“Au, H2o! Au, H2O!” may seem like an odd thing to chant (in fact, it definitely is). But in 1964, Senator Barry Francis Goldwater (Au=Gold, H2O=water on the Periodic Table) was the US Republican presidential candidate and, in truth, the science-themed chanting of his supporters was one of the least odd things about either the candidate or the campaign.
Goldwater is probably the most right wing US presidential nominee there has ever been. The Republican Party effectively jettisoned any attempt to appear moderate when it selected Goldwater as the party’s nominee instead of Nelson Rockefeller, scion of one of the richest families in world history and later the Vice President to President Gerald Ford.
Unusually, the new nominee did not even pretend to be moderate, claiming famously:
“Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice…moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
The contrast between the amiable golf playing Republican president “Ike” Eisenhower of just a few years before and the Arizona senator was striking. Goldwater was undeniably eloquent: fifty years on, few phrases from a convention address by any candidate have remained enshrined in popular memory (at least in the US) as well as the first sentence above. Only Kennedy’s “New Frontier” has proven as enduring.
But Goldwater’s timing was awful. The US craved stability after the Kennedy assassination of the previous year. They feared Goldwater’s aggressive Cold War rhetoric. A memorable TV commercial by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign exploited this fear with a broadcast showing a little girl apparently being obliterated by a nuclear bomb. “The stakes are too high to stay home,” the advert warned. Two years after the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the message was clear.
The Goldwater campaign used the slogan “Goldwater: In your heart, you know he’s right.”
But people did not, in truth, know any such thing. A common retort to the Republican slogan was: “Goldwater: In your guts, you know he’s nuts.” As with the Tory slogan in the UK 2005 General Election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” Goldwater had totally misread the public mood.
Ultimately, Goldwater was routed. He won only six out of fifty states and was beaten by President Kennedy’s successor, Johnson by a record margin of votes in the November 1964 election. He was one of the biggest presidential losers of the 20th century.
Fifty years on, three things stand out. On the one hand, while World War III may have been averted, the US certainly did not enjoy peace and stability under his opponent LBJ. By 1968, the nation was being ravaged by disorder and assassination, largely due to the escalation of the Vietnam War. Goldwater was at least as hawkish as Johnson in backing this war, however, so it is unlikely either candidate could have provided a peaceful future.
A lasting consequence of the campaign was also that the actor Ronald Reagan first made his mark with a speech for Goldwater. Reagan had been a Democrat as late as 1962. By 1966, he was Governor of California and by 1981, president himself. Reagan had a charm which Goldwater lacked but had it not been the ascent of Gorbachev in the USSR his aggressive Cold War stance which echoed Goldwater’s, Reagan’s anti-Soviet position might have ended as disastrously as Goldwater’s threatened to do.
Ironically, in old age, Goldwater who died in 1998, came to retreat from his earlier extremism. He attacked Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and in 1996, with parallels being drawn between presidential contender Pat Buchanan and the Goldwater of 1964, Goldwater, by then an old man, made clear he supported Buchanan’s moderate opponent Senator Bob Dole (the eventual nominee although not the ultimate victor).
Fifty years on, many today still sympathise with Goldwater’s creed. But his policies were decisively rejected by the electorate and ultimately by Barry Goldwater himself.