Today marks the date of the 50th anniversary of the kickoff to Barry Goldwater’s general election campaign for the presidency. The place was Prescott, Arizona, the small desert town Goldwater’s family had settled in when they arrived from Poland more than a century before. It was where Goldwater had kicked off his first campaign for national office, running for U.S. senator and upsetting Democratic Senate Majority Leader Ernest McFarland in 1952.
There would be no upset in the presidential race against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, and Goldwater knew it. Issues aside, he told those close to him, the country was still recovering from the shock of the Kennedy assassination, and wasn’t in any mood to have three presidents in two years.
Not that there were any issues put aside in the campaign the Johnson White House waged against its Republican opponent. Goldwater, having won his party’s nomination running as a heartland conservative, made an easy target for Democratic speakers (and journalists) by telling senior citizens in Florida that if elected he’d privatize social security and voters in Knoxville he’d sell off the Tennessee Valley Authority.
As if that weren’t enough to make Republican strategists cringe, the Arizona senator’s blunt talk about dealing with the Soviet Union inspired TV ads implying a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear war.
An electoral disaster was looming, but as the Republican candidate told his cringing advisers, “I’m going to lose this election and lose it big, but I’m going to do it my own damned way.”
And that he did, in one of the biggest landslides in presidential campaign history, the conventional wisdom being that Barry Goldwater was hopelessly behind the times. As it turned out, however, Goldwater’s problem (apart from unvarnished candor) was that he was ahead of his time. Sixteen years later Ronald Reagan would win the presidency on virtually the same conservative platform Goldwater had run on.
Easy to explain, said the Republican presidential candidate of 1964. “If I’d believed everything they said and wrote about Barry Goldwater (during that campaign), I’d have voted against the sonofabitch myself.”
Sound bite to remember
“Politics is like bullfighting and every once in a while you get gored. Forget about it.”
— Barry Goldwater, reassuring his young press aide Vic Gold after Gold had blown an assignment, September 1964