Once upon a time, Barry Goldwater was the model of a reckless presidential candidate who couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes.
The conservative Arizona senator who upended the East Coast Republican establishment in the 1964 Republican race brought on the nuclear issue himself. There were wisecracks about “lobbing one into the men’s room in the Kremlin,” but even more damaging were Goldwater’s serious comments about giving battlefield commanders control over nuclear weapons.
In the days leading up the 1964 California GOP primary, Nelson Rockefeller’s collapsing campaign mailed out a glossy pamphlet that asked bluntly, “Who Do You Want in the Room with the H Bomb?”
The Daisy ad
All this was prelude to the most famous TV attack ad in history. The first commercial of President Lyndon Johnson’s fall campaign against Goldwater aired a few minutes before 10 p.m. on September 7, 1964. In the era of just three broadcast networks, more than 50 million Americans were watching NBC’s “Monday Night at the Movies.”
What they saw was a little girl, with long hair and freckles, picking the petals off a daisy as she tried to count (“four, five, seven, six, six, eight, nine”). As the camera closed in on the child’s hopeful face, the voiceover switched to a military-style countdown that ended with a thermonuclear explosion washing over the entire screen. Then a few lines from an LBJ arms-control speech: “These are the stakes … We must either love each other or we must die.”
Even 52 years later, the Daisy ad packs an emotional wallop. The one-minute spot was only broadcast once (though it was repeated on the nightly news), but the message set up Johnson’s 1964 landslide. An October Gallup Poll found that 48 percent of voters had little or no confidence that Goldwater could prevent World War III. And a Harris Poll the same month found that 51 percent thought that Goldwater as president would lead America into a war.
(Department of Irony: After the election, LBJ dramatically escalated American involvement in Vietnam. This gave rise to the bitter joke, “They said if I voted for Goldwater, we’d get into a war. And they were right.”)
What gives the Daisy ad contemporary relevance is … you guessed it … Donald Trump. Compared to Trump, Goldwater was a cross between Mahatma Gandhi and Dwight Eisenhower.
Just in the last few days, Trump — the supposed economic mastermind — was baffled by the term “Brexit,” the popular shorthand for a potential British exit from the European Union. And he was flummoxed when John Dickerson on “Face the Nation” produced a 2011 clip showing that the bilious billionaire had supported overthrowing Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi .
That TV snippet meant that Trump had agreed with Hillary Clinton on Libya, even though he now excoriates her for helping topple Gadhafi. In fact, Trump’s fast-shifting Libya positions are reminiscent of a horse player who bets on every single pony and then brags about his ability to pick winners.
Never in the nuclear era — no, never since the Know-Nothings — has a political party nominated a candidate who combined Trump’s level of ignorance, arrogance, explosiveness and militaristic bluster.
This was the argument that Clinton made last week in her San Diego foreign policy address. The well-crafted speech, eviscerating Trump as a threat to national security, included lines that were a time capsule from the 1964 campaign:
“This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin. We cannot put the security of our children and grandchildren in Donald Trump’s hands. We cannot let him roll the dice with America.”
But is the roll-the-dice-with-a-dicey-president argument as potent as it was a half-century ago? How politically persuasive is Clinton’s strong assertion that a President Trump would endanger national security?
A national Quinnipiac University poll , conducted in late May, found that voters by a 55 to 33 percent margin trust Clinton more than Trump “to make the right decisions about the use of nuclear weapons.” Clinton even won 16 percent support among Republicans on this explosive question.
If national security were synonymous with wise handling of nuclear weapons, then this might be the election. But the Cold War is over — and the threats that keep Americans awake at 4 a.m. relate more to terrorism and ISIS than to a Soviet attack.
The troubling aspect for Clinton is that voters in the Quinnipiac poll believe that Trump by a 49 to 41 percent margin “would be [the] most effective against ISIS.” And the verdict is split over which candidate would “make the right decision about sending American troops to fight overseas.”
In a sense, the incoherence of the world — when Americans can’t decide whether to worry more about Iran, China, Russia or North Korea — protects Trump from the incoherence of his policy prescriptions. If no one has figured out a way to eliminate terrorism, then maybe, voters might figure, Trump has a point when he suggests committing war crimes against the families of ISIS fighters.
The Cold War, in contrast, was coherent and terrifying. Americans instinctively understood the risks of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union like the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s why the Daisy ad was so devastating. And that’s why Clinton is still searching for the right shorthand to make a similar case against President Trump.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle will be published on June 14: “Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer.” Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro