“The chief difference between Goldwater and Johnson,” writes Nancy Beck Young, “was the former wanted to be right and the latter President.”
In her new book, Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle Between Liberalism and Conservatism (University Press of Kansas, 304 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $34.95, e book), Young analyzes the 1964 presidential election between these two distinct Southwestern personalities—and their diametrically different visions for the future of America.
Nancy Beck Young is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author of many books on American history. They include Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II and Forgotten Feminist: Lou Henry Hoover as First Lady.
This accessible, succinct book (207 pages of text) is billed as the “first full account of this critical election and its legacy for U.S. politics.” Despite its concision, the book is thorough and well researched, though Young at times relies too heavily on secondary sources.
She starts with the 1952 election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower and concludes with an embittered Goldwater unwilling to concede to Johnson on election night 1964. Her depiction of the Republican Party regrouping around the moderate Eisenhower in the mid-1950s is somewhat inflated, as the schism between the moderate and conservative wings of the party would fester and manifest itself in 1964.
The book mostly ascribes to the conventional academic orthodoxy on conservatism and liberalism, which weakens the overall thesis. When Johnson, for example, abides the overt racism of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Young writes that he was being “pragmatic.” And she sees Johnson’s reaching out to disaffected Southern voters by employing the Eastern elite straw man as unifying and expansive. When Goldwater does the same thing, Young says he is appealing to the electorate’s basest instincts .
In drawing a distinction between the two candidates, Young sporadically indulges in both overstatement and contradiction. She writes that LBJ’s message was “universal” and his liberalism was “consensus;” whereas the Republicans looked to “destroy.” Johnson is lauded for embarking on “lawmaking in a nonpartisan, statesmanlike way,” but then we learn that this statesman describes his strategy for cajoling votes by saying: “somehow I gotta get my hand under their dress.”
Young compares Johnson to Eisenhower in seeking to forge a “mainstream, moderate political movement,” but later she discredits LBJ for ignoring the Democratic Party apparatus, and deems him the country’s “most liberal president.”
The book focuses almost exclusively on domestic politics and policy, which accurately describes the race, but Young misses an opportunity to explore the election’s foreign-policy ramifications. In her overview of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, for example, there is little discussion of the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Crisis, or the wars in Vietnam and Laos. The tremendous irony of Johnson’s position as the candidate of peace and considered judgment and his later decision to steeply escalate the Vietnam War is not analyzed.
Though her “sun” allegory can become a bit tiresome and forced (Johnson’s “sun of inclusivity,” and Goldwater’s sun as “dark”), Young’s conclusion about Goldwater’s desire to be right and Johnson’s to be President is an exceptionally apt analysis of the race. Young is proficient in detailing and explaining the ideologies and personalities of the two candidates, but can over conflate the two. Goldwater, that is, lost the race in part because of his self-described “extremism,” but much more so because he was a horrible political candidate for national office.
Did Barry Goldwater’s ideas ultimately defeat Lyndon Johnson’s? Perhaps, but Goldwater’s form of conservatism was given credibility due to government mendacity that started with Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.
Notwithstanding these critiques, this important and thoughtful book carefully examines an election that because of the inadequacy of Barry Goldwater as a candidate—and the rout by Johnson—is often overlooked.
–Daniel R. Hart