The Making of the President 1964
In August of 1963 my family was on a train returning home from my grandfather’s ranch. The halfway point every year was Dallas. As we pulled into Dallas, I was reading a Jerry Lewis comic book and chatting with an older boy who was sitting next to me. We passed through downtown and he pointed at a building I has seen every year I had made the trip. “That’s the Texas State Book Depository” he said, “that’s where they keep all the state’s school books, wish we could burn that place down.” Three months later, if you believe the Warren Commission, Lee Harvey Oswald fired several shots from a window in that building, killing John F. Kennedy. That was the day the 1964 Presidential campaign started.
I had assumed that Kennedy was a shoe in in 1964. I did not know a lot about politics, but I knew that he had led us through the Cuban Missile Crisis and thought that gratitude for that act alone would reelect him. It would have too, but he never got the chance to run. Something my dad feared would happen, did happen. Lyndon Johnson became President, and to the surprise of just about everyone who knew anything about him, did a wonderful job for the next year. He became my candidate for 1964.
Unlike 1960, where I did not follow the campaign until late in the summer, I watched every minute of this one. From the surprise win of Henry Cabot Lodge in New Hampshire, through the derision cast on Nelson Rockefeller for his divorce and remarriage to the triumph of Barry Goldwater in the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Goldwater was a fascinating character. I think that the easiest issue for an 11 year old child to grasp is the war/peace issue. From that perspective, I thought that Goldwater was a kook. He was a mean looking and acting bastard and seemed to revel in the negative passions he inspired to the main stream. He ended his life, many years later as a much beloved senior statesman whom the conservative movement had passed by in its zeal to persecute homosexuals and save the nation from the scourge of abortion. But that was years later.
The only guy in our neighborhood who had a Goldwater sign in his yard was Ed Darnell. My father believed him (apparently with some reason) to be a member of the John Birch society, and, I will say that as long as Ed lived in that house on Birdwood, not one communist made it further than Bob White Street. Maybe we had Ed to thank for that, maybe not. At any rate, the whole country, actually as it turned out, only 61% of the country, thought that Barry and his supporters were dangerous nuts. In retrospect I’d like to say that many of them were. This fear of Goldwater meant that most of my classmates in Mrs. Eason’s sixth grade class, including Mrs. Eason, supported the President. There was one loud dissenter. A girl named Rivers Hatchett who later became runner up in the Miss Texas (Miss America version) Pageant. Rivers’ dad was an immigrant from Germany, although that fact was never used against her in the classroom debates.
Unlike the previous election, there was little suspense in this one. Johnson had been nominated by acclimation, which my father made me watch, telling me that I would never see it again. He was sort of right. At the Goldwater convention, Nelson Rockefeller had been booed off the stage at the end. Goldwater had picked a fellow nutcase named William Miller to run with him, and then topped it all with a mean spirited acceptance speech which was viewed as a call to arms by the extreme right wing (just about all that was left of the Republican party).The Democrat Convention featured Carol Channing singing “Hello Lyndon” and a giant birthday cake for the President. Poor Hubert Humphrey agreed to be Vice President and was whisked off to the LBJ ranch where the President made him wear a Stetson and eventually shoot a deer to prove his manhood.
Election night was a lot of fun. Only Arizona and the most bigoted states in the country voted for Goldwater (he had voted against the Civil Rights Bill) and Johnson ran up what was one of the largest victories in history. His % of the popular vote is still a record. Everyone at the Porter household and all but one member of Mrs. Eason’s class were happy. Rivers cried through much of the morning and in deference to her loss Mrs. Eason established a “no gloating policy”.
So peace would rein supreme, the Republic was saved. Then, just a few months later I read a story in my news source of the day, the Junior Scholastic. It was about a buildup of American forces in Vietnam. I sat at my desk and stared at the pictures of the soldiers in the jungle and thanked God that I had just turned 12 and that there was no way that war would still be on when I reached draft age in 1970.