The Choice: 1964 and 2012

This week President Barack Obama, in a tough bid for re-election warned the American people that the 2012 race for the White House would be the starkest since 1964.  So let us re-examine that famous presidential election in light of the campaign the Obama team has in store for presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney:

They said he was crazy, mad, a loose-canon, an extremist, a warmonger.  The nation was warned over and over and over again, by Democrats and their friends in the media, that if Barry Goldwater won the presidency in 1964, Armageddon might be the ultimate result.  Surely he would plunge headlong into a war in Vietnam that might bring in the Chinese or worse, the Soviets.  Social Security and any aid from Washington would be taken away.  The country would revert back to the nineteenth century, if not the eighteenth.

The only logical choice was the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the office tragically on November 22, 1963 when the beloved John F. Kennedy fell to an assassin’s bullet.  LBJ would carry the nation forward, not backward.  Progress would be the order of the day.

The two political titans locked horns throughout the fall of 1964.  Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, represented the conservative wing of the Republican Party, a faction that had yet to see one of its own as a presidential nominee, at least not since Calvin Coolidge.  GOP candidates thus far had been of the Rockefeller type, moderates, if not outright liberals, seeking a consensus with the other side of the aisle.  Conservatives still stung from Bob Taft’s nomination loss to Ike in 1952.  Now they would have one of their own, one who would bring back traditional values of government.

Goldwater always stood on the side of freedom and the Constitution, as the Founders intended it.  That’s why he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not because he was a racist, as they alleged, but because the law had specific provisions that forcefully integrated public accommodations, such as restaurants, and called for equal employment opportunity.  These interfered with the basic right of private property, he believed.  A business owner had the right to hire whomever he wanted and serve whomever he wanted.  The government had no right to interfere.

Johnson, a longtime congressman and senator from Texas, who served ably as the upper chamber’s majority leader before becoming JFK’s running mate in 1960, had an opposite approach.  He already begun laying out his vision, not for a traditional role of government, but for a transformed America, consisting of a raft of new programs he collectively termed the Great Society.

The government would declare war on poverty and illiteracy.  There would be help for the aged, the poor, the downtrodden, the ignorant, as well as displaced minorities.  The government would play an active role in the lives of the people from cradle to grave, controlling businesses, schools, and making sure everyone had enough provision for a decent life, a role that the Founders never intended for the federal government to maintain.

The choice for president in 1964 couldn’t have been any starker.

But given the circumstances, it might not be much of a choice at all.  Johnson knew, as did Goldwater, that there was only a microscopic chance that the people would change parties.  The nation saw Johnson as a continuation of the martyred Kennedy and, with emotions running high, was not eager for any change in leadership.  To elect a new president would see three different chief executives within one year.  That was something the people simply would not accept.

But Johnson wanted more.  He sought a landslide, a clear mandate to hoist his Great Society over the entire country.  And hopefully, if he were lucky, he may even set the electoral record.

With the Cold War near full blaze, foreign affairs also held a prominent place in the campaign, as it had in 1960.  Taking a page from Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and FDR in 1940, LBJ sought the mantle of peace candidate, while tarring Goldwater with the brush of war.  He reminded the American people wherever he campaigned that he would not send U.S. troops to fight an Asian war that should be fought by Asian troops, an almost identical line uttered by FDR.  With Goldwater, Johnson repeatedly said, the nation most assuredly would be in Vietnam with half a million troops within two years.  The results could be catastrophic.

To drive his point home, Johnson unveiled the infamous “Daisy Ad.”  Though airing only one time, the ad ran in primetime during the Monday night movie on CBS, where 50 million viewers saw it.

The spot featured a cute little girl in a field plucking pedals from a daisy, counting each one.  When she reaches nine, a sinister voice, presumably Goldwater’s, begins counting down from ten, as the camera zooms in to a close-up of the pupil of the little girl’s eye.  Reaching zero, a nuclear bomb explodes.  Johnson’s voice is then heard:  “These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark.  We must either love each other, or we must die.”

The commercial ends, as do all LBJ ads, with a narrator:  “Vote for President Johnson on November 3.  The Stakes Are Too High For You To Stay Home.”

The inference was clear:  With Johnson, the nation would enjoy peace and harmony; with Goldwater, all would die.

To plunge the knife even deeper into Goldwater, Johnson ran a second, equally damaging ad, reminding the elderly, as well as everyone else, that the Social Security program was also under threat.  In the ad, a pair of hands, obviously those of Goldwater, rummages through a wallet.  Coming to the Social Security card, it is quickly ripped in half and flung on the table.  There would be no help from Washington under a President Goldwater and Social Security might well be destroyed.

There were also ads linking Goldwater to the Ku Klux Klan, to renewed nuclear testing that would poison children, and to being a liar and political flip-flopper at odds with the mainstream of the Republican Party.

Goldwater knew he was being portrayed as an extremist.  His nominating speech did not help matters, though.  Given the fact that he was going to lose the election, no matter what he did, Goldwater did not worry about offending anyone, and said what he believed the American people needed to hear, rather than what they wanted to hear.  His statement from the convention speech, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” was played endlessly throughout the fall.

Knowing he was up against a wall with many voters, Goldwater chose as his campaign slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right.”  Johnson’s friends in the media had a field day, converting it into “In your gut, you know he’s nuts.”  Goldwater could not escape the tagline.

With the emotion of the Kennedy assassination, and the devastatingly effective Johnson campaign, Goldwater was humiliated on Election Day, carrying only five states – his home state of Arizona and four in the deep south – and just 39 percent of the popular vote.

Johnson had his landslide.  Liberalism had its mandate.  Conservatism had its tombstone.  Or so it seemed.

With the election over, the nation set off on a new, leftward course, seeing the largest domestic expansion of government since the New Deal, with new social programs that would redistribute trillions of dollars in wealth with the creation of a European-style welfare state, meddle in purely local affairs such as schools, and place the country’s finances on the road to bankruptcy; a vast expansion of a foreign war that eventually saw half a million men on the battlefield in Vietnam and 60,000 of them in body bags; a nation divided as it had not been in a hundred years, with cities in riotous blaze across the land, mass protests in the streets, and race relations set back years, all under the watchful eye of Lyndon Johnson.

And they warned us not to elect the crazy one.

In 2012, Obama and his campaign team, armed with hundreds of millions of dollars, will, no doubt, launch a nasty, negative campaign in a vain attempt to paint the Republicans as extremists who will gut government spending and destroy America’s prosperity.  Just as LBJ tarred Goldwater with the brush of radicalism, so shall Obama do likewise to Romney.

Let us pray that American people do not fall prey to those liberal tactics and give us four more years of the true extremist in this race.

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