Neurosis in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice: Extremism, Anxiety, and the 1964 Presidential Campaign

Curator's Note

The right-wing media explosion of the 1960s has largely been lost to history, but we do have some snapshots of liberal responses to Cold War right-wingers in the form of campaign ads produced for the 1964 Johnson presidential campaign. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) used TV and radio to emphasize that Republican nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater was a nut with his finger on the proverbial button—as in LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Ad.” “Confessions of a Republican” is certainly less well-known, and is undoubtedly one of the strangest political campaign ads ever produced. In it, an actor (not identified as such) expresses his extreme anxieties about Goldwater. As he becomes increasingly nervous, he lights a cigarette to steady his nerves, and the camera moves in closer and closer. Who the hell is this sweaty, perturbed Man in a gray flannel suit?

The spot is long on emotion and short on in-depth information, a tactic that should be familiar to TV viewers who have experienced virtually any mass mediated political campaign. Content-wise, what is of greatest interest is our putative Republican’s concerns about the “weird groups” supporting Goldwater, like the Ku Klux Klan. During the 1964 campaign a strange waltz materialized around the idea of “extremism,” with Goldwater insistent that he was not an extremist and the Johnson campaign insistent that he was. Our confessing Republican, a fantasy created by the DNC, distanced himself from the kooks, while revealing himself to be on the edge of instability himself.

When Goldwater lost, the DNC thought the war against extremism was largely over, but right-wing activists all over America were only emboldened, and grassroots, non-network fundamentalist broadcasting grew even stronger. The DNC’s neurotic, confessing Republican helped LBJ win the presidential battle, but the war against the Right would finally be lost with Reagan’s ascension in 1980. Ultimately, “Confessions of a Republican” provides a telling little glimpse not of the Republican psyche—as it pretends—but of Democratic fears of the “instability” of Republicans who would, a few years later, begin to dismantle the New Deal and the War on Poverty.

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