Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Bombs Away: LBJ, Goldwater and the 1964 Campaign That Changed It All (Community Idea Stations, University of Virginia Center for Politics, American Public Television, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The PBS program was a film saddled with the awkward title Bombs Away: LBJ, Goldwater and the 1964 Campaign That Changed It All, and it was basically a depiction of the 1964 Presidential election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater (and Goldwater’s victory in the Republican nominating contest over Nelson Rockefeller and his attempt at a last-minute replacement, Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, whom Rockefeller backed after he realized that his divorce of his wife and marriage to a much younger woman, Happy Murphy — also a divorcée — had fatally blown his own chances for the presidency) from an unusual point of view: the rise in importance and sophistication of TV advertising. TV had been a latecomer to the field of electoral campaigning; 1948 was the first year national political conventions were televised but it was not until 1952 that Presidential candidates started to pay for commercial spots, notably the famous “We Like Ike … Ike for President” spot from 1952 (misidentified here as coming from Ike’s re-election campaign in 1956) for which he got “A”-list talent to help him: the jingle was composed by Irving Berlin and the animation was done by Walt Disney Studios (the only time Walt Disney was personally involved in commercial work) and an equally insistent, and similarly styled, campaign ad for Kennedy in 1960 that seemed to be aimed at building name recognition and nothing else.

What director Paul Tait Roberts misses in his study of the evolution of campaign ads is that they were affected by the same revolution in advertising in the 1960’s as everything else; after some embarrassing struggles to find an ad agency that would handle their account (in 1956 the ad industry was so solidly Republican it wasn’t until late in the campaign that the Democrats finally found an agency — a small one called Norman, Craig & Kummel — that would accept them as customers, a pro-Republican bias Vance Packard exposed in his 1958 best-seller The Hidden Persuaders), in 1964 the Democrats landed Doyle Dane Bernbach, an up-and-coming firm whose principal, Dave Bernbach, had concocted the famous “Think Small” ads for Volkswagen. Bernbach was a pioneer in the use of humor, particularly dry wit, in advertising, and also in his Volkswagen ads he went against the grain of typical automobile ads — which emphasized bigger, faster and flashier cars — and actually made the Volkswagen’s compact size and unassuming design major and effective selling points. (Doyle Dane Bernbach was hired by the Democrats for the 1968 campaign as well, but the divisive primary battle and horrible national convention in Chicago had upset or scared off so many donors that the Democrats simply couldn’t afford the campaign the agency had planned, so they were let go and a smaller agency hired to do the ad campaign the Democrats could afford.) The focus of the show was the infamous “daisy” ad, a spot for Lyndon Johnson that featured a young girl pulling petals off a daisy, trying (and failing) to keep track of how many she had pulled, and then her count-up of the number of petals blended on the soundtrack into the countdown of a missile launch and, when the countdown reached zero, the image cut to a stock shot of a nuclear explosion and the soundtrack contained the voice of President Johnson doing a sound bite about the risks of nuclear war. The “daisy” ad only had about one or two (the record is unclear) commercial airings, but like later campaign ads (including the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attacks on John Kerry in 2004, also included here) it became a news story and the spot was broadcast again and again, often in its entirety, on “news” programs — so it got the kind of exposure a campaign most cherishes: the kind they don’t have to pay for.

Director Roberts and his producers even unearthed the actress who played the little girl, Monique Corzilius, and did an interview with her in which she recalled that her parents were placing her in a lot of commercials in the early 1960’s — normal ones for products like Spaghetti-O’s — and they saw the “daisy” commercial as just another employment opportunity for their daughter. The show attempted, if anything, to cover too much in one hour — not just the increasing sophistication of political ads after 1964 but also how the 1964 election, though on the surface a huge defeat for the Republican Party and the conservative movement that Barry Goldwater represented, was a turning point in the country’s history and the birth of the Right-wing coalition that became the dominant political force in the next Presidential election and has remained so to this day. Needless to say, director Roberts couldn’t resist bringing forth Pat Buchanan as an interviewee, and as he did in the film The Day the ’60’s Died (about the Kent State massacres) he couldn’t resist sounding a note of triumphalism — the Right-wing “movement conservatives” tend not only to be sore losers but even sorer winners — that the Goldwater campaign’s success in winning the Republican nomination had turned the party into an ideologically coherent conservative force and ended the whole concept of the “liberal Republican” (though the “liberal Republican” had been in retreat at least since 1912, when William Howard Taft held on to the GOP nomination against the effort of Theodore Roosevelt to regain the presidency, first via the Republican party and then, when that failed, through his own Progressive Party) and the stranglehold the Eastern Seaboard’s business establishment had had on the Republican nomination. This last was a reflection of the paranoid view expressed before the Goldwater campaign by writers like Phyllis Schlafly (who, amazingly, is still around, still spouting off nonsensical Right-wing propaganda garbage), who in her book A Choice, Not an Echo said the Republicans had been talked again and again into nominating Northern or Northern-backed moderates like Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and that only by picking a true conservative from a Western state could the GOP set themselves up for a landslide victory.

A lot of people were fooled by the fact that the immediate result of Goldwater’s nomination was a landslide defeat — indeed, one of the biggest things so-called “movement conservatism” (which isn’t really “conservative” at all — it’s actually a Right-wing revolutionary movement aimed at eliminating all the reforms of the 20th century and returning us to the Gilded Age of unregulated capitalism in the 1880’s, though some of its loonier adherents today want to take the U.S. even farther back, to the 1820’s, when only people with enough money to own land were allowed to vote) has had going for it is the continual underestimation of it by its adversaries. What’s really most fascinating about Bombs Away is how clear it becomes while watching the movie, and in particular watching the film clips contained in it, that the battle lines over race and culture that have driven (and divided) American politics ever since were largely formed in 1964, particularly over the Civil Rights Act (which Johnson proudly pushed through Congress and signed into law) as well as the nuclear issue. By voting against the Civil Rights Act — and, though this isn’t mentioned in the program, giving as his reason that it was wrong for the government to discriminate on the basis of race but also wrong for the government to require private businesses not to discriminate (an argument we’ve heard more recently from Republican Senator and Presidential candidate Rand Paul) — Goldwater managed to carry five Deep South states for the Republican Party. In 1968 Richard Nixon and Strom Thurmond would work out the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy,” and though it was probably formulated more as an ad hoc response to George Wallace’s third-party challenge that year than a long-term strategy, it completed the two major parties’ reversal of their historical positions on civil rights: the “Party of Lincoln” reinvented itself as the party of bitter-end reaction and racism, while the party of the Confederacy before the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan afterwards became the party of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and of African-American enfranchisement and empowerment.

One interesting aspect of Bombs Away is that it shows that as early as 1964 Republican image-makers were seeing the seeds of disaster in Lyndon Johnson’s triumph and plotting the ways they would use race and culture to undermine and ultimately shatter the New Deal coalition. In 1964 Goldwater’s ad people prepared a film called Choice, excerpts from which are included here, which juxtaposed images of a runaway Lincoln Continental (with an unseen driver that was supposed to be Lyndon Johnson — though undoubtedly there was also a subliminal link since a Lincoln Continental was the car John F. Kennedy was killed in) being driven recklessly; scenes of urban decay and squalor, and the drug culture (what they could find of it that early), ostensibly representing the Democrats; with images of good white (literally and figuratively) “God-fearing” Christian Americans who represented the Republicans. The film was awfully crude and the filmmakers had the disadvantage of making it well before the later 1960’s gave Right-wingers far more powerful (and more ubiquitous) images they could use to discredit the counterculture and associate the political Left in general and the Democratic Party in particular with it, but though Choice wasn’t actually aired as a paid TV film (back when the networks would still sell campaigns a half-hour block of time to run an infomercial), apparently because Goldwater himself denounced it as racist, it was shown at Goldwater house parties — in an era when showing a film at home was considerably harder than it is now: instead of just being sent a DVD and playing it on a normal TV, in 1964 if you wanted to run a film at home you had to get it as a bulky, cumbersome 16 mm print, rent a projector and also rent a screen (unless you had a white sheet or a blank space of white wall to show it on) — and it apparently had the desired effect of mobilizing Goldwater’s volunteers and supporters to work harder for his campaign.

The film also shows an excerpt from Ronald Reagan’s half-hour infomercial, with the similar but softer title A Time for Choosing, and Pat Buchanan reflects that there was a sense among his fellow “movement conservatives” that Reagan had made the case for Goldwater far more effectively than Goldwater had himself and the torch of political leadership was passing from the crusty old politician who said whatever he thought, damn the consequences, to the smooth-talking entertainer who could take the Right-wing principles and sell them even to voters who would be hurt economically if they went into effect. It was the combined power of race and culture that swung the white working class (especially the males within it) definitively from the Democrats to the Republicans and converted the 61 to 39 percent margin by which Johnson and the Democrats won in 1964 to the combined 57 percent for Right-wing candidates Richard Nixon and George Wallace, versus 43 percent for Hubert Humphrey, that obtained in 1968 and showed off the Right-wing “Reagan realignment” (as it’s commonly, though inaccurately, called) 12 years before Reagan was himself elected President. It’s impossible for an old-line Leftist like me to watch a show like this and not be depressed by how what in 1964 sounded like the ravings of a Right-wing crazy (Johnson’s people parodied Goldwater’s campaign slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right,” as “In your guts you know he’s nuts”) have become mainstream and even orthodox political opinion today — it seems almost science-fictional today that an incumbent President could not only declare a “War on Poverty” but actually express the serious hope that poverty would be banished from the U.S. forever (“We had a War on Poverty, and poverty won,” Ronald Reagan airily quipped, and that’s become the established view in U.S. public opinion, and today even the Democrats focus on reviving the middle class and couldn’t care less about the genuinely poor).

Even on the nuclear issue, it was fascinating to watch this show while reading Dr. Helen Caldicott’s autobiography A Desperate Passion and realize that in 1964 a President of the United States was saying the same things about nuclear war — that it was an unacceptable health hazard that would destroy the human race — Dr. Caldicott would be denounced as a dangerous radical for saying just a decade later. The point director Roberts and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, which co-produced this movie, seemed to be making is that the increasing importance of TV advertising in campaigns, not only to promote your own candidate but to demonize the opponent and create a negative image of him (or her) before their campaign has the opportunity to create a positive one, has made campaigning vastly more expensive, which in turn has moved all American politics to the Right as both major parties have had to rely on donations from the 1 percent to finance their campaigns — with the result that the Republicans have become an ideologically consistent far-Right party (to the extent that differences exist between so-called “moderate” and “conservative” Republicans, it’s merely over how fast to undo the reforms of the Progressive era, the New Deal and the Great Society; get rid of all laws regulating business and protecting workers and the environment; and return women and people of color to second-class status, not whether to do those things) while the Democrats are still mired in trying to be a “consensus” party, anxious to differentiate themselves from the Republicans but not be so different that corporate and wealthy-individual donors stop contributing to them — with the result that the big Republican Presidential victories since 1964 have come from voters seeing that the Republicans at least have principles, while the Democrats seem to stand for nothing. The Democrats who’ve won the presidency since Johnson — Carter, Clinton, Obama — have basically eked out narrow wins only because the Republicans screwed up so badly (with the Watergate scandal that elected Carter and the recessions that elected Clinton and Obama) enough voters in the Right-wing coalition (especially in the South) temporarily turned against them and voted, as the late political scientist V. O. Key said, “retrospectively and negatively” — i.e., voted against what hadn’t worked in the past rather than what might work in the future.