It’s only natural, on the threshold of a new year, to think about beginnings. So let me ask my fellow conservatives: When did the modern conservative movement get its start?
Some of you will probably say in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected president. That’s understandable, given all that he accomplished and his unique ability to inspire Americans to understand that increasing individual freedom and responsibility -- not government -- would restore America as the land of opportunity. But you have to go back a little further to find the spark that led to Reagan’s election. Specifically, you have to return to the election of 1964.
True, that was hardly a happy moment for conservatives. Lyndon Johnson soundly beat our candidate, Barry Goldwater, and we saw Johnson’s campaign pull out all the stops to portray Goldwater as a trigger-happy madman. (I say "our candidate" because at the tender age of three, I accompanied my mother on a neighborhood door-to-door campaign for Goldwater). Yet we learn in a marvelous new book, aptly titled “A Glorious Disaster,” that a great movement would rise from the ashes of defeat. Author J. William Middendorf II would know: As Goldwater’s campaign treasurer, he was there every step of the way during that painful election.
One reason conservatives could take heart is that many voters who opted for Johnson were rejecting a caricature of Goldwater, not his ideas. As Reagan commented at the time, “All of the landslide majority did not vote against a conservative philosophy, they voted against a false image our liberal opponents successfully mounted.”
The most infamous example: the “Daisy” TV ad, in which a little girl counts the petals of a daisy. Her voice is soon overtaken by the countdown of a missile launch. The image of a mushroom cloud appears, as Johnson tells viewers that the stakes are too high for them to stay home and not vote. Translation: Goldwater will annihilate mankind in a nuclear war. And we complain about negative campaigning today!
The funny thing is, Goldwater knew his election was a near-hopeless prospect nearly a year before the election was held. He had been anticipating a spirited contest with John Kennedy. But when the president was murdered in November 1963, everything changed. Goldwater would now square off against Johnson, whom he considered a “dirty fighter.” He seriously considered withdrawing from the race, but his staff, including Middendorf, persuaded him to fight -- if only for the sake of the conservatives who were working hard for his election.