How A 'Tuesday Night Massacre' Forever Changed The American Political Landscape

Feb 22, 2021

Credit OU Press

The political bloodsport that was the 2020 election has roots that go far beyond the presidency of Donald Trump, let alone his candidacy. In fact, the just-published book with the jump-off-the-page title, "Tuesday Night Massacre," pays particular attention to the 1980 elections which saw the upending of the careers of for U.S. Senators, including Idaho's Frank Church.

"There was a lot of anger involved in the messaging that went into these campaigns," said Marc C. Johnson, the book's author, "a real disdain of elite expertise and fundamentally a disdain of government, a disregard for government."

Johnson visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the book, which details what he calls, "the radicalization of the Republican party."

“It sounds, kind-of, ripped from today's headlines, doesn't it? And that's really the arc of the story that I'm trying to tell.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The national political scene is fraught, to say the least, and a new book with a jump-off-the-page title of “Tuesday Night Massacre” reminds us that America's political landscape is filled with land mines. Marc Johnson is here. He's the author…former top aide to former Governor Cecil Andrus, broadcast journalist, crisis management consultant. Indeed, he knows where more than a few of those landmines have been. Marc Johnson, good morning.

MARC JOHNSON: Good morning, George. Great to be with you.

PRENTICE: “Tuesday Night” in your book would have been Tuesday, November 4th, 1980. What happened?

JOHNSON: Well, we remember it… those of us who are old enough to remember it… as the beginning of the Reagan Revolution. Ronald Reagan wins the presidency in 1980 over incumbent Jimmy Carter in an absolute landslide election and sets off a generation or more of Republican ascendancy in American politics. My book deals only tangentially with Reagan's election, but focuses on four other elections that took place that same day that, among other things, flipped the Senate to Republican control for the first time in a quarter century. That's the reference to the “Tuesday Night Massacre,” the Senate wipeout of incumbent Democrats, including the four that I focus on in the book, including Frank Church of Idaho.

PRENTICE: Well, let's talk about Senator Frank Church. Indeed, he walked a unique political tightrope in Idaho with great success. And he would not have been successful without attracting Republican votes, over the years.

Marc C. Johnson, author of Tuesday Night Massacre
Credit Courtesy Marc C. Johnson

JOHNSON: No question about it. He was a phenomenal political talent, elected at a very young age, 32, in 1956. So, by the time we come to this 1980 election, Church has been in the Senate for 24 years. He's the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's had a distinguished legislative career of accomplishment, including floor sponsoring the Wilderness Act in 1964, a major, major voice on foreign policy, an early opponent of the war in Vietnam, and investigated the Central Intelligence Agency in the mid-1970s. But he's also a very good retail politician to the extent that he did, by all accounts, did a terrific job of constituent service, paid attention to things that were going on in Idaho. And in 1980, to his misfortune, he runs into an absolute political buzz saw in the form of an outfit called the National Conservative Political Action Committee -  NCPAC, an independent expenditure campaign that targeted Church, and the three other Democratic incumbents that I write about in the book.

PRENTICE: And you write that NCPAC, in just a few months, “distorted, debased and destroyed a reputation” that had taken years to build.

JOHNSON: One of the benefits of looking back 40 years, George, is that you have access to the archives and the records that are for a contemporaneous account… a daily journalism account would be fascinating to have, would be lovely to have. But you just don't really have that opportunity in real time. So, looking back 40 years, you can go to the archives and you can find the public opinion polls that campaigns did. You can find the polling memos and the strategy papers that tell you just exactly the state of the race. And in that time, and because Church's archive is really remarkable at Boise State, there's a tremendous amount of material there. One of the things that I take away from his standing, entering this campaign in 1979, really is that he's really immensely popular… very, very well regarded. Across Idaho, by most accounts, he would probably be an odds-on favorite to win reelection. But because NCPAC and its local affiliate in Idaho started so early to redefine his career and to essentially attack his character, his approval rating steadily declined over the course of early 1980. And by the summer of 1980, when the campaign is really hitting its stride, his favorability numbers are underwater.

PRENTICE: And in a highly quotable book, I have a quote here… deep into the chapter on Frank Church:  “,A new kind of national politics was born. And after 1980, every Senate race would become a national contest with ever increasing amounts of out-of-state money, fueling attack ads on issues most likely to incite voter resentment, fear, distrust and even hatred.” And I'm sad to say that that rings familiar.

JOHNSON: Sounds kind-of… it sounds kind-of ripped from today's headlines, doesn't it? And that's really the arc of the story that I'm trying to tell… to connect the dots, if you will, from Reagan, or even going back a little bit further to the Goldwater candidacy in 1964, and tying that to our present politics today and the individual who just recently vacated the White House. The NCPAC activists in the late 1970s, and particularly in this ad campaign, really set out not to reform the Republican Party as they envisioned it, but to take it over. And I argue in the book that they, in fact, did succeed in taking it over by focusing on this kind of politics of grievance: the fear that they could stimulate in people, that society and culture was changing in a way that they were uncomfortable with, that there was a lot of anger involved in the messaging that went into these campaigns, a real disdain of elite expertise and fundamentally a disdain of government, a disregard for government. One of the founders was a guy named Dolan, and he essentially said that his vision of government, was for government, federal government, to pay for national security and the post office and nothing else;  and that he basically wanted a minimal level of government. And he wanted to essentially apply that notion to the Republican Party, to force out the moderate elements in the Republican Party and make it a very ideological, new, right-driven political organization. And they succeeded.

PRENTICE: And the name of this book is “Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party.” Marc Johnson… when does this book hit the shelves?

JOHNSON: Official publication date is February 25th. Hopefully it'll be out a few days earlier than that, and available in local bookstores and from the usual online sellers.

PRENTICE: I'd be remiss if I did not note that you will participate in an event with the Frank Church Institute.

JOHNSON: Yes, I'm really looking forward to that. On February 26th, at 10 o'clock in the morning Mountain Time, my old pal Rod Grammar - we were friendly adversaries at the time of the Church-Symes race in 1980, and we both have vivid memories of those campaigns. And Rod is going to be my interlocutor for that. I'm looking forward to it.

PRENTICE: He's Marc Johnson, one of the smartest men in any room that he walks into… if not the smartest. Best of luck to you with the book. It is a must-read… and congratulations.

JOHNSON: Thank you so much, George. It's a real pleasure to visit with you again. 

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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