The story behind the ad that changed American politics and the decades-long fight over who spawned the idea.
It was the summer of 1964 and President Lyndon Johnson was worried about his reelection. Actually, he was worried about the prospect that he might not earn a historic landslide victory.
A Gallup poll released on July 10 that showed him with the support of 77 percent of voters, to Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater’s 18 percent, did little to assuage his anxiety.
“I hate to tell you this,” a sullen Johnson told his press secretary, George Reedy, on July 20, “but it’s my considered judgment, in the light of what I see happening and what I have heard . . . that we wouldn’t carry a state in the South if the vote were tomorrow.”
Aide Bill Moyers recalled that Johnson “could be a nervous Nellie on this; he had been dubbed Landslide Lyndon, you’ll recall, and he never took a campaign for granted.”
Gallup’s new numbers would not be released until late July, but they would give Johnson even more reason for concern. Data gathered by the polling firm during July 7–10 showed the race “narrowing.” Goldwater, who now polled at 26 percent, had cut Johnson’s numbers down from their stratospheric high of 77 to a more plausible 62 percent.
Johnson wasn’t the only one nervous about the election. Some supporters, observing the fervor of Goldwater’s backers in California and other places, began to wonder if they were witnessing the high-water mark of the Arizonan’s candidacy or the beginning of a tidal wave.
“I’m afraid Democrats don’t realize that unless President Johnson fights a tough, no-holds-barred campaign, he’s going to lose the election,” California advertising executive Norman Maher wrote Johnson aide Jack Valenti on July 20, the same day that Johnson confessed to Reedy his worries about losing the South.
In his nine-page letter, Maher volunteered his ideas for a strong attack on Goldwater’s extremist positions and rhetoric. Among his proposals was an idea to exploit Goldwater’s troubling rhetoric on nuclear weapons.
“Show a nuclear bomb blast,” Maher advised. “Then ask, ‘Do you want anyone other than the President of the U.S. to have control over our nuclear weapons?’”
It is not clear what, if any, reply Maher’s letter prompted, but he was likely channeling the fretfulness of Johnson and some of his aides.
Talk of going at Goldwater by suggesting he was an unstable man who, if elected, would start a nuclear war was not confined to unsolicited counsel in letters from outside advisers. In his July 20 phone conversation with Johnson, Reedy broached the issue of Goldwater’s temperament.
“Now, I think there’s a weakness to Goldwater,” Reedy said. “I think the big weakness is people think he’s pretty reckless. And I think the one thing we oughta get at now is some of the things he’s said about the nuclear test ban treaty, but not say it in the way they’ve been said. I think we’ve gotta get this down to some gut things.”
Johnson continued listening, without comment.
“Mothers that are worried about having radioactive poison in their kids’ milk. Men that are worried about becoming sterile. Uh, give ’em some thoughts about maybe kids being born with two heads and things like that.”
For months, with the White House’s blessing (but with little consultation or direction from Johnson or his aides), executives of the New York advertising firm Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) had been preparing an aggressive fall television campaign for Johnson. By late July, after some acrimonious debate between DDB and officials at the Democratic National Committee, the outlines of the fall campaign, and its specific messages, took shape.
“We had instructed [DDB] that Goldwater’s casual approach to the use of nuclear weapons,” Johnson aide Richard Goodwin recalled, “together with the militance of his Cold War rhetoric, was to be a major theme of our television campaign since it undermined public confidence in that ‘wise restraint’ which was the most important quality expected of a president in the Atomic Age.”
Johnson and his aides also began approving specific concepts for spots and began setting the course for what Johnson’s campaign would say about Johnson and Goldwater in its early television advertising.
“We worked day and night,” DDB’s Sidney Myers recalled. “We were traveling back and forth to Washington on the train, staying at the White House, having brainstorming sessions.”
On August 31, Moyers finally received Johnson’s permission to pull the trigger on the television campaign. Once he decided to proceed, Johnson went all out. Johnson approved $2 million in TV spots, with an additional $2.5 million in local television advertising and $500,000 for radio. DDB was ready for battle.