Jeffrey Lord: The 1966 Election's Warning to Obama

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author.]

It was a historic tidal wave of rejection. Symbolized by, of all things, housewives boycotting supermarkets. And the active participation of seven future presidents of the United States.

The 1966 "off year" or congressional elections should also serve as a political warning to the Obama White House as it pursues its strategy of pumping trillions of taxpayer dollars into the economy.

Only two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had swept to a landslide victory promising a "Great Society" and a "war on poverty" funded by a massive infusion of taxpayer dollars. Intoxicated Democrats looked to an unlimited future of high tax, big spending, big government. Billions (then a big sum) were gushing out of Washington for everything from poverty programs to education, health care, the environment, transportation, consumer protection, and the arts and humanities, just for starters. But by November of 1966, with a tab for billions in hand, taxes rising and inflation swamping their everyday lives, the American people were staggered at the unlimited costs of it all. Angered, they had caught on to the end game of tax-and-spend economics.

The rebellion began, logically enough, at a grocery store.

Inflation had been on the rise throughout the year. By the early part of October, Denver housewives had had enough. "We don't like to feel we're being taken to the cleaners," said Mrs. Jay S. Threlkeld to the New York Times. Denver's "Housewives for Lower Food Prices," gaining 50,000 members almost overnight, was born. In Miami, a group of 20 housewives was threatening a house-to-house campaign for recruits to protest the rise in the price of milk. The idea took off, instantly garnering national media attention as supermarkets in Chicago, Portland, Detroit, and Phoenix came under scrutiny.

The Johnson administration, in an eerie foreshadowing of today's attempts by the Obama administration to blame private businesses for bad decisions pushed on them by government, lashed out at supermarket chains. The government's Bureau of Labor and Statistics was only too happy to add fuel to this sudden political bonfire by pointing a finger at the supposedly greedy grocery stores. Out tumbled the stats from LBJ's crew. The price of hamburger was up over 2 cents a pound in the last year, it said. Milk had risen 3 cents a half gallon. Butter was up an astonishing 11 cents a pound. Large grade A eggs cost more than 12 cents a dozen than they had in 1965.

In short, said LBJ as he played the greed card, this is about those rich SOB's running grocery stores. The greedy grocers.

A branch manager of a Red Owl Store, a small Midwest grocery chain, begged to differ, and didn't mind saying so to a Times reporter. Greedy grocers, said one Louis Hughes, were not the problem. In fact, grocers were doing everything they could to keep prices down. No, Mr. Hughes said, "the high costs of union and Government" were the culprits.

For a moment there was division in the ranks of the boycotters. Some wanted to pursue the idea that LBJ was pushing, blaming the grocers themselves. But others began to catch on to the argument voiced by Red Owl's Mr. Hughes. The state chairwoman of Arizona Housewives for Better Living spoke up, saying her group "doesn't think the fault lies with the supermarkets, but rather stems from hidden taxes and food shortages."

Suddenly, as if awakened from a philosophical coma, Republicans took note. The idea of connecting the massive billions in taxpayer dollars being spent by Washington directly to the rising price of groceries caught on.

In Memphis, Tennessee, the Republican congressional candidate entered a backyard political meeting pushing a cart of groceries, pointing out to his audience that as the bills for the Great Society came due, the cost of their food bills had gone up. In Washington the Republican National Committee armed its candidates with "tens of thousands of leaflets and stickers," according to the Times, connecting LBJ's spending with the increased cost of living. The country was awash in "Great Society funny money," bogus dollar bills that read: "Progress is a shrinking dollar." The "bill" came in the "Lyndon One" denomination bearing a picture of President Johnson beneath steer horns. Over 3,500 "LBJ supermarkets" sprang to life around the country from parades to county fairs, displaying food items alongside their skyrocketing prices. "Housewife brigades" were enlisted to pass out fliers on inflation, with one GOP Senate candidate in Michigan alone enlisting over 1,000 women to form "Operation Price Tag," the women targeting Michigan shopping centers and supermarkets with their leaflets. (The candidate, Robert Griffin, would win his race.) The Republican National Chairman brandished a new poll that showed a shocking 45% of the American people now blamed the government, not the grocers, for inflation.

IN RETROSPECT, 1966 TURNED OUT TO BE a rare moment in American political history. It was in fact the beginning of a realization by everyday Americans that massive government spending programs, the backbone of the New Deal, Truman's Fair Deal, JFK's New Frontier and LBJ's Great Society, must finally be paid for -- by them. In the cost of their groceries, their gas, their housing and everything else from clothes to college educations to steadily rising taxes.

They were furious...

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