November 2, 2008
It is inspiring, surprising and quite sobering to read T.H. White’s The Making of the President 1964 as the current election campaign draws to a close.
How powerful, nay unassailable Johnson appeared on November 4th, the day after the election. He had won 61% of the popular vote and carried at least a dozen states not carried by a Democrat since: Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Virginia, Montana . . .
It was a tsunami of an election, the likes of which we have not seen since. Although both Nixon and Reagan, in 1972 and 1984, won personal victories as sweeping, they carried few people into office with them. The 1964 election was the real tidal wave, sweeping the Democratic Party to 2/3 majorities in both houses of Congress, making LBJ the only president besides Roosevelt ever to have the will and the votes to pass a massive legislative program. The only time the Republican Party had anything close to such a mandate was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s personal victory was so shocking that a Democratic Congress generally went along with his proposals. In 2002, the Republicans had another window of opportunity, winning both houses of Congress while George W. Bush occupied the White House, but all by slender margins.
In January of 1965, LBJ bestrode the United States like a colossus. Ted White, and every other political reporter, expected him to be president until 1972. All political reporters were certainly aware of the trouble in Vietnam, but none predicted that it would come to such a nation-shaking boil within two years.
All of this came about because of the enormous popularity of John F. Kennedy, the grief upon his death, the obvious ability of Johnson, who firmly took control of the government when we desperately needed it, and, of course, the amazingly inept campaign of Barry Goldwater, who just about destroyed his own party before the campaign against the incumbent had begun.
Ted White portrays him as full of outraged certainty, a prophet out of the desert given to philippics and denunciations. Yet he and his lieutenants brilliantly seized control of a majority of Republican delegates while the other candidates dithered, did not become candidates at all (Lodge and Romney); won a key primary, Oregon, but lost the big one, California (Rockefeller); or became candidates far too late (Scranton). By the time of the convention in San Francisco - can anyone imagine the Republicans ever meeting again in San Francisco? – it was all over but the shouting, and there was plenty of that.
When Nelson Rockefeller gave his speech in favor of modifications to Goldwater’s platform, the conservative revolution, boiling in the Republican Party since the days of Bob Taft, boiled over. T. H. White describes the scene:
“It was as if Rockefeller were poking with a long lance and prodding a den of lions – they roared back at him. This was the face of the enemy . . . the man who had savaged Barry from New Hampshire to California all through the spring. This was the man who called them kooks, and now, like kooks, they responded to prove his point. This reporter was sitting in the Goldwater galleries to savor the moment , but suddenly found two men peering over his shoulder, noting every word written in the notebook – and commenting angrily as they read. As Rockefeller progressed and the roars grew, his tone alternated between defiance and mockery; he smiled; the audience yelled and roared, and the bass drum thumped; and Rockefeller taunted them all. In a passion that he had rarely achieved in his entire spring campaign, he was reaching emotion – and delighting in it. As he taunted them, they raged. Nor did they, apparently, know what they were raging at: the East; or New York; or Communists; or liberals . . . As Rockefeller, enjoying the spectacle and combat, a lock of his full hair tumbling over his forehead, taunted them (“This is a free country , ladies and gentlemen”), they yelled even louder. . . . as the TV cameras translated their wrath and fury to the national audience, they pressed on the viewers that indelible impression of savagery which no Goldwater leader or wordsmith could later erase.”
The election of 1964 was all but decided then and there. Who could have imagined that the Democratic Party would similarly cripple itself a short four years later in 1968, then nominate its own prophet of the desert in 1972?
The following months were the halcyon days of the Democratic Party. Lyndon Johnson masterfully and mercilessly took advantage of Barry Goldwater’s weaknesses and coasted to victory. All he really had to do was look and act presidential. He did that and infinitely more, as White wrote:
“. . . President Johnson’s personal campaign was more than efficient; it was entrancing. To travel with him was to climb one of the rare heights of American political and dramatic art. It was like watching a great performer, at the height of his power, moving through a repertory and range that could not be topped – and yet seeing him top them again and again. Not for years had a campaigner – not even Mr. Harry Truman in 1948 – brought so finished a style of country oratory to a national audience.”
The Democrats had lost a great president, but had not lost their cause, their sense of direction or their leadership.
Then in just two short years, events spiraled out of control. For most of 1965, LBJ could do what he wanted: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, money for cities, money for schools, the list could go on and on. One of his acts, not much noticed at the time in the flurry of legislation, was to authorize the sending of troops to Vietnam with orders to engage the enemy. He was so confident that he thought he could end poverty and racism at home and defeat communism in Vietnam, probably in time for re-election in 1968.
Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad.
Within a few years, the whole nation was mad. George Wallace was happy to tap into the rage the nation saw in the Republican convention galleries beyond the control of Goldwater’s lieutenants. Within a few years many people my age and a little older vowed to stop at nothing that would stop the Vietnam War. Soon there developed a left-wing rage and resentment coalition, composed of angry young people, angry blacks, angry women, angry gays, angry minorities. They did not like each other very much; all they had in common was anger at the current order. Meanwhile, the right-wing rage and resentment coalition did not stop operating with Goldwater’s resounding defeat; indeed many a right-wing pundit today looks back lovingly to that 1964 campaign as the founding moment of the modern conservative movement that has flowered into the rage and resentment echo chamber of conservative think-tanks and talk shows.
The Republican Party went back to basics: defend America, cut taxes, put bad people in jail, distrust minorities and their angry demands. The result is the familiar sea of red in electoral college maps, a wide L-shaped swath from the Canadian border down through the plains and western prairie states to Texas and east through the south to the ocean. All Republicans had to do to win these states was repeat the above mantra. Add Indiana and Ohio and you’ve won the presidency yet again, by a slender majority of the popular vote, or, as in 2000, no majority at all.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party could not manage a majority either. Al Gore got more votes than Bush in 2000, but not 50%. Thanks to Ross Perot, Bill Clinton never got a majority of the popular vote. Jimmy Carter was the last, at a razor-thin majority of 50.08%. Gerald Ford got about 48% that year, and Gene McCarthy, by then a Harold Stassen of the left, got .91%.
Now, finally, if you are a Democrat, it looks like the nightmare is about to end. Barack Obama has run a steady, competent race from start to finish. Most importantly, he has steadfastly refused to play the rage and resentment card or let that card play him. Jeremiah Wright briefly emerged from the wilderness to issue his prophecies; Obama threw him under a bus. Jesse Jackson was upset that Obama did not sound enough like, well, Jesse Jackson. By that time, Obama was racking up primary victories and nobody cared what Jesse Jackson said. Many of Obama’s young supporters yawned and wondered who Jesse Jackson was.
Nothing focuses the mind like defeat. Members of the left-wing rage and resentment coalition, sobered by all these years of Republican presidents, especially the last eight, have quietly decided to vote for Obama and do nothing to imperil his election. Feminist organizations are backing Obama. Most of Hillary Clinton’s supporters will vote for him. Gay organizations are waging some local campaigns but have not said much, if anything, about Obama’s support of civil unions but not gay marriage. No one besides Jeremiah Wright and James Cone is upset that Obama may not be black or angry enough. No one wants to bear the blame for four more years of Republican leadership, especially not since the economy imploded a few weeks ago.
Throughout all these years of Republican White Houses thanks to a majority of the white majority, that majority has been slowly shrinking. T.H. White asked in his 1964 book if the Republican Party could simply ignore the 10% or more of the electorate that black voters represented. The answer turned out to be that it could and it has. This year, with the nomination of Sarah Palin, the Republican Party has gone as far as it could go towards becoming exclusively the party of White Folks; it probably went beyond the point of caricature. She may have revved up the Republican base, but I cannot imagine she has any appeal to Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, independent voters or anyone who is not a Republican to start with.
T. H. White wrote in his first book that every American election summons the individual voter to weigh the past against the future. While speaking to the nation as a whole of its national future, the candidate can never forget that he speaks to the dozens of American voting blocs in terms of its past. The successful candidate then urges Americans to move forward with him to a common future. Obama appears to have done this. The key may well be the 20 – 30 age group, much talked about as people on the other side of the culture wars and enjoying the diversity of America, people dating and marrying across racial and cultural lines, relaxed about gender differences and sexual preferences. The mid-1960s, when the culture wars exploded and America’s cities burned, are ancient history to them. These folks are living and partying in the very neighborhoods that burned. If they turn out in force for Obama, we just might feel the tsunami.