50 Years Since Barry Goldwater’s Nomination II: LBJ’s War on Talk Radio

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwater for president. Goldwater lost a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, and it’s likely he would have lost either way. But The Right Frequency describes how Johnson’s campaign played dirty nevertheless, using Nixonian tactics well before Watergate, tactics that resemble the politically-motivated IRS Tea Party targeting scandal of 2012.

Barry Goldwater (AZLibrary.gov)

Barry Goldwater (AZLibrary.gov)

From The Right Frequency:

Fred J. Cook, a friend from his journalism days, into the fold to write a piece for The Nation magazine lashing out against conservative talk radio. Cook had just finished a book “Barry Goldwater: Extremist on the Right.” The talk radio piece in The Nation ran in the May 25, 1964 issue with the headline, “Hate Clubs of the Air.” It said, “The hate clubs of the air are spewing out a minimum of 6,600 broadcasts a week, carried by more than 1,300 radio and television stations—nearly one out of every five in the nation in a blitz that saturates everyone one of the fifty states with the exception of Maine.”

According to Friendly’s book, “Because of the close association of James Row with President Johnson and also because of John Bailey’s standing as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, there is little doubt that this contrived scheme had White House approval.”

Bill Ruder, an Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Johnson administration recalled, “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass right-wing broadcasters and hope that the challenge would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too expensive to continue.”

The DNC mailed out thousands of copies of Cook’s Nation article to Democratic state and local parties and Democratic officials. The DNC also mailed the article to radio stations, with a letter from DNC counsel Dan Brightman warning that if Democrats are attacked, demands will be made for equal time. When McIntire criticized Brightman for sending the letter, the DNC demanded and got free airtime to respond on about 600 stations. Then, when Dan Smoot assailed LBJ during the Democratic National Convention, the DNC got free airtime to respond on 30 stations, though others declined.

Democrats believed their strategy was successful and decided to accelerate things, setting up another front group called the National Council for Civic Responsibility that took out full page newspaper ads that said, “$10 million is spent on weekly radio and television broadcasts in all 50 states by extremists groups.” Picked to head the group was Arthur Larson, a liberal Republican who had served in the Eisenhower administration. Larson insisted at the National Press Club, “The council’s formation had nothing to do with the presidential campaign or with the right-wing views of Republican candidate Senator Barry Goldwater.” Though, he later came clean that leading the organization was not his proudest moment. “The whole thing was not my idea, but let’s face it, we decided to use the Fairness Doctrine to harass the extreme right. In light of Watergate it was wrong. We felt the ends justified the means. They never do.” He also added, “As soon as I found out the Democrats were putting money into it, I wanted out.”

The Democrats produced their own show called “Spotlight,” prepared segments ready to run as response in free airtime. These spots ran on 60 stations and were hosted by an actor employed by
Rudder & Finn whose on-air name was William Dennis. Johnson scored a massive landslide, carrying all but six states. Dirty tricks by the Democrats had no more to do with his ability to beat Goldwater than Watergate had with Nixon’s ability to trounce George McGovern eight years later. Nevertheless, political operatives felt compelled to resort to nefarious deeds to ensure a wipeout on Election Day.

To learn more about the Johnson operation read The Right Frequency.


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