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Jul 07 2011

A Presidential Hootenanny: Lyndon B. Johnson Visits NC State

President Lyndon Johnson and Ladybird Johnson at Democratic campaign rally held in Reynolds Coliseum, October 6, 1964

Contributed by Josh Hager

Continuing our blogs about famous visitors to NC State, Historically Stated now turns to the most famous graduate of the Southwest Texas State Teachers College, President Lyndon B. Johnson.  On October 6, 1964, President Johnson visited Reynolds Coliseum as part of a whistle-stop campaign tour.  He was in the home-stretch of his campaign to keep the presidency after taking that office upon the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Johnson’s opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, was an outspoken champion of conservatism.  In response, Johnson’s campaign consistently tried to color Goldwater as a dangerous man who could endanger the United States through his hard-line policies.  Criticizing Goldwater’s ability to act as president was one of Johnson’s major talking points in his address at Reynolds Coliseum.

The Technician described Johnson’s speech as a “hootenanny.”  Considering the great deal of traffic, media, bands, and other prominent political figures such as Governor Terry Sanford and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Moore, the newspaper’s characterization was quite accurate.  The First Family arrived in Raleigh separately, as the President flew to Raleigh while the First Lady, Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson, commonly known as Lady Bird Johnson, entered the city on a specially-commissioned campaign train named the “Lady Bird Special.”  Interestingly, the Secret Service instructed students with dorm rooms facing Reynolds Coliseum to keep their windows closed throughout the evening.  Coming less than a year after Kennedy’s assassination from a window in Dallas, this precaution is completely understandable.

President Johnson’s address to 14,000 people in Reynolds dealt with two major themes:  farm subsidies and the responsibilities of the presidency.  Firstly, Johnson promised to maintain subsidies, contrasting with Goldwater’s plan to end the program.  Addressing subsidies was a savvy political decision for Johnson in his attempt to court tobacco farmers and other agricultural interests in North Carolina.  Secondly, Johnson extemporaneously spoke on Senator Goldwater’s inability to responsibly handle the difficult tasks of the presidency that he would face.  The Johnson campaign had famously produced a television advertisement, aired only once, that depicted a nuclear bomb dropping, thereby suggesting that electing Goldwater could lead to such an event.  Referencing that fear, Johnson said “Peace is the most important word in the English language…We realized that you could press a button and wipe out the lives of 300 million people and you cannot recall these lives.”  Yet nothing of real substance arose from Johnson’s address, as his talking points had been discussed in depth before.  In reality, Johnson’s address was a well-calculated political rally.  Even Johnson’s exit was a classic political move.  Going to the Reynolds balcony to speak to those who could not gain admission to Reynolds, Johnson urged the assembled crowd to vote Democratic “from the White House to the Court House.”  As per his characteristic straightforwardness, President Johnson made his plea for votes in perhaps the least subtle manner possible.

Ultimately, Johnson’s visit to Raleigh probably did not affect the final outcome of the presidential election.  North Carolina joined the majority of the country in electing Johnson in a landslide over Goldwater.  Dan Moore won the governorship in a victory that surprised no one given North Carolina’s strong Democratic leanings at the time.  While Goldwater’s conservatism eventually paved the way for Ronald Reagan’s success (who happens to be another famous visitor to campus), the nation in 1964 rallied behind President Johnson and his promise of domestic reforms in the “Great Society.”  Unfortunately, a festering conflict on the other side of the world would soon blow up into a controversial war.  Johnson’s political success reached its peak in 1964; it would reach its nadir in the Mekong Delta in the subsequent years.

All information comes from The Technician, October 2-9, 1964.

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