John McCain recently accused Barack Obama of advocating socialist policies. It turns out he was channeling one of his illustrious home-state predecessors—Barry Goldwater.
In newly unearthed correspondence, Goldwater, the famed GOP senator from Arizona and a conservative icon, wrote a stinging letter to Lyndon Johnson just after he heard the news that the then Senate majority leader had agreed to be John F. Kennedy's running mate in the 1960 election.
Goldwater's complaint: that Johnson would be running on a "socialist" Democratic Party platform.
"Dear Lyndon," Goldwater wrote to LBJ on July 15, 1960. "It is the morning after, so to speak and as I sit here in my study, I still have a numb feeling of despair over your actions of yesterday in accepting the candidacy for Vice President. It is difficult to imagine a person like you running in a second spot to a weaker man, but it is even more incredible to try to understand how you are going to try to embrace the socialist platform of your party. I think many people, Lyndon, share my feeling of disappointment."
Goldwater—who was known for his candor, not to mention his occasional grouchiness—then added: "You were intended for great things, but I don't think you are going to achieve them now. It is not easy to write this letter for I have always had respect for you. Sincerely, Barry Goldwater."
Johnson took a somewhat more measured tone in his response nearly a month later.
"Dear Barry," he replied on Aug. 11, 1960. "I think all of us have to decide for ourselves what represents a "socialist" platform, and what represents the reasonable consensus upon which a political party can honorably go to the country. I made my decision not on the basis of seeking [to be Kennedy's running mate] which would lead to 'great things,' but upon my inner belief as to what represented a clear call to duty. Sincerely, Lyndon B. Johnson."
The correspondence was discovered last weekend in the LBJ Library by Ben Barnes, a veteran Washington lobbyist from Texas and former Johnson protégé. Barnes was prompted to look for the letters after reading McCain approvingly quote his campaign's newfound workingman's hero, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher (a.k.a. Joe the Plumber) saying that Obama's economic views "sounded a lot like socialism."
"At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are up front about their objectives," McCain said in a speech last Saturday in New Hampshire.
The parallels were not lost on Barnes. In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK attached to the correspondence, he wrote: "Ironically, this is not the first time a Senator from Arizona has attacked the Democratic nominee charging socialism."
Robert Dallek, a historian and Johnson biographer, says he's never seen the 1960 exchange between Johnson and Goldwater that Barnes discovered. But Dallek says that "in terms of where Goldwater was at the time, it doesn't surprise me." The charge of "socialism" against Democrats like Kennedy and Johnson "is the kind of rhetoric the country had been hearing [from conservative Republicans] for a while."
It wasn't always politically effective. Kennedy and Johnson narrowly edged their Republican opponents, Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, in the 1960 election. Four years later, Johnson trounced Goldwater in a landslide.
McCain is fond of citing Goldwater on the stump. But Democrats don't talk much about Johnson anymore, Dallek notes. Last Aug. 27 was the 100th anniversary of Johnson's birth. But despite the urging of some old admirers, no mention of that was made at the Democratic convention at which Obama was nominated. The reason, Dallek says, is almost certainly the legacy of Vietnam and its uncomfortable parallels with the war in Iraq. But LBJ's star might yet rise again, Dallek suggests—especially if the country's economic woes continue. Then the new Obama Democrats might start to focus more on Johnson's economic and domestic policies—not to mention his effective deflection of the "socialist" label.