President Lyndon Johnson seems to be having his resurrection moment. It's not quite on the level of Alexander Hamilton's recent resurfacing, but Johnson is certainly on people's minds after his portrayal by Tom Wilkinson in "Selma" and with Bryan Cranston potentially being up for his seemingly 500th Emmy after HBO's "All the Way."
The Johnson legacy is still hotly disputed. While he was progressive on civil rights, his escalation of the Vietnam War usually keeps historians from including him among the pantheon of great presidents. And then there's his War on Poverty: While its impact has been a subject of debate, it did give us Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.
But LBJ had another legacy as well: He was a hard and sometimes vicious campaigner. He entered the Senate with the nickname "Landslide Lyndon" in 1949 after winning election by a mere 87 votes out of nearly a million cast. Some highly irregular voting incidents — some might say cheating — helped him secure the seat.
One story (possibly apocryphal) has Johnson once telling his aides to accuse his congressional opponent of sleeping with barnyard animals. When he was questioned as to the veracity of this claim, Johnson reportedly said, "I know it's not true; I just want to hear him deny it!"
This win-by-any-means-necessary mentality is certainly not something that should be emulated by the Clinton camp. In fact, it seems much more in line with Karl Rove's or Frank Luntz's handbooks than anything Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty Attorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation MORE's team might cook up. President Richard Nixon is a prime example of how such a strategy can come back to haunt you.
But Johnson understood one thing as well as anybody: If you're taking fire, it's harder to give fire. In the 1964 campaign, during which (despite what "All the Way" would have you believe) Johnson led GOP nominee Barry Goldwater throughout, LBJ kept the fire trained on his opponent, characterizing him as an unstable lunatic who couldn't be trusted with his finger on the button.
The "Daisy" commercial, wherein a little girl counting daisy pedals is interrupted by a nuclear countdown and explosion, is a keen example. Though it aired only once, it got the message across: Goldwater equals danger. Johnson's voice-over states, "These are the stakes. ...We must either love each other or we must die."
But the Johnson campaign did not stop there: A few days later, they aired the "Ice Cream" ad, in which another little girl is licking an ice-cream cone while a grandmotherly voice-over explains, "Do you know what people used to do? They used to explode atomic bombs in the air. Now, children should have lots of vitamin A and calcium, but they shouldn't have any Strontium-90 or Caesium-137. These things come from atomic bombs and they're radioactive. They can make you die." The voice-over goes on to explain how Goldwater would increase nuclear testing. Like the "Daisy" ad, it ends with the words "Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home."
But that wasn't all: The Johnson campaign ran an ad that showed a burning cross before a fully clad Ku Klux Klan ensemble and the words of Alabama "Grand Dragon" Robert Creel, who had not only proclaimed his hatred of blacks, Catholics and Jews, but also his support of Goldwater, who, he said, "needs our help."
And then there was the "Confessions of a Republican" ad. In this one, an Atticus Finch-looking actor by the name of William Bogert states his concern that, although he's a lifelong Republican (and his father before him and his grandfather before him), he's going to vote against Goldwater because "this man scares me." He goes on to say: "Goldwater — often you can't — I can't — figure out just what Goldwater means by the things he says. ... When I read some of these things that Goldwater says about 'total victory,' I get a little worried, ya know?"
Johnson was as fearless a campaigner as he was a legislator. He was known for giving people the "Johnson treatment" when he wanted their support. He'd use his large frame to his advantage, leaning into people, clasping them on the shoulder or pointing into their chests, if need be.
Johnson was all about applying pressure — against his friends, sure, but definitely against his opponents.
And if ever there was someone who gave an opponent ammunition to use against them, it's Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE. He has said a lotta, lotta stupid things. His capacity for being offensive is, frankly, "yuge."
Yet Trump has a talent for branding others: His "Lyin' Ted," "Little Marco" and "Low Energy Jeb" comments did significant damage.
But he's got another talent as well, and that's a talent for offending, alienating and unnerving people.
Likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton should take advantage of this: Once the nomination is sewed up, she shouldn't hesitate to brand Trump as "Crazy Donald."
The Goldwater campaign slogan was, "In your heart, you know he's right." The Johnson team's reply was, "In your guts, you know he's nuts."
This is how to combat Trump. I'd like to believe that a message of love and hope is enough — and that may work — but the safer route is to tell the truth about the Republican nominee, and the truth is that he's an unstable narcissist who should never be in command of our military and our atomic arsenal. And you need to keep hitting people over the head with that idea.
Johnson beat Goldwater by over 22 percentage points. The Johnson treatment worked.
And the good thing is, you don’t have to lie to give Donald Trump hell. As another Democratic president, "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman once said, "I never gave anybody hell! I just told the truth and they thought it was hell."
Rosenfeld is an educator and historian who has done work for Scribner, Macmillan and Newsweek.