Goldwater and the Press

Posted: May 13, 2001 12:00 AM
Most journeymen I know who are in the business, myself included, wince at comprehensive references to "the press." This is so in part because editors, reporters, columnists and researchers have their own opinions about public people and public events and are annoyed by collective generalizations. Everyone craves singularity.

This is true of other generic groups. An Argentine doesn't like vague (or unvague) references to "Latin American" sentiments; academics don't like generalities about their political or even philosophical preferences.

Notwithstanding, there are the raw data -- the famous Lichter-Rothman survey of 1980, which disclosed that 80 percent of the media elite had voted Democratic in every presidential election from 1964 to 1976. A poll of voting by the faculty of Dartmouth revealed that, if found, Republican professors are kept in zoos and fed irregularly. The Media Research Center in Washington, whose curator is L. Brent Bozell (my nephew), is a lively presence on the scene and amasses evidence of Democratic proclivities.

But statistical compilations are without flavor. For that you need skilled writers with an eye for detail and for special piquancies. We have this from Rick Perlstein.

Mr. Perlstein, a young journalist, is himself an ardent enthusiast for the American left, but in his book on the 1964 presidential campaign, he saw it all and tells it all, including eye-popping accounts of the excesses of his own political tribe. "Before the Storm" is a book about Barry Goldwater's campaign for president. It is intriguingly subtitled: "Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus."

What is meant by that is that Goldwater's disastrous electoral count in 1964 (he won only Arizona and five Southern states), was misinterpreted by hot-pants ideologues such as Professors Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith as the end of the conservative movement. But something happened on the way to a liberal consensus: The conservative movement thought dead was in fact gestating, and 16 years after the defeat of Goldwater would bring in Ronald Reagan.

The press that accompanied Goldwater in his campaign liked the man but disdained his cause. "'How could such a nice guy think that way?' one (reporter) asked. ... Their objectivity began failing them. In Montana, 10,000 stood in the freezing rain to welcome Goldwater, and the number the press somehow settled on was 2,500. Jack Steele of the Scripps-Howard chain so lowballed the turnouts that Karl Hess (Goldwater's speechwriter) strolled into the press quarters with a token of appreciation: a carving of a hand with the middle finger extended. Steele reported the incident in his copy -- a testament to the inner circle's blind indifference to public relations."

Meanwhile, Perlstein tells the reader with his robust vision, President Lyndon Johnson was micromanaging his own campaign, the high-low point of which was the television ad of the little girl and the daisy and the atom bomb that voters were encouraged to believe would fall on her if the GOP contender were elected. "If it hadn't been for Goldwater," Johnson aide Kenny O'Donnell recalled afterward, the press would have "just murdered him," such were LBJ's excesses.

Perlstein looks hard at the conduct of the president of the United States who was trying to intimidate the voters on the matter of Goldwater's incompetence to preside over the nuclear football:

"The man (who did have) his fingers on the nuclear button sometimes weaved off his campaign plane stinking drunk; he made mistakes on the stump; he contradicted himself in interviews. On his way to opening day in Detroit, in order to squeeze as many VIPs into his plane as possible, he booted onto an accompanying plane the military aide who kept the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist that contained the codes to launch a nuclear strike. That plane nearly ended up crashing. Reporters looked the other way. 'Thank God for Lyndon Johnson,' a scribe from the St. Louis Post Dispatch thought to himself, as the president lit into Goldwater once more as a 'ranting, raving demagogue who wants to tear down society.'"

Perlstein hardly excuses Goldwater's own excesses. "Goldwater's speeches were now sheer extrusions of rage. ... It was the only way he himself could understand this great national salivation over an opponent he now despised."

The end could not come soon enough, but there were those who saw, and Perlstein records why, that Goldwater had aroused sentiments that did not fall back to sleep with the great LBJ landslide. His engrossing book invites reflection on the role of the press in campaigns. In 1964 there was a need for mediation. When such as Martin Luther King and George Meany transcribed the nomination of Goldwater into a threat of American fascism, the press was needed to bring sanity. "Before the Storm" is an entertaining book, but also an invitation to reflection on the heavy responsibilities of the press.