delegation for representation. Johnson even nit-picked over convention details such as the decorations and theme song. While casting a formidable shadow over the bland proceedings, the sitting president packaged himself as the man in the political center: a consensus-generating liberal.
When Johnson trounced Goldwater on Election Day, it appeared that the liberalism of the Great Society would reign triumphant, while the moralistic, resentful politics of the Goldwater Republicans was disgraced. But as historian Nancy Beck Young cautions, the election had a paradoxical legacy: “the contest that placed the most liberal president in the White House also strengthened those conservative politicians who would for the next half-century work to destroy the liberal legacy of 1964” (p. 12).
Young’s book, Two Suns of the Southwest, is a concise academic history of the presidential election of 1964. A worthy contribution to the American Presidential Elections series published by the University Press of Kansas, it pays equal attention to Republicans and Democrats, while framing the candidates through their visions of the rising Sunbelt. Each man’s political journey, argues Young, was rooted in his geographical identity. Goldwater’s conservatism stemmed from his romantic vision of the Southwest, combining rugged individualism, traditional morality, and limited government. Johnson sought a liberalism that transcended the region, uniting Americans through ambitious federal programs that promoted the welfare of its citizens.
Dwight Eisenhower’s efforts to realign the Republican Party in the 1950s created the context for Goldwater in the 1960s. Ike’s “Modern Republicanism” sought to move the GOP toward the ideological center, but as Young writes, the term “was as much about style as it was substance” (p. 16). Absent a clear vision and grassroots party-building, Eisenhower left the Republicans divided. By 1964 New York governor Nelson Rockefeller championed the party’s progressive wing, while Goldwater was the conservative standard-bearer. Goldwater’s campaign stirred the enthusiasms of a variety of right-wing activists: the college students of Young Americans for Freedom, the conspiracy-minded anti-communists of the John Birch Society, the party delegates frustrated by the moderate big-city elites, the southern segregationists incensed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act. When he won the nomination, the conservatives won the party’s civil war.
If Goldwater was the leader of an upstart Republican faction, Johnson sought to be the sun around which the Democrats revolved. Upon John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, LBJ inherited a fractured party, with race lending the key schism—Kennedy’s halting [End Page 193] support for civil rights alienated southern Democrats. Johnson strove forward with liberal achievements, casting his arms wide to preserve the party’s coalition. Young maintains that when Johnson orchestrated the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he was...