COLUMBUS: The news business has a fascination with 50-year anniversaries that celebrate some years as more important than others.
PBS recently aired its tribute to 1964 and the two-hour American Experience documentary made a strong case for viewing that year as opening a door to profound changes in American life and politics.
The Beatles arrived in America for the first time, putting an indelible British stamp on rock ’n’ roll.
Cassius Clay upset Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion. Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Boxing never has been the same.
In politics, the nation still was recovering from the assassination of Democratic President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
The tragedy elevated Lyndon B. Johnson to the presidency. Johnson, with determination and cunning learned as Senate majority leader, got Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act that Kennedy had proposed.
The new president also launched a “War on Poverty” and began the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam.
Republicans weren’t to be outdone with game-changing political earthquakes.
Conservative Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona, won the GOP presidential nomination with a pledge to offer “a choice, not an echo.” Goldwater’s campaign got a late boost from a speech by an actor named Ronald Reagan.
Johnson clobbered Goldwater, but the speech helped launch Reagan’s political career. He was elected to two terms as California governor and then in 1980 won the first of two terms as president.
The year had special significance for another Republican, Akron’s Ray C. Bliss.
Without Goldwater’s resounding defeat — he carried only Arizona and five southern states — it is unlikely that Bliss would have landed the job of his life, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Bliss, who also owned an Akron insurance business, had been chairman of the Ohio Republican Party since 1949 and also had led the Summit County Republican Party.
He was ambitious but didn’t like to appear that way.
“He let the flow come to him,” Dick Wright, the long-time lobbyist in Columbus for the University of Akron, once told me.
There was no question that he coveted the national job, according to William Ayres, a Republican congressman from Akron whom Bliss helped get elected. Bliss sought to be national chairman “an hour after he became state chairman,” said Ayres, who had a talent for hyperbole.
“He wasn’t an officeholder and that (the national chairmanship) was the place for him to go,” Ayres explained.
His behind-the-scenes campaign to win the state chairmanship foreshadowed his rise to national chairman.
The 1948 elections saw Democratic President Harry Truman’s win in an upset, with Democratic success up and down the ballot in Ohio and across the country.
Ohio Republicans needed new leadership. Bliss, who had proved that he could win elections in union-friendly Akron and Summit County, was seen as a leading candidate. Bliss, as Wright said, made it appear that the flow was coming to him.
“A good many people have talked to me about it, but I am merely standing by,” Bliss said.
Behind the scenes, he was doing more than “standing by.” Even as he distanced himself from the campaign to replace the incumbent chairman, he gauged the support for him. Ultimately, the incumbent resigned and Bliss was chosen chairman by a voice vote.
Nationally, circumstances were worse for Republicans in 1964 than they had been in 1948. There was speculation that Goldwater’s crushing loss meant the end of the two-party system.
Bliss again was “standing by.”
At first, Dean Burch, a Goldwater ally and the incumbent national chairman, seemed determined to keep his job. Burch critics, who were also Bliss’ allies, launched a campaign to force Burch’s resignation.
Goldwater initially stood behind Burch. He backed off after the anti-Burch forces showed him how much strength they had. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower urged Goldwater to support Bliss.
Bliss said he would take the job only if Goldwater, as well as the national committee, asked him.
Both made the request.
With Bliss as national chairman, Republicans scored big wins in the 1966 off-year elections and then in 1968 he helped Richard M. Nixon take back the White House for the GOP.
Nixon, who forced Bliss’ resignation as national chairman in 1969, easily won re-election in 1972. That victory could have ushered in an era of Republican domination.
The Watergate scandal, however, forced Nixon to resign in 1974.
Six years later, Reagan captured the White House, a victory, like Bliss’ rise to the national chairmanship, linked to 1964.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He also was the Columbus bureau chief of the Dayton Daily News. He is writing a biography of Ray C. Bliss with John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. Hershey can be reached at email@example.com.