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How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement)

This is excerpt No. 14 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

The 1964 presidential campaign was one of mud-slinging against conservatives, and the only players with fewer scruples than the liberal media were President Johnson himself and his chief hatchet-man, Bill Moyers.  They A Time for Choosinggot the immediate result they wanted:  a landslide victory for the mudslingers.  But they totally underestimated their new conservative opposition.

The Goldwater campaign was the first mass campaign in modern American history in terms of the number of people involved, and this populist reach was even more apparent in fundraising.  Conservatives would tough it out in 1964, and this grass-roots nature of the Goldwater campaign changed the face of American politics.  It would also make available a new secret weapon that conservatives would use in the future, as we shall see in our next excerpt.

The campaign: mudstorms, as predicted

The Goldwater campaign was not the best performance in history.  The candidate himself was all too capable of putting his foot in his mouth without any assistance from liberals, and he too often made it apparent just how unhappy he was to be waging this campaign.  And the “Arizona Mafia” that ran his campaign was inept.  Period.

As this chapter is not a history of the Goldwater campaign, we’ll offer just one small example of the ineptitude of the campaign.  Three exciting conservative books – Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo, John Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason, and J. Evetts Haley’s A Texan Looks at Lyndon – sold millions of copies, mobilizing grassroots support for Goldwater.  Contrast that with the official (and boring) campaign book, Where I Stand, which wasn’t shipped to bookstores until late September, and even then sold only 5,000 copies.  The three entrepreneurs were self-published and they promoted their own books; the Arizona Mafia had opted for the traditional New York publisher approach.  More on this later.

Having noted the deficiencies of the campaigner and the campaign headquarters, it must be added that their performance did not make much of a difference anyway.  From beginning to end, most Americans saw the campaign through the lens provided by the mass media – which is to say, the liberal establishment media – and there was no way they were going to elect a “fanatic” to the presidency.  That’s the way it is when your opposition controls the mass media and you have no alternative media capable of reaching the masses.

National Review kept track of what it sarcastically termed “Voices of Moderation.”  When Goldwater was nominated, columnist Drew Pearson reported that “the smell of fascism is in the air at this convention.”  California’s Democratic governor, Edmund “Pat” Brown, agreed:  “All we needed to hear was ‘Heil Hitler.’”  Baseball star Jackie Robinson: “I believe I know how it felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”  New York Times columnist C. L. Sulzberger: “[if Goldwater is elected] there may not be a day after tomorrow.”  And Democratic Senator William Fulbright on the Senate floor called Goldwaterism “the closest thing in American politics to an equivalent of Russian Stalinism” – thus earning, once again, the sobriquet “Senator Halfbright.”

The Rockefeller-Republican New York Herald-Tribune was only slightly less hysterical: “The Republican Party now does face a clear and present threat from the Know-Nothings and purveyors of hate and the apostles of bigotry.”  And the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith showed how to defame a movement with an entire book devoted to the Danger on the Right.

Basically the only players with fewer scruples than the media were LBJ himself and his chief hatchet-man, Bill Moyers.  Rick Perlstein reported in his book, Before the Storm, that “Moyers was instrumental in pioneering an innovation in presidential campaigning: the full-time espionage, sabotage, and mudslinging unit…. The group met in a conference room directly above the Oval Office, because Johnson wanted to monitor their work closely.  This project was his favorite.”  One of the team members, incidentally, was the CIA liaison to the White House (again, your tax dollars at work).  Perlstein says the team also “retained the CIA’s domestic covert-actions chief, E. Howard Hunt, to place spies in the Republican National Committee (they delivered daily reports to a dummy office in the National Press Building called ‘Continental Press’).”

All these nice, moderate, respectable liberals – Pat Moynihan, Bill Moyers, the CIA operatives – reached the pinnacle (or, rather, gutter) of success with their ad campaign against Goldwater.  Starting a grand Democratic tradition, one ad showed two hands taking a Social Security card from a wallet and tearing it in two.  But the worst were the ones, especially the infamous “Daisy” commercial, depicting Goldwater as a Doctor Strangelove who would blow up the world in a nuclear holocaust.  Moyers would later brag that they had “hung the nuclear noose around Goldwater and finished him off.”

Conservatives tough it out – and build, build, build                       

How did conservatives survive in this climate of hate toward us?  Quite simply, by toughing it out and never giving up.  It was demoralizing to realize all our efforts had little chance of success, but we seemed to sense that something larger was at stake than one year’s election, no matter how important that election was.  Besides, we lived the Goldwater slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right.”  The more we were attacked as fascists, the harder we worked.

And the results – well, sometimes the most obvious results are not the most enduring ones.  We started off this chapter with the obvious results: the numbers depicting the extent of the Goldwater GOP’s defeat.  Now it’s time to look at the more enduring results of the campaign.

First, the Goldwater campaign was the first mass campaign in modern American history in terms of the number of people involved.  An estimated four million men and women took an active part in the campaign, contacting many millions more.  Couch conservatives became missionaries.  LBJ had only half as many workers, even though the Democratic voter pool was 50 percent larger.

This Goldwater mobilization paid dividends far into the future: Thousands of those precinct-level workers became the officials and strategists of the movement in years to come.  Even today, if you ask a conservative of a certain age when he or she became active in politics, the answer is likely to be, “In the Goldwater campaign.”  Nearly 40 years after the Goldwater campaign, the novelist Joan Didion – no longer thought of as a conservative – can still proclaim: “I voted, ardently, for Barry Goldwater.  Had Goldwater remained the same age and continued running, I would have voted for him in every election thereafter.”  Such was the attraction of the man.

Second, this populist reach was even more apparent in fundraising.  The Goldwater campaign was the first popularly financed campaign in modern American history.  The 1960 campaign, with between 40,000 and 50,000 individual contributors to Nixon and some 22,000 to Kennedy, was typical of the approach from previous years.  Estimates of the number of contributors to Goldwater in 1964 – combining federal, state, and local campaign groups – range from 650,000 to over a million.  As you’d surmise from such an explosion in the number of contributors, individual, smaller contributors became hugely important.  Only 28 percent of the Goldwater federal campaign contributions were for $500 or more, compared to 69 percent of the Democratic contributions.

Third, a new political star was born.  When things were their bleakest, near the end of the campaign, Ronald Reagan’s 30-minute narrative, “A Time for Choosing,” was broadcast nationwide on television – over the protests, by the way, of the Arizona Mafia – and galvanized all who watched it.  Reagan was eloquent, on target, and stirring.  Even journalists David Broder and Steve Hess had to admit it was “the most successful national political debut since William Jennings Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic Convention with the ‘Cross of Gold’ speech.”

Constant rebroadcasts during the final week of the campaign raised millions of dollars.  Thereafter Reagan was pretty universally regarded as the most effective spokesman for the conservative cause, and Henry Salvatori revealed that he and other conservative businessmen approached Reagan to run for governor of California largely as a result of “A Time for Choosing.”

There were other enduring accomplishments from the campaign, as well.  As summarized by Human Events: “The Republican Party is essentially conservative; the South is developing into a major pivot of its power; and a candidate who possesses Goldwater’s virtues but lacks some of his handicaps, can win the presidency.”

The grass-roots nature of the Goldwater campaign changed the face of American politics.  The Democrats would continue to rely on labor unions as their chief source of financial support and manpower.  Liberal Republicans would remain dependent on fat cats for financing and paid party workers for logistical support.  But after Goldwater there would be lists, lists, and more lists of conservative contributors and workers, and the utilization of those lists would propel conservative Republicans to power, as we shall see in our next chapter.

America’s Right Turn serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
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