1964 Twenty-five Years Ago

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President Lyndon Johnson took advantage of his incumbency and the negative public image of his Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, to win an overwhelming victory in the November 3 presidential election. Johnson accumulated 61.4 percent of the popular vote while carrying forty-four states.

“I lost whatever small chance I ever had to be President in San Francisco at the Republican National Convention,” Goldwater wrote years after the 1964 election. Mutual distrust between the moderate wing of New York’s governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and Goldwater’s conservative wing of the Republican party had broken out in open warfare when Goldwater’s nomination became likely that summer. The Pennsylvania governor William Scranton’s description of Goldwater’s candidacy as “a whole crazy-quilt collection of absurd and dangerous positions that would be soundly repudiated by the American people” was typical of the attacks the Arizona senator faced in Republican primaries. “By the time the convention opened I had been branded as a fascist, a racist, a trigger-happy warmonger, a nuclear madman, and the candidate who couldn’t win,” Goldwater remembered.

The truth was probably that no candidate could have beaten Lyndon Johnson that November. As successor to a martyred President, Johnson represented the continuation of the Kennedy administration’s policies; as the man who engineered passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson would gain the support of 95 percent of the nation’s black voters. Moreover, Democratic candidates dominated the 1964 election, sending large majorities to both houses of Congress. But Goldwater’s losing campaign marked the end of the five decades of struggle for ideological control of the Republican party that had begun with Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy in 1912.

On November 4 a New York criminal court convicted the comedian Lenny Bruce of giving an obscene performance at a Greenwich Village nightclub. The court sentenced Bruce to four months in prison and fined the nightclub owner who had employed him. The principal witness for the prosecution was a police inspector named Herbert S. Ruhe, who had drawn the distasteful job of attending Bruce’s performance and writing down the offensive words he heard. Bruce insisted that the prosecution was misrepresenting his comedy by removing individual words from the context in which he had used them, but the court ruled that his expletive-filled monologue was “patently offensive to the average person in the community, as judged by present day standards.”

Bruce’s attorneys produced an array of scholarly authorities who described Bruce as “one of our sharpest, most cogent, articulate satirists writing or speaking today,” but the court disagreed. Though Bruce remained free pending an appeal, club owners were afraid to hire a comedian who was hounded by police officers poised to arrest him if he uttered an obscenity.

Bruce died in Hollywood of a drug overdose in 1966. “Although he seemed to be doing his utmost at times to antagonize his audiences,” recalled The New York Times , “he also displayed an air of morality beneath his brashness that some felt made his lapses in taste often forgivable and sometimes necessary.” Two years after his death the New York Appellate Court reversed his conviction, ruling that while Bruce’s comedy was “coarse, vulgar and profane . . . it was error to hold that the performances were without social importance.”