The Most Consequential Elections in History: Lyndon Johnson and the Election of 1964

Johnson's overreaching in Vietnam was seen by Americans as an expensive mistake.

Portrait dated 09 March 1964 of US President Lyndon Johnson at the White House in Washington.

President Lyndon Johnson at the White House.

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The stakes in this year's presidential campaign are high. But that's nothing new. There have been many other pivotal presidential elections in our history, some that set an entirely new course for the United States and a few that were crucial to the very survival of the republic. To put the current campaign in perspective, U.S. News's White House Correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh, author of four books on the presidency, examines the 10 most consequential elections in American history—the races that produced the biggest change and had the most lasting impact. An installment of this 10-part series will run on the U.S. News website each Wednesday through September. This is the ninth in the series.

It was Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater who said the 1964 election offered Americans "a choice, not an echo." Unfortunately for him, America's choice, overwhelmingly, was his opponent, incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson—and the vast expansion of government power and activism that LBJ represented.

"Few presidents aspired to do more in office than did Lyndon Johnson," writes political scientist Alvin Felzenberg in The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn't). "A man of gargantuan appetites and ambitions, Johnson wanted nothing less than to break the record of his hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had greatly expanded the role of the federal government in American life. Johnson wanted to pick up where FDR had left off."

He did that, and a lot more, including the escalation of the Vietnam war to an intensity that few Americans expected when they cast their ballots for him.

A former majority leader in the Senate and vice president under John F. Kennedy, Johnson succeeded to the presidency after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963. He immediately set about persuading Congress not only to approve the martyred president's agenda but to move far beyond the bills Kennedy had in mind. What followed was a huge profusion of legislation to improve social welfare, including the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 that opened the way for greater equality for African-Americans, federal aid to education, and a large variety of social programs that Johnson called the "War on Poverty."

"Speedy passage of bills was Johnson's primary concern," writes Felzenberg. "As soon as one measure had passed, Johnson would move on to the next. In that sense, Johnson never made the transition from Senate majority leader to president of the United States." He was a nuts-and-bolts politician and a Washington insider, and lacked the communication skills or charisma to give the country a wider sense of vision or to inspire his fellow citizens, as Kennedy had done.

Another part of Kennedy's legacy was even more troublesome—support for South Vietnam in its bitter conflict with the north. Johnson positioned himself as less bellicose than Goldwater in the 1964 campaign, and his relative moderation was appealing to voters. But after the election, LBJ vastly escalated Kennedy's commitment from fewer than 20,000 U.S. troops to more than a half million.

The 1964 campaign was also noteworthy because Democrats pioneered the kind of negativity that has become a staple of American politics ever since. They succeeded in scaring the country into opposing Goldwater, a conservative senator from Arizona who was portrayed as extremely far right and warlike. In one famous TV ad, the Johnson campaign showed a little girl in a flower-filled meadow. In the commercial, the girl suddenly looked up and a mushroom cloud appeared on the screen. Johnson's voice was then heard saying "These are the stakes"—an obvious suggestion that Goldwater would blunder into a nuclear war. The ad was so effective that it ran only once on network television. More than that seemed overkill to Johnson and his handlers.

They were correct. Johnson won the 1964 election by a landslide. This enabled him to continue expanding what he called his "Great Society" programs as he bulldozed and cajoled a Democratic-controlled Congress into following his lead. Among the vast array of bills that he got passed were health assistance for the elderly and the poor and measures to protect the environment, increase aid to education, prohibit discrimination in housing, and protect consumers.