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The Goldwater Takedown

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The Goldwater Takedown

Media coverage of the 1964 presidential campaign was a precursor to today’s partisan journalism. Autumn 2016
Politics and law

At the height of the 1964 race between Arizona’s junior senator, Barry Goldwater, and President Lyndon Johnson, the cover headline of Fact magazine’s September–October issue practically screamed: 1,189 PSYCHIATRISTS SAY GOLDWATER IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY UNFIT TO BE PRESIDENT! Inside, every page was given over to the feature, titled “The Unconscious of a Conservative: A Special Issue on the Mind of Barry Goldwater.”

Forgotten today, Fact even then was far from a major player on the journalistic scene. It had launched earlier that year and would survive just until 1967. Still, it enjoyed a status among the day’s progressive bien pensants far beyond what its limited circulation might suggest. Edited by the profession’s reigning provocateur, Ralph Ginzburg, its early issues had generated buzz with ahead-of-the-curve investigations of the tobacco and soft-drink industries, as well as American policy in Vietnam.

The issue’s introduction set the tone for the 63 pages to follow. Ginzburg described Goldwater as the product of a “sadistic childhood,” a “paranoiac” with an “obsessive preoccupation with firearms” who “compulsively must prove his daring and masculinity,” adding that “psychoanalysts who find a connection between sadism and an anal character will not be surprised that bathrooms seemed to fascinate Goldwater.”

The “psychiatric evaluations” that took up the next 40 pages were in response to a question that Fact sent to the nation’s psychiatrists from a list supplied by the American Medical Association: “Do you believe Barry Goldwater is psychologically fit to serve as President of the United States?” Ruth Adams of New York replied that she saw in the GOP candidate “a strong identification with the authoritarianism of Hitler, if not identification with Hitler himself,” and other responding psychiatrists echoed that theme. “I believe Goldwater has the same pathological make-up as Hitler, Castro, Stalin and other known schizophrenic leaders,” wrote Chester M. Johnson, Jr., of Long Beach, while Philadelphia’s Paul Fink observed that, like the Führer, the Republican nominee “appeals to the unconscious sadism and hostility in the average human being.” G. Templeton, of Glen Cove, New York, warned that “if Goldwater wins the Presidency, both you and I will be among the first into the concentration camps.”

That the entire exercise was ethically dubious was apparent at the time. As longtime Goldwater advisor Stephen Shadegg noted in disgust, “Those who presumed to reach a medical and psychiatric conclusion about Goldwater without ever having seen him or followed any other of the normal procedures required in a patient-physician relationship betrayed themselves as men unfit to practice any profession.” But the feature drew widespread attention via the media coverage that it generated and full-page ads in the nation’s leading dailies—Goldwater’s people rightly wondered how a modest publication afforded their $100,000 cost—and it undeniably did real damage.

Why did so transparent a hit job arouse so little indignation among Ginzburg’s press colleagues? At the time, no sentient observer of the campaign would have had to ask. “In your heart, you know he’s right,” ran the Goldwater slogan that fired up his legions of young supporters, but in progressive circles, there came the mocking rejoinder: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” Ginzburg could not have played more precisely to the liberal view of conservatism’s dark heart; just a month later would appear, to subsequent fame, Richard Hofstadter’s Harper’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” saying many of the same things more politely. Yet if conspiracy-obsessed zealots of the far Right often seemed to live in an alternate reality—exemplified by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch calling Dwight Eisenhower a Red stooge—so did the innumerable liberals who imagined (as Hollywood several times put on film) that superpatriots were busily plotting military coups. With the Cold War at its hottest, the paranoia ran both ways, and liberals, too, saw in their foes “a perfect model of malice,” in Hofstadter’s phrase. Not only were conservatives wrong; they were moral primitives.

There was not the slightest question about where the media stood. As journalist Rick Perlstein noted in Before the Storm, his book on the 1964 race, the “fifty reporters bumping along in triple seats in the hindquarters of [Goldwater’s Navaho-named campaign plane] Yia Bi Ken were educated, sophisticated professionals. And they didn’t think all that differently about Goldwater than the psychiatrists.” The media hostility toward Goldwater varied from outlet to outlet only in its degree of subtlety. It is no accident that four years later, when Goldwater was testifying in the libel suit that he would win against Fact, Ginzburg’s lawyer professed bafflement that his client had been singled out. “Why didn’t you sue the New York Times?” he asked. “Why didn’t you sue CBS?”

Any comparison of individuals and eras will be inexact, and in myriad ways—background, life experience, demeanor, political philosophy, core values—Goldwater and the current GOP nominee couldn’t be less alike. For all the vitriol that came his way, no one ever accused Barry Goldwater of being a liar or otherwise lacking in honor; and his implacable conservative libertarianism was not only beyond question but the very reason so many despised and feared him. Still, in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign, it is hard not to note the parallels with the Goldwater-Johnson race of ’64. Like Donald Trump, Goldwater was a shoot-from-the-hip outsider who ran against two-party business-as-usual and what even then was referred to as the elites; who stunned pundits by dispatching his mainstream Republican opponents; and who found his defeated rivals’ claims of his manifest unfitness for high office taken up by his rival in the general election.

In the midst of the 2016 presidential contest, it is hard not to note the parallels with the Goldwater-Johnson race.

But the most striking echo of the Goldwater campaign is in a media that often functions as an adjunct to the Democratic campaign. Fifty-two years ago, such naked partisanship in the coverage of a national election was unprecedented, and many Goldwater supporters saw it as a violation of a public trust. That these days, such media behavior is nearly a given shows how much Americans’ expectations of journalists have changed—with enduring consequences both for the profession and for the nation.

If Barry Goldwater was not quite as unlikely a nominee as Donald Trump, he, too, was an accidental candidate. He had never lusted for the presidency and, even as the nominee, was never entirely sure he wanted it. “I have no plans for it. I have no staff for it, no program for it, no ambition for it,” he told Time in early 1963, even as a small cadre of conservative operatives and industrialists came together in a Draft Goldwater movement.

He let them proceed because he assumed that he’d run against his old Senate colleague John F. Kennedy, whom he regarded as honorable. (“For Barry Goldwater,” as JFK memorably inscribed the portrait that photo buff Goldwater had taken of him, “Whom I urge to follow the career for which he has shown such talent—photography!—from his friend—John Kennedy.”) In fact, Goldwater hoped that he and JFK might travel the country together, engaging in a series of Lincoln-Douglas-style debates; though certain he wouldn’t win, he relished the prospect of spreading the conservative creed. Kennedy also relished the possibility of facing off against Goldwater. “People will start asking him questions,” he presciently told his friend Ben Bradlee, “and he’s so damn quick on the trigger, he’ll answer them. And when he does, it will be all over.”

Instead, Goldwater had to face Lyndon B. Johnson, who, as he’d write in his autobiography, would “slap you on the back today and stab you in the back tomorrow”—and who, dripping sanctimony and wrapping himself in the political equivalent of his sainted predecessor’s bloodstained toga, was an even surer bet to win but ran an unremittingly vicious campaign, anyway.

It was over even before it began, for Goldwater was effectively done in by the party establishment. His main rival for the nomination was New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, who’d lost out to Richard Nixon in 1960. With his man-of-the-people touch and limitless funds for staff, advertising, and assorted sundries—the day he announced, red roses were dispatched to every woman delegate to the previous GOP convention—Rocky had seemed pre-anointed, until he made one of the great unforced blunders in political history. That in 1961 he’d divorced his wife of 31 years and mother of his five children may have been a surmountable obstacle; after all, Adlai Stevenson had been divorced and twice nominated. But in May 1963, Rockefeller married 36-year-old Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, 18 years his junior and a looker, whose own divorce had just become final. Far worse, she surrendered custody of her four kids to her ex-husband. Pre-Happy, Gallup had Rockefeller leading Goldwater 43 percent to 26 percent. Suddenly, Goldwater led 40 to 29. “Rockefeller,” National Review publisher and earlier Goldwater supporter William Rusher drily observed, “is the only candidate who has turned motherhood into a liability.”

Though his name was on the 1960 bestseller Conscience of a Conservative (actually authored by Brent Bozell), Goldwater was still something of an unknown nationally. But that was not necessarily a negative, since his supporters would have a chance to fill in the blanks. And, already, observed J. William Middendorf II, the investment banker who served as the Draft Goldwater Committee treasurer, a survey they’d commissioned had established that voters tended to view Goldwater “as warm, candid, and a man of strong convictions” and that he “was not thought to be connected to the ‘radical right.’ ”

Nor, before he ran for president, was the attitude of the press notably different. Since coming to the Senate in 1953, Goldwater had always been great copy; deeply conservative, yes, but in a town where most ate, slept, and drank politics, a man of interesting parts. He was a student of Native American culture and language, an expert in aeronautics who’d flown every plane extant, and not only a skilled amateur photographer but also a ham-radio obsessive, with unseen pals around the globe. His was an American story if ever there was one: grandson of an itinerant Jewish immigrant peddler who established Phoenix’s premier department store, which young Barry brought to new heights of success before turning to politics.

Reporters also couldn’t help but like Goldwater personally. He was a man’s man—said what he thought, and cursed for emphasis. Even those who despised his ideas respected his keen sense of honor and love of country. Little wonder, as Perlstein remarks, that to peruse pre-1964 media profiles of Arizona’s junior senator is to find “eight or so years of his uninterrupted honeymoon with the press.” But as generations of Republicans have learned, sometimes to their surprise—see Goldwater’s Senate successor, John McCain—coverage changes according to need.

Rockefeller made it easy. His reeling campaign’s objective, his chief consultant Stuart Spencer said later, became “to destroy Barry Goldwater as a member of the human race.” To that end, they set up an unprecedented oppo-research operation, rummaging through every corner of Goldwater’s past and, notes Perlstein, arranging for “friendly reporters to record for transcription every word Goldwater said in public. Agents would shout embarrassing questions at Goldwater, then shove a microphone into his face. . . . Reporters—and operatives in the guise of reporters—strode into Goldwater headquarters to beg advance copies of speeches or, if need be, steal one off a desk.”

In retrospect, Rockefeller might have saved his money, since Goldwater was a walking gaffe machine, producing fresh headline fodder almost daily. That he often claimed to have been taken out of context—and usually was—was beside the point. A year and a half after the trauma of the Cuban missile crisis, it was political suicide to suggest casually on national TV that one way to expose the Ho Chi Minh trail to American bombers might be defoliation by “low-yield atomic weapons”; or to point out that American forces in Europe might be cut by a third if senior NATO commanders were authorized to use tactical nukes in “an emergency.”

As damaging as the emerging image of the trigger-happy cowboy were his public comments on Social Security. While he cast them as speculations on ways the future viability of the program might be guaranteed, they generated headlines like this one, in the Concord Monitor, in the run-up to the New Hampshire primary: GOLDWATER SETS GOALS: END SOCIAL SECURITY, HIT CASTRO. In brief, while Goldwater may have been his own worst enemy, the press gave him a serious run for his money. “I won’t say that the papers misquote me,” he observed, “but I sometimes wonder where Christianity would be today if some of these reporters had been Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.” Closing a substantive meeting with prospective voters, Goldwater noted that he was glad to have had the opportunity “to find out what’s on your mind, and for you to find out I have one.” Needless to say, nothing else from the meeting was reported.

Goldwater’s supporters took the media’s hostility personally. By the end of the campaign, reporters were routinely getting booed at events. So steady was the anti-Goldwater media drumbeat that, 15 years later, Goldwater made a point of singling out the one media heavy who publicly broke with the pack. “Barry Goldwater is not my candidate, and I have done nothing to promote his Presidential ambitions,” he quoted Detroit Free Press editor John S. Knight, “but I do think the Arizona Senator is getting shabby treatment from most of the news media. Some of the television commentators discuss Goldwater with evident disdain and contempt. Editorial cartoonists portray him as belonging to the Neanderthal age, or as a relic of the 19th Century. It is the fashion of editorial writers to persuade themselves that Goldwater’s followers are either ‘kooks’ or Birchers. This simply is not so. The Goldwater movement represents a mass protest by conservative minded people against foreign aid, excessive welfare, high taxes, foreign policy and the concentration of power in the federal government.”

Goldwater and his followers were equally beyond the understanding of the Republican establishment. Even as the GOP convention opened in San Francisco, with the Arizonan’s nomination looming as inevitable, they were still plotting to replace him with a moderate savior: Pennsylvania governor William Scranton.

From the start, Goldwater had been taken aback by the Republican vitriol directed his way. A loyal party man himself, he’d often appeared on behalf of GOP moderates, eager for conservative support in tight races. Now, in San Francisco, he heard defeated rival Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge say that Goldwater’s foreign policy “would destroy everything we hope for—including life itself”; and also-ran Michigan governor George Romney urge the delegates to “repudiate extremism of the right and the left.” But the cruelest blow came from Scranton, whom Goldwater had served with in the Air Force Reserve, mentored politically, and was considering naming as his running mate. In an open letter challenging Goldwater to a debate on the party’s direction, the Pennsylvania governor said that “Goldwaterism has come to stand for nuclear irresponsibility . . . for being afraid to forthrightly condemn right-wing extremists . . . for refusing to stand for law and order in maintaining racial peace.”

Thus provoked, Goldwater threw whatever modest caution he might have exercised to the winds. He capped off an already-angry convention with an acceptance speech bearing one of the most damaging lines in American political history. “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” he proclaimed—hurling his tormentors’ favorite word in their collective face—“and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Watching, Theodore White famously exclaimed, “My God, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!”

In fact, the words were a paraphrase of Cicero, as updated by Claremont Men’s College political theorist Harry Jaffa. But under the circumstances, they represented an upturned middle finger to Goldwater’s enemies, including those in the press gallery. It seemed altogether fitting, then, that CBS’s Daniel Schorr reported, before the convention was over, that the newly minted GOP candidate was planning a vacation in Bavaria—as “the start of a move to link up with his opposite numbers in Germany.”

What Goldwater actually did following the convention was nearly as self-destructive. He replaced a skilled campaign staff with a crew of Arizona amateurs who quickly sidelined not just the political pros but also such key supporters as William F. Buckley. Under their watch, rudimentary advance work would go undone and thank-you letters to donors would never get sent; state and local GOP organizations would wind up even more alienated than they already were. The replacement staff even attempted to squelch a televised address by Goldwater’s most effective surrogate, fearing its plainspokenness. Only through the nominee’s last-minute intervention did Ronald Reagan get the green light to make the speech that not only raised millions but also launched his own meteoric rise, later enabling George Will to observe memorably that “Goldwater lost 44 states but won the future.”

It was Goldwater himself who bore responsibility for another of the campaign’s great blunders. Insisting that the campaign be about ideas and not personality, he adamantly refused to present himself as the likable and multifaceted human being that he was. He looked so forbiddingly grim in his own literature that he indeed seemed ready to launch World War III. Of course, in pushing such a narrative, the Democrats again could rely on the media’s help. Ad man Tony Schwartz’s anti-Goldwater “daisy commercial,” depicting an innocent little girl counting petals morphing into a nuclear countdown, may have been the most effective political spot ever devised; but what’s largely forgotten is that it aired commercially only once because the Republicans immediately complained to the Fair Campaign Practices Commission. Its outsize impact was the result of its being ceaselessly replayed as “news.”

Not that the media portrait of Goldwater that increasingly came into focus as the campaign proceeded was entirely one-dimensional. Goldwater was not only trigger-happy; he was also a bigot—one of only 27 senators who’d voted in June against the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Walter Lippmann, the lordly dean of American punditry observed of his Senate vote, Goldwater “would nullify if he could the central purpose of the Civil War amendments, and would take from the children of the emancipated slaves the protection of a national union.”

In that summer of 1964—with the nation horrified by the massacre of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi—no issue was more starkly drawn than civil rights. It was the defining question of the era, and Goldwater would indeed come to regret his vote on the Civil Rights Act—though on moral, not political, grounds. For the political ramifications were obvious at the time. Having agonized over the issue, and deciding to vote “nay” based on his passionately held views on constitutional limits, he declared on the Senate floor: “If my vote is misconstrued, let it be, and let me suffer the consequences.”

Rather than seeking to explain the nuances of Goldwater’s position, the press engaged in calumny by association, continually badgering Goldwater, for instance, to disavow the KKK. Goldwater’s long and honorable record on civil rights was ignored. An early member of the NAACP, he integrated his family’s store in the 1930s, well before it was the norm in Phoenix or in most of the North. After the war, he did the same for the Arizona Air National Guard, which he founded; and on his arrival in the Senate, he desegregated the cafeteria. He had voted for every prior civil rights measure.

Had anyone wished to report it, the contrast with Johnson in this regard could not have been more dramatic. As a Texas senator, LBJ never supported a piece of civil rights legislation, repeatedly voting against banning the poll tax and against making lynching a federal crime. As recently as four years earlier—running simultaneously for vice president and reelection to the Senate—LBJ had opposed civil rights in the Texas contest, even while supporting them nationally.

“We have lost the South for a generation,” liberal admirers of LBJ like to quote him as saying on signing the landmark act on July 2, 1964—though there is no record of his ever having said it. And the outcome of the presidential race four months later certainly confirmed that a historic realignment was under way. Four years earlier, Nixon had won 32 percent of the black vote; Goldwater got only 6 percent. Aside from his home state, Goldwater would carry only the five of the deepest South.

Goldwater nevertheless went out of his way in the campaign to avoid stoking racial animosities, even as many on his side, and the other, did the opposite. Indeed, several days after Goldwater’s nomination, the president was taken aback when the newly minted GOP candidate requested a private meeting on the racial situation. A police shooting of an unarmed black teen in New York had set off rioting in cities around the country; LBJ was certain that his opponent hoped to seize upon the events to embarrass him on law and order. Instead, Goldwater proposed that they take the issue of race off the table, in the interest of national unity. And with American troops engaged in combat, Goldwater similarly committed to avoid politicizing Vietnam. He followed through on this commitment the next month, when, after reports of an attack on Navy destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnamese PT-boats, Johnson sought unprecedented war-making powers. “We cannot allow the American flag to be shot at anywhere on earth,” affirmed Goldwater, “if we are to retain our respect and prestige.”

Given his own sentiments on Vietnam—that we should fight to win or leave—that was an easy call. But the sentiment was by no means universal. Even before suspicions surfaced that the attacks might be a put-up job and pretext for expansion of the war, there was reason to view Johnson’s Vietnam policy with skepticism. “I am pleading that the American people be given the facts,” said Oregon’s Wayne Morse at the time, before casting one of two Senate votes against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. The world would learn that Johnson had been planning all along to expand the war—after the election.

Goldwater proposed that they take the issue of race off the table, in the interest of national unity.

Certainly, Lyndon Johnson’s record—and character—invited close inspection. As Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume biography would make clear, no previous occupant of the Oval Office had profited more handsomely from his long years in public life—nor, until the Clintons, would any afterward. Temperament? Every novice Washington reporter had heard the tales of Johnson the vulgarian and bully, terrorizing aides and associates, as they’d also heard of his rages and bouts of depression. Years later, having had a vantage point far closer than Fact’s “experts,” LBJ aide Richard Goodwin wrote in the New York Times that he became so concerned about the president’s frequently irrational behavior that, on his own, he consulted a psychiatrist about his boss’s mental health. Later, he learned that another aide, Bill Moyers, had independently consulted two others. “All three doctors offered essentially the same opinion: that Johnson’s behavior—if the layman’s descriptions we provided were accurate—seemed to correspond to a textbook case of paranoid disintegration, the eruption of long-suppressed irrationalities.”

And then there was Johnson’s drinking. In his book Feeding Frenzy, political historian Larry Sabato quotes CBS’s George Herman on watching with other reporters as a visibly wobbly LBJ slurred his way through a speech in Evansville, Indiana. When Herman asked a Secret Service agent if Johnson was drunk, he replied: “If aged Scotch will make you drunk, he’s drunk.” Since, recalled Herman, “the theme of that campaign against Goldwater was, in Lyndon’s inestimable words, ‘Whose finger do you want to mash that button?’ ” he called to New York for direction. Their response: “ ‘Oh, Christ, let’s think about it, and we’ll call you back,’ and that was twenty-five years ago and they haven’t called me back yet.”

For all the attention given to Goldwater’s purported recklessness, the man actually wielding power—recklessly, as it would turn out—got no such scrutiny. And under his leadership, the nation would so quickly be wracked by turmoil that four years later, it would be his party’s convention playing out against a backdrop of warfare in the streets.

Indeed, coverage of the president in the fall of 1964 was so uniformly positive, the LBJ in media accounts was almost indistinguishable from the man presented by his meticulously stage-managed campaign: a benign father figure, spreading ever more Great Society largesse across the land, even as he faced down his hard-hearted opponent, the would-be destroyer-of-worlds.

PRESIDENT URGES POLITICAL ‘VISION,’ ran a typical New York Times headline, over a story that began: “President Johnson dedicated himself today to the politics of ‘excellence, restraint and vision.’ ‘The purpose of politics,’ he said, ‘must be to make man’s extinction improbable, and his fulfillment inevitable.’ ” On the same page, the Times’s Goldwater story, ostensibly about the American Psychiatric Association’s condemnation of the Fact feature, repeated Ginzburg’s most damning claims.

Goldwater tried to draw attention to the burgeoning scandal involving LBJ’s protégé, Bobby Baker, so prolific a political fixer that he was a millionaire by 26 on a salary of $20,000. But the president saw to it that a would-be Senate investigation on Baker’s bribery and influence-peddling was put off until after the election, and then permanently. In any case, the press had as little interest as the public.

One scandalous occurrence might have moved the needle, or so Goldwater’s increasingly desperate aides believed: the out-of-the-blue news, late in the campaign, that Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s top aide, the man he called “the vice president in charge of everything,” had been arrested in a Washington, D.C., men’s room on a “morals charge”—and, it soon emerged, it wasn’t the first time. Since Jenkins was privy to a vast range of secrets, the thinking went, he would have been a prime target for blackmail. Knowing what he would do with such an opportunity, LBJ was shaken by the news and went into overdrive. Jenkins, reported to be “suffering from exhaustion,” was stashed away in a hospital, and, to reassure the public that there’d been no security breach, the president tapped the safest possible figure to oversee the investigation—J. Edgar Hoover.

He needn’t have worried. Goldwater told his people that he wouldn’t exploit Jenkins’s personal tragedy for political gain, and stuck to the promise. Decades later, when this episode was largely forgotten, Goldwater, with a homosexual grandson, emerged as a campaigner for gay rights, and found himself lionized by many who’d once loathed him. What they could not see was that his guiding principles—individual liberty and small government—hadn’t changed since 1964.

Goldwater supporters at the GOP Women’s National Convention in 1964. One of the candidate’s biggest blunders was not presenting himself as the likable, multifaceted person that he was. (GEORGE TAMES/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)

There’s no knowing if Goldwater would have made a good president. He once told John McCain that if he’d been elected, “you wouldn’t have spent all those years in a Vietnamese prison camp.” “You’re right,” countered McCain, “it would’ve been a Chinese prison camp.” Unquestionably, though, Goldwater was a terrible candidate; it isn’t easy for a major party nominee to poll under 39 percent in a two-man race.

Still, if the GOP and its candidate were 1964’s most obvious losers, what Goldwater would recall as “that season of untempered abuse, vindictive falsehood, desertion of civility” also carried consequences for his tormentors in the media that continue to reverberate today. “At least forty percent of the people,” as GOP national chairman Dean Burch noted at the time, “feel subconsciously or consciously that the press has jobbed Goldwater.” It is a lesson about bias, double standards, and the slope of the playing field that millions of Americans have had no reason to forget ever since.

Top Photo: A national magazine’s cover story, purporting to find Barry Goldwater psychologically unstable, undermined his presidential run. (TopFoto/The Image Works)

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