Election Day, November 3: A polarizing Republican candidate who has spent much of his adult life heading a family business faces a Democrat who has spent most of his adult life as an elected official. The Republican has been branded as an extremist, a narcissist, and possibly a fascist—none of which deters his fanatical supporters. The Democrat is overshadowed by a glamorous predecessor and tarred by a specious eleventh-hour scandal. In the background—or foreground, depending on your perspective—are widespread racial and youth uprisings that some people suspect are ignited by “Communists” and “anarchists.”
2020? No, I’m describing 1964, when the November election date was the same as this year’s. It was a year of violence in Harlem and Jersey City; of the murders of three civil-rights workers in Mississippi; of heated free-speech protests in Berkeley. It was the year Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, running for his first full term less than a year after the JFK assassination, faced Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, a far-right Republican who had beaten all of the Establishment contenders—Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Scranton—to win his party’s nomination.
I’ve thought a lot about the parallels between then and now while I read historian Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus. The book was published in 2001, long before our current troubles, but it’s a timely and vivid reminder of how history rhymes.*
One 1964 event stands apart for its strangeness and impact: the Johnson campaign’s rule-breaking late-campaign TV spot. It’s known today by a one-word title, “Daisy,” and it permanently changed the way political campaigns were waged.
Still shot from “Daisy” ad, 1964