Some of you may remember the famous Jesse Helms ad of 1990 in his race against Democrat Harvey Gantt, a black man. It featured a pair of white hands angrily crumpling up a letter, while the announcer explained that the man had just been informed that he didn’t get a job because a less qualified minority did. (The ad was written and produced by Alex Castellanos, now a regular on CNN).
Until this week, when I ran across the political flyer to the right from the 1964 campaign, I didn’t fully appreciate the rich political heritage behind the Helms ad, or why it drew such a strong reaction. In ‘64, in the wake of the signing of the Civil Rights Act by President Johnson, Barry Goldwater and his advisers had decided that their best chance was to play to white Southern resentment by pitting white against black on economic terms. (To be fair, it was an age-old tactic that southern Democrats had been using at the state and local levels for decades to keep themselves in power.)
The text of the flyer is a little blurry, so let me make it clear:
Did you know that Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill can get you fired from your job and give it to a person of another race? No matter what ability you have to do your job … or how much seniority you have on your job … you can lose your job because of Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill. This is your last chance. Vote to put an end to racial favoritism…vote to protect your job…your family…your home.
This is your last chance to save your freedom to run your own business as you choose!
As I’ve tried to make clear, I believed Senate candidate Rand Paul when he insisted that his (now-retracted) opposition to the Civil Rights Act was based on strict libertarian principles rather than racism. On a purely intellectual level, you can make a valid if unconvincing argument to that effect. But the strong similarity between that position and the clear appeal to racism in the flyer helps explain why the public reacted so strongly to Paul’s argument, however based in principle it might be. Paul was naive to expect any other reaction.
The flyer is also an artifact of a transition point in U.S. politics. In 1960, in a race that was decided by a razor-thin margin nationwide, Democrat John F. Kennedy defeated Republican Richard M. Nixon in Georgia by the overwhelming margin of 62.5 percent to 37.4 percent. Even Kennedy’s Catholicism couldn’t threaten the South’s strong ties to the Democratic Party. (And yes, Catholicism was still an issue back then in the South. My Virginia-born grandmother, I’m told, was not very happy to be introduced to my father’s Catholic bride-to-be.)
Four years later, after LBJ’s signing of the Civil Rights Act and Goldwater’s embrace of the tactics exemplified by the flyer, everything changed and Georgia voted Republican for the first time ever. Again, it wasn’t even close, with Goldwater pulling 54.1 percent to LBJ’s 45.9 percent. The only other states that Goldwater carried that year — in addition to his native Arizona — were South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, none of which had voted Republican since Reconstruction.