Directions from Right to Left

You might have noticed a “Goldwater in ‘68” sign in a window on the Mad Men premier. This may seem trivial, but is part of a more convoluted story. For those youngsters in the room, Barry Goldwater was a conservative Republican Senator from Arizona. He ran for President in 1964 against President Lyndon Johnson. My grandparents, as life-long Republicans, called Goldwater a true conservative for my entire life. They appreciated his stand on conservative issues while rejecting the evangelical right. Lyndon Johnson was the Vice President under Kennedy. He became President after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Johnson won the presidency in one of the largest landslides in history.

Obviously there are multiple points of view on the campaign and results. But many consider the “Daisy” commercial to be one of the most successful campaign ads in history. Tony Schwartz at Doyle Dane Bernbach created this commercial in 1964. The ad, made for the Johnson campaign, implied that Goldwater would lead the United States into a nuclear war. The ad aired only once and was pulled after it was deemed unfairly inflammatory.

Now, back to Mad Men. This gets complicated. The Goldwater in ’66 sign is in the window of the ad agency Young and Rubicam where water balloons are dropped on African-American protesters below. Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This led to Goldwater winning states in the Deep South, but losing everywhere else. Later in the episode, Henry Francis tells someone on the phone to not appear with Governor George Romney in Michigan. Henry Francis’ character previously used to work for Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller also ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and refused to support Goldwater. This caused uproar at the 1964 Republican convention. And you thought this bog was just about pretty stuff.

Seduction and Symbols

It’s not considered hip to like Norman Rockwell. But, fortunately, I gave up on the hip idea a long time ago (hence the madras shirts and khakis I wear). Last term, I suggested that one of my students look at the Norman Rockwell Four Freedoms. I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d suggested researching an obscure 14th century painter. This was a terrifying moment. People’s grandmothers like Norman Rockwell. I assumed everyone in the civilized world knew at least a few paintings. I was wrong, and that is the tragedy of today’s wayward youth. They all need a good dose of Rockwell’s wholesome small town. That would keep them away from the constant huffing.

Obviously, this world is a mythical place sort of like Pleasantville. Rockwell’s paintings go beyond the sentimental. They carry symbols and iconography that allow us to manufacture a clear narrative. It is not just a picture of the teacher’s birthday. The scene is set with a multitude of clues. The coat in her hand and chalk eraser on the floor communicates her surprise. A line of small gifts is on her desk. Each of these tells a story of the children preparing for this day at home, or on the walk to school. Even the tiny section of the American flag sets the scene in a minimal way.

The Problem We All Live With, painted in 1964, depicts Ruby Bridges walking to the newly integrated Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. It is the most requested piece at the Norman Rockwell Museum. This incredible painting succeeds with the use of a tool I often discuss, seduction. The unassuming and innocent approach welcomes the viewer into the piece, and then communicates a complicated and disturbing subject matter. The racial slurs on the wall, and thrown tomato contrast with the girl’s white dress and confident stride. The touch of a notebook with stars and the red and blue pencils suggests the American flag subtly. This is not sentimental, or purely journalistic. Rockwell was a genius at utilizing symbols, color, and scene to convey a narrative in a single moment.