The Convention applauds its choice [Photos and captions from Somehow It Works: A Candid Portrait of the 1964 Presidential Election by NBC NEWS (1965)
This has not been an easy election season for finding historical parallels.
In G.O.P Fears What’s Next If Trump Can’t Be Stopped, Princeton’s Julian Zelizer cautions; “Trump is kind of unusual in that he is not ideological, so it is hard to place him.”
My own speculation that if Trump fades into a politcal footnote he will become William Randolph Hearst is becoming less likely to be tested. To his credit, Steve Inskeep hits the mark when he says Trump is an Andrew Jackson man.
Nonetheless, as Trump is at odds with his party’s orthodoxy, Zelizer does find analogy with Barry Goldwater in 1964. During the Republican primaries, Goldwater called for a much more radical abolition of government than most of his fellow congressional Republicans.
I agree with Zelizer’s comparison. Despite the difficulties of matching 1964 with 2016, in Goldwater’s successful insurgent, anti-establishment campaign in the Republican primaries — and the establishment’s fruitless attempt to stop him — we can hear echoes of 2016 even if not a reliable ouiji board. And, certainly, both campaigns were drama filled.
On the Republican side, 1964 pitted the so-called “primitives” led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater vs. the “Eastern Establishment”: New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Vice President Richard Nixon, Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (Nixon’s running mate in 1960), Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, Michigan Governor George Romney with cameos from Milton Eisenhower and Harold Stassen.
And when the primitives won at the Convention, journalist Allan Nevins wrote, “Not in more than forty years has so sharp a break occurred in the ranks of a major party as that in San Francisco when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater.” And — for the G.O.P — perhaps not repeated for another fifty years.
While ultimately paling compared to the current spectacle of the Republican Party at odds with itself, Goldwater, the zealous free market libertarian, Cold Warrior — the self described Conscience of a Conservative — tapped into two decades of primarily southern and western resentment towards the mythical Eastern Establishment: viewed as self servingly accommodating itself to some form of big government.
And when the Establishment tried to rally itself, it was too late.
The election of 1964 was, of course, shaped by President Kennedy’s assassination. In the wake of the assassination, it soon became clear the kind of candidate the Republicans would face. For Johnson, carrying on JFK’s legacy meant creating a Great Society to go beyond Kennedy’s vision.
Against Johnson, Eisenhower’s Vice President Nixon — having lost by a tiny, almost invisible margin to Kennedy — was expected to make another bid. But, embittered by what he (rightly) perceived as post election slighting, Nixon never formally entered the race, although remaining a backstage player all the way through the Convention.
For a time, Eisenhower — still the patriarchal head of the Republican Party — championed his brother Milton. But Milton was unmoved– yet would poll in the single digits and gain write-in votes throughout — never wanting to be President and certainly not endure the gamut of a campaign.
While hardly November 22nd, 1963, the Republican campaign was shaped by May 4th, 1963. Before that day, Rockefeller, a spokesman of moderate Republicans and epitomizing the Eastern Establishment, was considered by Republican leaders to be the certain nominee.
But that day, Nelson, himself divorced, married Mrs. Margaretta “Happy” Murphy, a recently divorced mother four young children. The divorced and remarried Reagan still a ways off and Donald and Ivana in some distant future, the “scandal” and its fallout never fully faded.
The Establishment wanted Rockefeller — even if it never warmed to him like it could to an Eisenhower — because it didn’t want Barry Goldwater.
While substantive comparisons fail, like Trump, Goldwater had a devoted following of true believers, who believed more strongly the further away they felt and were from Washington and New York. To the Establishment, Goldwater was an extremist and his followers right wing kooks, conspiracy theorists and John Birchers, if not KKK. They believed an anointed Goldwater could never win — would lose badly — in the general election, and bring the Republican party down with him.
In 1964, most delegates were chosen by the state parties, but it was also the first time primaries — although there were only 16 — mattered, what Theodore White in The Making of the President 1964 called the “Duel to the Death.
The first primary in New Hampshire ended in surprise. Stationed in Saigon was Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (Nixon’s 1960 running mate). Lodge, whose political bloodline alone made him an Establishment pillar, was beseeched by Party leaders to come home and lead the charge. And, while Lodge was not even an announced candidate, enough New Hampshire Republicans wrote in his name for victory.
And later, in Oregon, it was Rockefeller who would win with 33% to Lodge’s 28 % write ins. Goldwater and Nixon (also as a write in) finished 3rd and 4th.
But all along, Goldwater was winning support, especially in the west and the south. As White says, “the fervor, frenzy and the excesses of the dedicated Goldwater troops appalled a huge and unknowable percentage of Republicans of other moralities,” but they were gaining strength and steam. Like Trump’s 30% and growing allied against the other 70% and dwindling, Goldwater was defying expectations.
And then Goldwater took the biggest prize, California. Driven by Operation Determination — 8000 volunteers canvassing nearly 600,000 home in Los Angeles County — Goldwater beat Rockefeller. With only 51.6% of the vote, but he won.
After California, the delegate count for Goldwater appeared insurmountable. In his chapter “The Dance of the Elephants,” White asks the now rhetorical question asked by Republican leaders, Could anything stop Goldwater [Trump]?
Before the San Francisco National Convention, Republican leaders, including Eisenhower and Nixon, meditated on the situation at the June 7th Governor’s Conference in Cleveland.
Couldn’t Lodge and Rockefeller join forces? Pennsylvania Governor Scranton was still unannounced but in one poll of overall Republicans he beat Goldwater 60 – 34%. It was too late for Milton, but maybe George Romney was a dark horse possibility. Nixon was again seriously considered. But Nixon, ever shrewd, only wanted to play peacemaker, privately convinced that the heir to JFK, dead not much more than 6 months, could never lose.
One can imagine the conversations, probably not unlike Rubio’s with his consultants. The establishment elephants couldn’t use Rubio’s newest taunt: Trump as a con artist. For Goldwater and his conservative conscience was not trying to fool anyone when he spoke out against Social Security or voted against the Civil Rights Act on constitutional principles.
How to disparage Goldwater without alienating his followers? To call him a right wing kook was to mock all the “little old ladies in tennis shoes” who saw themselves as Goldwater Girls.
But Cleveland brought forth no new coalitions or concrete plans. Before Cleveland, White says the “great Republican chieftains” were “like the Kerensky government, unaware of revolution until the Red guards were already ringing the Winter Palace.” After Cleveland, the Neros were still fiddling.
And at the Cow Palace, Goldwater’s legions delivered the coup de grâce in the coup d’état. Against long odds, the anti-Goldwater forces flailed.
In defeat, addressing a belligerent crowd chanting “We want Barry,” Rockefeller spoke as Christie now never will but maybe Jeb Bush still could:
During this year I have crisscrossed this nation, fighting … to keep the Republican party the party of all the people … and warning of the extremist threat, its danger to the party, and danger to the nation. These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror, [they have] no program for America and the Republican Party… [they] operate from dark shadows of secrecy. It is essential that this convention repudiate here and now any doctrinaire, militant minority whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Birchers.
Soon, Nixon introduced Goldwater, who never shied away from his first principles:
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
What will Trump say?
After Goldwater’s nomination, Eisenhower gave a tepid congratulation. He was largely absent during the general election campaign.
As Nixon sensed, Johnson landslided Goldwater. And so ushered in the Great Society. And the Vietnam War.
Political historians see in Goldwater’s defeat the seeds of “Movement Conservatism” that with the help from Nixon’s Southern Strategy culminated in Ronald Reagan.
And what would a Trump nomination or presidency be or mean? Pundits, like angels, should fear to tread.