A Presidential Puzzler (and my first blog post!)

Only three state primary elections mattered in 1964: New Hampshire, Oregon and California, where direct combat between major candidates took place. Thirteen other states held primaries, but at least one of the major players avoided them. Other states were still using the caucus system or allowing party functionaries to pick convention delegates. But the primaries mattered: a serious candidate needed a win in one of the three to spur convention enthusiasm.

Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller anchored opposite ends of the spectrum, and both sought a win in New Hampshire’s first election, in March.

Both lost—badly—to a silk-stocking New England candidate with a big name and a madcap collection of young supporters out to have some fun. The candidate stayed at his day job, which happened to be that of U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam.

Henry Cabot Lodge carried a name as famous in New England as Rockefeller, and he had friends from his political career in neighboring Massachusetts. But he had told Rockefeller he would back him, and he had this day job to attend to.

The venerable chronicler of presidential elections, Theodore White, wrote: “The Lodge campaign as seen in the field was a madcap adventure, the gayest, the happiest, the most lighthearted adventure of the entire year 1964.” It was done without Lodge’s approval—necessitating a write-in campaign—and the candidate never left Saigon. He won with 33,000 voters to Goldwater’s 20,700 and Rockefeller’s 19,500 (Richard Nixon got 15,600 write-in votes). The madcap 20-somethings campaigners spent a few thousand dollars for direct mail and signs.

All the action was in the Republican primary: President Lyndon Johnson was in office as the result of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the year before, and he was not opposed by any serious candidate. Lodge’s win threw the Republican primaries into a tailspin; too late to enter other primaries, Rockefeller and Goldwater knew they needed Oregon or California.

Lodge had some momentum, but was not well-liked by Republican insiders (the Ted Cruz effect) nor was he a good campaigner—if he actually showed up. He lost his Senate seat to Kennedy in 1952. Richard Rovere, who covered the race for the New Yorker, referred to Lodge:

 

In professional circles, the impression is widespread that Lodge is wanting in diligence. There are ugly rumors to the effect that he is addicted to long afternoon nape—a practice considered winning in Calvin Coolidge and advisable for Lyndon Johnson but one that, in these stern times when Republican votes come hard, is evidently as inexcusable for a Republican as a divorce.

 

Therein was the rub for Nelson Rockefeller. Not only was he divorced from his wife of many years, but he had remarried, to a younger woman who lost custody of her four children to her husband. Margaretta Fitler Murphy Rockefeller was a handsome and graceful woman obviously in love with her new husband, but she had cost him votes in New Hampshire and her silhouette made it more than obvious that he was very pregnant.

As late as possible, she campaigned with Rockefeller; I encountered the couple one weekend as Oregon’s May primary neared. The governor was in fine form, putting an enormous surge of energy into the campaign, and Happy (the name everyone called Mrs. Rockefeller) seemed oblivious to an audience transfixed as much by the state of her pregnancy as to the passionate oration of her husband. I still have a photo I took of the couple, but my coverage in The Oregon Statesman of the event is buried on microfilm.

Oregon Republicans may not have been as judgmental as those in New Hampshire, where the divorce was blamed by many pundits for Rockefeller’s defeat. But Oregon Republicans had an easier choice, because only Rockefeller spent time in the state—and he spent a great deal of time and money, showing up in small towns with his trademark, “Hiya Fella” greetings to cover his inability to remember names. Goldwater mounted a campaign but was an absentee candidate, concentrating on California. Neither Lodge nor Nixon appeared in the state.

Rockefeller’s slogan, “He cares enough to come”, carried the day on signs, billboards and direct mail. Oregonians in those days enjoyed the limelight of primary elections and if they had scruples about Rocky and Happy, it didn’t effect the vote. Rockefeller embarked for the critical California primary with 93,000 votes to 78,000 for Lodge, 50,000 for Goldwater and 48,000 for Nixon.

It all came to a head in California: the vote, Happy’s pregnancy, and a terrible rift in the Republican Party that later surfaced in one of the nastiest, angriest national conventions in history. Happy delivered their son two days before Californians voted. Polls showed Rockefeller with a 49-40 percent lead on the final Friday, cut to 42-40 the day after the birth, and then at a dead heat, 44-44 on election day. In the final count, Goldwater carried 51.6 percent, winning his margin in southern California.

Moderates scrambled to derail the Goldwater surge, turning to governors William Scranton of Pennsylvania and George Romney of Michigan, and even to Richard Nixon. Nothing came of it and Goldwater carried the GOP banner to a trouncing in November. But in so doing he scattered the seeds that would later lead to the Tea Party and that reversed the party’s standing in the Solid South for the next half century (and beyond).

Oregon Republicans continued to hold a warm spot in their hearts for Nelson Rockefeller. As late as 1968, Governor Tom McCall and others saw him as the answer to the resurgent Richard Nixon. Rockefeller may hold the record for number of appearances by an outside politician at the Dorchester Conference, once the home of moderate Republicans. I interviewed him at least twice at the annual conferences.

My recollections of Dorchester and Rockefeller form a part of my new book, Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State, to be published in late March by Oregon State University Press. Yes, this is a shameless pitch for the book, which provides a personal look at politics and media during that Golden Age, 1964 to 1986.

Advertisements