“Friends, Romans, countrymen, we come to bury Goldwater, not to praise him.”
Those were the words of Harvard Law professor Mark DeWolfe Howe ’28 as he stood in front of a crowd of protesters in Boston Common on the cold and windy afternoon of Oct. 31, 1964. His proclamation mirrored the sentiments of many students on campus, where Republican presidential nominee Barry M. Goldwater was drawing little favor among the undergraduates.
The 1964 election revealed deep-seated tensions in both the country and Republican Party. Moderates and ultra-conservatives clashed over Goldwater’s stances. The Arizona senator’s divisive candidacy, complete with accusations of bigotry, political infighting, and widespread opposition among mainstream Republicans, contains many parallels to this year’s GOP standard bearer.
From Goldwater to Trump
On the night of Nov. 3, 1964, results from the presidential election came in from across the country. Democratic incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson trounced his Republican opponent in one of the largest landslides in presidential history, winning 61 percent of the popular vote and garnering 486 electoral college votes. Johnson’s victory kept the Democratic Party in the White House.
But the 1964 presidential election was atypical from its beginning. With the assassination of President John F. Kennedy ’40 in August of 1963, the nation was still in mourning. Political leaders decided that formal campaigning would not begin from either party until the beginning of the primary season in January.
As the presidential election began to ramp up, the public’s attention was focused on the escalation of the Vietnam War. Americans also remained divided on bitter issues of civil rights and the threat of communism.
From the beginning, Goldwater advanced a hardline conservative stance on these issues. Goldwater’s campaign was dogged by accusations of bigotry; he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and earned endorsements from KKK members. Goldwater seemed like an extremist to both liberals and moderate Republicans.
While Goldwater’s rhetoric has been compared to Trump’s, the two candidates came from very different backgrounds. Goldwater was a career politician who had previously served two terms as a U.S. senator, while Trump has never held political office. Further, Goldwater backed a consistent political ideology for much of his career, centered around an opposition to big government and New Deal legislation.
Still, just as many Republicans were concerned that Goldwater would affect down-ticket races, Congressional seats, and the future viability of the party, so too do Republicans share those concerns about Trump’s role today.
A ‘Left-Leaning’ Campus
In 1964, straw polls conducted on campus by The Crimson showed that Goldwater had little support from undergraduates leading up to the election, with only 16 percent of the campus favoring his candidacy. His opponent Johnson, meanwhile, received 86 percent of campus votes, the largest margin in the poll’s history.
In an email to The Crimson, Eric A. Von Salzen ’65, the president of the Harvard Young Republican Club at the time of the election, characterized Harvard of 1964 as “a left-leaning campus, both among students and faculty.”
Although the majority of Harvard opposed Goldwater, political discussions on campus were usually peaceful. “As I recall it, most students and faculty tolerated these differences of opinion,” Von Salzen wrote. “I don’t recall any ‘McCarthyism’ on either side.”
Harvard Republicans campaigned for Goldwater that year, some through national conservative and Republican groups, and others with local GOP organizations. Though Von Salzen supported Nelson A. Rockefeller during the primaries, he came around in favor of Goldwater after the Arizona senator secured the nomination.
“[We] worked with local Republican organizations on get-out-the-vote efforts for all Republican candidates, including Goldwater,” he wrote. “I don’t think anyone thought that Goldwater could carry Massachusetts!”
However, Republicans on campus were divided on whether to support Goldwater, who had become a polarizing candidate by the time of his nomination. Some moderate members of the club even proposed that the club refuse to officially endorse him.
“I felt that the Harvard Young Republicans should make it official that we supported the nominee,” Von Salzen wrote. “And so I called a meeting of the membership for that purpose.”
The meeting was tense. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the club’s executive committee failed to endorse Goldwater, threatening to further divide the conservative and moderate factions of HYRC. At the meeting, these groups clashed repeatedly over the question of the club’s endorsement.
“This issue has gone too far. I ask you why should we endorse the national ticket when our club has been shattered by it—our membership in disarray,” Robert L. Beal ’63 said in a meeting, which was covered by The Crimson.
The discussion was so loud that club members eventually had to close the windows of Harvard Hall to avoid bothering passersby. Eventually, though, the Harvard Young Republican Club voted to endorse Goldwater, 67-35.
HYRC and its successor, the Harvard Republican Club, have supported the party’s nominee every year until this one.
In August, the club announced that it would not support the GOP presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump—the first time in the club’s 128-year history.
“This fall,” the club wrote in a Facebook post, “we will instead focus our efforts on reclaiming the Republican Party from those who have done it conable harm, campaigning for candidates who will uphold the conservative principles that have defined the Republican Party for generations.”
A CROOK AND A KOOK
Concerns of the time were captured in a 1964 Crimson op-ed by Michael A. Lerner ’65, which asked: “Is the GOP Dying?”
“It is easy to scoff at the idea that, as result of a single election, one of our national parties may be dying,” Lerner argued. “Yet it will be difficult for the moderate Republicans to run again with a label which, if Goldwater forces do continue to speak for the G.O.P., will associate them with a philosophy unpalatable to their liberal constituents.”
Looking back, Von Salzen had a more charitable view of the situation. In his view, Goldwater’s candidacy was a factor in the broad geographic and demographic shifts occurring in partisan politics at the time.
“It’s true that Goldwater was a divisive figure in the Republican Party in 1964,” he wrote. “But that was because the nature of our two-party system was changing, and for the Republican Party Goldwater was an agent of change.”
Still, certain voters found both Johnson and Goldwater equally unappealing. Their complaints bear a striking similarity to negative perceptions of Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent.
Lerner’s op-ed cites one such voter’s opinion: “They have given me the choice between a crook and a kook. I guess I’ll vote for the crook.”