Almost half a century ago, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater spoke candidly about the possibility of nuclear warfare in Vietnam and of mining the harbors in Hanoi. The uproar was instantaneous, and the conservative Arizona senator struggled to overcome an image of bellicosity that frightened away voters by the droves. He never recovered and lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson.
Because this marked one of the earliest examples of bellicose Republican extremism, you would think that Mitt Romney’s team would have this lesson taped up around their campaign headquarters. In fact, Mitt has a personal reason to be aware of all this, not least because it launched the Free Speech movement, whose activities cause heart attacks among his colleagues and the reason it was launched was because of his dad.
George Romney has not registered much in this election (neither has another George—Dubya—but that another story). Although a Mormon like his son, George passed for a moderate and engineered an impressive career that encompassed being CEO of American Motors (AMC) when the ‘big four’ of Detroit still wrote the book on car development. He parlayed this into the Governorship of the state (Michigan) and left behind a record of which most businessmen or politicians should be justly proud.
What is less well know is that George went on to contest the Republican candidacy in 1964 and the world might have wound up a different place had he succeeded. Being a moderate, he gained wide support, especially among students and UC Berkeley Republican Club availed themselves of a 75-year-old tradition on campus that allowed students to set out stalls advocating various political causes. In the Fall semester of 1964, this is exactly what they did, distributing material in support of Mitt’s dad.
In the 1960’s, first on the Berkeley campus and spreading until it was international, students tested the limits of permissible dissent, challenged the conventional wisdom in unprecedented ways and insisted on participating as active agents in the shaping of history. With the intensity of the 1964 campaign, a tension arose between students who wished to express their various views and UC Berkeley officials who, to be fair, were being prodded by outside forces.
In this era of crew-cuts, fraternity jackets and fresh-faced students who would graduate and work for IBM and the other huge American corporations, President Kerr and his Board of Regents were none too happy that a ragged, ill-disciplined minority had assortments of hand-drawn placards and card tables vocally manned by young advocates of sundry clauses. But, while they were shifted around the campus to be less visible, toleration prevailed on both sides.
Matters came to a head however when staunch Goldwater supporter William Knowland, publisher of the (at the time) right-wing Tribune paper in nearby Oakland, prodded UC Berkeley officials to suppress the student Republicans who, to his taste, were doing entirely too good a job of promoting George Romney. The action of removing them was carried out by the campus police without much difficulty, such was the respect for authority prevalent at the time, even among students.
Before the next day, a disquieted group of remaining activists gathered and decided that, though they were no Republicans, this curtailment of speech affected them all. As a result, not only did the Republicans set up their tables the next day outside Sproul Hall but others did too and a crowd gathered in support. Back came the police to remove the Republicans and bundle them into their squad car. But, before they could leave, the car was surrounded by angry students and one of them Mario Savio who would go on to found the Free Speech Movement climbed onto the police car to speak to the crowd.
But before he did so, he took off his shoes so as not to damage its paintwork. That was still the fifties (a plaque nearby marking “Mario Savio’s Steps” and the occasion was erected nearby in 1997).
On the third day, pretty much the same scenario was acted out—but this time the police car was so covered with students that the police retreated on foot…and none of the students bothered removing their shoes before they climbed all over it. That, people who were there agree, marked the launch of the sixties: the rest is history.
Romney the elder (and more moderate) lost to Goldwater (who wasn’t) by a landslide, opening the way for the first ever attack ad, run by LBJ against Goldwater. His ‘Daisy’ commercial showed only once on TV: a small girl counting petals as she picked them off a flower, with ’10’ obliterated by a nuclear blast and a voice intones: “These are the stakes—to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark…Vote for President Johnson on November 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”
For Goldwater, given to apocalyptic banter about “lobbing missiles into the men’s room of the Kremlin“, this was fatal to his campaign. Before he panders further to the hawks that dominate the Republican party, Mitt Romney might reflect on how a similar attitude lost the 1964 election—and started the whole commie/pinko/stroppy/free-thinking apocalypse that was the sixties and that he and colleagues still have trouble coming to terms with half a century later.