Anyone who thinks that this campaign is the nastiest in history doesn’t have a very long memory. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson ran the sort of bare-knuckles campaign against Barry Goldwater that we associate more with the 1860s than the 1960s. After all, wasn’t there a centrist consensus in place? Perhaps, and perhaps Goldwater’s threat to that consensus accounts for the ferocity of the attacks Johnson leveled against him.
Goldwater’s campaign ads were often long and thoughtful, and rarely mentioned Johnson by name.
But Goldwater tried to make an issue out of American defense posture vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, arguing that a harder public line would be in the country’s best interest. And his vote against the 1964 Civil Right Act, combined with an undesired and uninvited endorsement by the KKK – still a power in Southern politics at that time – allowed Johnson to portray him as an extremist who would get our children killed in a nuclear war, but not before poisoning them with radiation. Johnson’s aide Bill Moyers deftly parodied Goldwater’s campaign slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” with, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
In that respect, Johnson’s campaign prefigured Obama’s effort to paint Mitt Romney as extreme, this time pivoting on women’s reproductive justice, or whatever they’re calling mandatory employer-funded birth control pills, and Romney’s desire to cut taxes.
Thanks to the good folks over at the Museum of the Moving Image, we can see that except for the 1960s production values, Johnson’s ads could have been made this year. Consider this one using Goldwater’s own words against him, out of context, of course:
We all know about the “Daisy” ad, but this one also uses a brief Goldwater quote to devastating effect:
Goldwater’s ads, by contrast, seem general, a little vague, a little paranoid. This one is trying to make the very real point about the dehumanizing effect of government bureaucracy, but because it’s so abstract, it ends up being ineffective in 1964 and comical today. It reminds me of one of those Public Service Announcements in movies of the 1940s, more than a campaign ad, at least until you get to Goldwater’s personal message:
The Johnson ads tell a story, the Goldwater ads lecture. Even this last, Closing Argument ad, designed to give “permission” to Republicans to vote against their party’s “mistake” in nominating Goldwater, has a peculiar sort of attraction, drawing you in. (It also shows just how well the Mad Men guys have nailed the look and feel of the era.) The goal is to make a very liberal President such as Johnson acceptable to a traditional establishment Republican, and it does so by pointing out how un-acceptable Goldwater ought to be, with only the slightest references to Johnson, the indirect mentions of “experience” and “judgment.” In fact, Johnson should have been nowhere near acceptable to the average voter, much less the average Republican, and wouldn’t have been, except for the effectiveness of the demonization campaign that preceded this ad.
It’s telling that the most effective ad that Goldwater produced was the famous speech by Ronald Reagan, who knew how to tell a story on a human scale. But by then, it was too late.