Thirty-five years ago today, a signal event in American politics occurred. On that day, Barry Goldwater defeated Nelson Rockefeller by 48,953 votes out of more than 2 million cast in the California presidential primary, thereby cinching the Republican nomination.
The Goldwater victory was an upset. After a stumbling start, Rockefeller, then governor of New York, had come on strong, winning the Oregon primary that was the stage-setter for California. Nine days before the California vote, the senator from Arizona climaxed a series of costly gaffes by telling television interviewers he favored the use of "low-yield atomic weapons" to "defoliate" the jungles in Vietnam. With unlimited finances, a lead in the polls, the support of the former governor and senior senator plus the crack political consulting team of Stu Spencer and Bill Roberts, Rockefeller was sitting pretty in California.
But three days before the primary, Rockefeller's second wife, Happy, gave birth to their first son, Nelson Jr. And California Republicans were reminded that Rockefeller was not just a liberal -- a champion of civil rights who had worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt -- but a libertine, a man who had divorced his wife to marry a younger woman, who had walked out on her own husband and children to hook up with him.
History was changed by Goldwater's winning the final primary of the year. In the general election, his casual belligerence alarmed voters, helping Lyndon Johnson to a landslide victory and electing a lopsidedly Democratic Congress. America was transformed by the civil rights bills, the Medicare program and the rest of the Great Society legislation enacted by that Congress. But it also endorsed Johnson's fatal Vietnam policies. In subsequent years, Democrats lost the South and all but one of the next six presidential elections.
On the Republican side, the long-term effects were even greater. Rockefeller's defeat was decisive for the Eastern establishment, which had dominated the GOP financially and politically for decades. Power shifted decisively south and west. The Goldwater campaign gave Ronald Reagan his first national platform, and two years later he was governor of California. Reagan redefined the Republican mainstream, became the first two-term GOP president since Eisenhower and handed off to George Bush, whose son is now the establishment candidate for the presidential nomination of 2000.
The story of that California primary takes only a few pages in Jon Margolis's newly published social and political history, "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964." But along with the many other events and incidents Margolis recounts, it supports his thesis that much of what shapes our current world took form during the 12 months from John Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 to Johnson's election.
A retired Chicago Tribune reporter, Margolis recreates the scenes and characters of that year in a series of short, sharply edged vignettes, moving easily from the Beatles' invasion of America to the Clay-Liston bout to the horrors of the civil rights murders in Neshoba County, Miss., and the shocks of the "Free Speech Movement" in Berkeley.
It was a year when old institutions were cracking under the strain of new forces, and Lyndon Johnson, the complex man who had craved the presidency but never convinced himself he belonged there, was struggling constantly to understand these changes -- and shape them to his own ends.
The chief antagonist, in his mind, was not Goldwater but Robert Kennedy, the survivor and the keeper of a legacy Johnson saw as deeply threatening to his own legitimacy. Margolis, exploiting all the resources of the presidential libraries, recreates their unequal struggle as an elemental Cain and Abel rivalry, one that ultimately destroyed both men.
That destruction climaxed in 1968, the worst year in the past half- century for America, whose miseries were well captured in a volume published a few years ago by another journalist, Jules Witcover.
But the unraveling began in 1964, and so did the construction of our new age -- including, as Margolis reminds us, the start-up of the first fully computerized bakery at the Sara Lee Company site in Deerfield, Ill. An Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution asked policymakers to consider what steps should be taken to ensure that the social consequences of the computer age would be not mass unemployment, but liberation from "repetitive and meaningless toil," and freedom to pursue the travel and recreation so many millions of Americans enjoyed this past weekend.
Margolis's book is more than a good read; it is a reminder to those who lived through that year -- and a lesson to those who didn't -- of where so much of contemporary American politics and society began.