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Clinton Takes Page Out of LBJ Playbook in Attacking Trump

Hillary Clinton may have been a Goldwater Girl in college, but she’s cribbing from the playbook used to defeat the former Arizona senator in her campaign against Donald Trump.
Image: Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses as she speaks at a campaign event at Truckee Meadows Community College, in Reno, Nev., Thursday, Aug. 25.Carolyn Kaster / AP

Hillary Clinton may have been a Goldwater Girl in college, but she’s cribbing from the playbook used to defeat the former Arizona senator when he ran against President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Sharp observers immediately spotted the similarities between the video Clinton’s campaign released this week connecting Donald Trump and white supremacists to a similar ad Johnson’s campaign cut, but never ran, during his campaign against Goldwater.

Clinton’s video, which aides have suggested will not run on TV, featured KKK imagery and testimony of white supremacists explaining why they agree with Trump.

Johnson’s ad showed images of a Klan cross burning as a narrator quotes an Alabama KKK Leader saying, "I like Barry Goldwater. He needs our help."

Earlier this summer, ahead of the Republican National Convention, Clinton even re-made Johnson’s “Confessions of a Republican” ad, hiring the same actor from the 1964 original.

Clinton’s ad reused most of the original script, replacing “Goldwater” with “Trump” and “San Francisco,” the site of the 1964 Republican convention, with “Cleveland,” where this year's GOP gathering took place.

The ad worked as well today as it did half a century ago because Clinton’s overall message is similar to Johnson’s in many ways.

Johnson portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous and unstable figure who might recklessly start a nuclear war. And he weaponized Goldwater’s own words against him to argue Goldwater was a radical aberration from the Republican Party -- a candidate who had embraced the hateful fringe. The point, repeated at the end of many ads: "The stakes are too high for you to stay home."

Clinton has embraced these same themes and tactics this year.

Clinton has for months been arguing the presidency requires steady leadership, and juxtaposed that demand with Trump's inflammatory language. “In times of crisis, America depends on steady leadership,” the narrator of a new Clinton ad intones over the sound of jets taking off and bombs falling. “Because all it takes is one wrong move. Just one.”

One Johnson ad implied Goldwater didn't have the temperament to match former presidents. "In the final loneliness of this room they have been prudent. They have known that the decisions they make here can change the course of history or end history altogether."

While Clinton and Johnson's messages are thematically similar, Robert Mann, a historian at Louisiana State University who wrote a book about how Johnson’s ad campaigns changed American politics, said they're stylistically different.

“Clinton's spots are telling the viewer something instead of giving the viewer an experience,” said Mann.

Where Clinton, especially in her speech Thursday, piled example upon example of Trump outrageous comments, Johnson’s campaign started from the assumption that viewers were familiar with Goldwater's rhetoric.

So the ads often held on one powerful image and mostly got out of the way. There’s the little girl picking daisies who then gets consumed by a mushroom cloud, or a different girl licking an ice cream cone as viewers hear about radioactive particles that could end up in the ice cream thanks to nuclear testing, since Goldwater opposed a ban on testing the weapons.

Clinton's ads have also used the innocence of children to powerful effect, like one ad asking parents if they want their children to grow up seeing Trump as president.

But Johnson's minimalist, show-don't-tell strategy helped his ads stand out from the pack. "I've always thought that those kind of spots would still work today -- maybe even more so today -- because you're competing with the screaming car commercials and the ambulance chasing lawyers and all of a sudden there comes along a quiet spot that makes you look up,” said Mann.

The famous minute-long “Eastern Seaboard” ad takes 25 seconds -- nearly the entire length of a shorter spot -- before the narration comes in.

“Sometimes I think this county would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float off to sea,” it quotes Goldwater as saying, while the eastern portion of a wooden map of the country is sawed off and floats away.