Thursday, February 24, 2011

Counter Revolution: Nixon's 1968 Electoral Triumph

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Here I describe the chaotic campaign for the presidency in the fall of 1968.

A year that often seemed to presage a revolution ended instead in a counter-revolution. The luck former Vice President Richard Nixon enjoyed in the race for the Republican nomination held up during the fall. Remembering painfully his fall in the 1960 debates with John Kennedy, the Republican avoided sharing a stage with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey and relied instead on a sophisticated media strategy that foreshadowed the style of presidential candidates ever since. Meanwhile, Vice President Humphrey struggled to dig himself out of the hole created by the Chicago convention and burden of being associated with Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam, and the long-shot Wallace third-party campaign fatally stumbled.

Immediately after the Grant Park riot during the Democratic National Convention, Humphrey praised the actions of the Chicago police, who brutally beat anti-war demonstrators. This further alienated many potential supporters. Then he backtracked and criticized the police for “overreacting” and insisted that he did not “condone” the beating of demonstrators. Now he seemed like a flip-flopper. His chief surviving rival in the Democratic presidential race, Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, refused to endorse him. By September 27, a Gallup poll placed Humphrey 15 points behind Nixon and a mere seven points ahead of Wallace.

Desperate, the Humphrey campaign spent $100,000 to buy 30 minutes on national television TV time. Humphrey made a conditional promise that, if elected president, he would halt bombing in North Vietnam if the communists would “restore” the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam that had been repeatedly violated in recent months.

“As president, I would be willing to stop the bombing of the North as an acceptable risk for peace,” he told the audience. Johnson had warned Humphrey to not make that promise and was furious when Hubert delivered the talk anyway. Yet, some top John Kennedy aides such as John Kenneth Galbraith endorsed Humphrey for the first time as a result of the speech, and when the vice president spoke soon thereafter at the University of Tennessee for the first time in weeks, he did not have to deal with protestors and some students held a sign that said, “IF YOU MEAN IT, WE’RE WITH YOU.”

More important, labor unions finally leapt into the campaign, providing volunteers and money when Humphrey most needed it. Labor leaders were shocked into action when a Flint, Michigan United Auto Workers Union local – one of the UAW’s largest in the country – voted by a large margin to endorse the segregationist American Independent Party candidate, former Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. At the same time, a survey showed that about one-third of AFL-CIO members backed Wallace, and a Chicago Tribune poll found that 44 percent of the city’s white steelworkers planned to vote for the thirdparty candidate. Humphrey enjoyed the support of only 30 percent.

Organized labor formed the Committee for Political Action (COPE), which sent mailings to 13 million union members warning them “that Wallace was luring northern jobs to Alabama, a low-wage, right-to-work state, whose programs rested heavily on regressive taxes which would hit the workingman harder than the well-to-do,” as Dan Carter wrote. Northern union support for Wallace began to slide and Humphrey began drawing larger and more enthusiastic working-class crowds at his rallies.

More important to Humphrey was a major misstep by the Wallace campaign when the third-party candidate announced former Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay as his running mate. Wallace had trouble getting someone to agree to run with him. Wallace approached Ezra Taft Benson, the former Secretary of Agriculture under Dwight Eisenhower to be his running mate and also considered asking Harlan Sanders, better know as “Col. Sanders” of Kentucky Fried Chicken Fame.

The nod for the vice presidential candidacy instead went to Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, who served as the inspiration for the trigger happy Air Force Gen. Buck Turgidson in director Stanley Kubrick’s satiric film "Dr. Stangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb." LeMay had directed the air war against the Japanese in World War II, and became commander of operations during the Berlin airlift in 1948 when the Soviet Union cut West Berlin from NATO.

In his public statements, LeMay had expressed his frustration with America’s “phobia” about using nuclear weapons. Wallace held an October 3 press conference alongside LeMay broadcast by the three television networks. Beforehand, Wallace had urged the general to not talk about nuclear weapons. Los Angeles Times reporter Jack Smith asked LeMay if the United States could win the Vietnam War “without nuclear weapons.” “We can win this war without nuclear weapons,” LeMay said. “But I have to say that we have a phobia about nuclear weapons.

I think there may be times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. However, the public opinion in this country and through the world throw up their hands in horror when you mention nuclear weapons just because of the propaganda that’s been fed to them. I’ve seen a film of Bikini Atoll [in the Pacific] after 20 nuclear tests, and the fish are all back in the lagoons, the coconut trees are growing coconuts, the guava bushes have fruit on them, the birds are back.”

Humphrey benefited from the LeMay gaffe, with some Wallace supporters concluding that the American Independent Party and its top two candidates were irresponsible and dangerous. Many of these voters drifted back to the Democratic Party, and Humphrey had erased most of Nixon’s lead going into the last days of the campaign.

BRANDING NIXON

Nixon’s strategy, meanwhile, focused on avoiding mistakes. He sought to carefully control his public appearance as his media team devised a strategy to make the candidate’s television appearances an advantage instead of a fatal weakness. In addition to not debating Humphrey, where he might slip, he avoided press conferences where he might be tripped up by a question from a skeptical reporter.

Nixon instead taped a series of ten television programs in which he answered questions from pre-screened voters before an audience of around 200 committed supporters. The audience and the pre-selected questioners sat in a semi-circle around Nixon. Audience members were told beforehand to applaud when Nixon answered and to get up and surround him at the end of these taped encounters so the last thing the television audience would see was Nixon shaking hands with a friendly crowd. Journalists had to watch these performances on monitors in a nearby room. Worried about the tendency of his upper lip to sweat when he was hot, Nixon ordered the air conditioner in the studio to run at full blast. The tapes played regionally so the topics could center on issues of concern to particular subsets of voters.

These extended political commercials were the brainchild of Roger Ailes, later a media consultant for President Ronald Reagan and president of Fox News. A minor crisis developed before one taping in Philadelphia when a staffer had placed a Jewish psychiatrist on the panel. Nixon didn’t like Jews and held a deep suspicion of the psychiatric profession. The man was dropped from the panel before taping and Ailes made a suggestion for a substitute.

“A good, mean Wallacite cabdriver,” Ailes said. “Wouldn’t that be great? Some guy to sit there and say, ‘Awright, Mac, what about those niggers?” Nixon could then act shocked, Ailes reasoned, deplore the man’s language, but then talk about law and order and “states’ rights” – in short offer a reasonable version of the cabbie’s anti-black resentments. Ailes went outside the studio and found a cabdriver who matched the desired description.

One panelist, a mild-tempered, conservatively dressed African American man, asked Nixon, “What does law and order mean to you?” Nixon concocted a typical answer for these staged events, one that suggested toughness with reasonableness. “I am quite aware,” Nixon said, “of the fact that, when the black community hear it, think of power being used in a way that is destructive to them. And yet I think that we have to also remember that the black community, as well as the white community, has an interest in law and order. To me, law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order which deserves respect.”

In front of a friendly audience, Nixon did not sweat, he smiled often enough, did not lose his temper, and he handled the rare tough question with relative calm and grace. During the campaign, Nixon also promised he had a secret plan to end the war. Ailes and other figures on the campaign successfully re-branded Nixon as a steady, tough and experienced potential president who would pursue a tough course with Vietnamese communists but would soon end the war, and who would not tolerate the lawlessness that had marked recent years.

Nixon’s approach proved to be a winning one, though it barely succeeded. A Harris poll showed that a majority of Americans believed that “liberals, long-hairs, and intellectuals have been running the country for too long” while 81 percent told pollsters that “law and order has broken down in this country.” In the end, most of those voters supported Nixon rather than his more right-wing opponent Wallace. The networks did not call the November 6 election until 9 a.m. the next morning. Nixon won 43.4 percent of the vote, and 301 Electoral College votes, and Humphrey carried 42.7 percent of the popular vote, with 191 Electoral College votes.

Wallace had one of the most successful third-party campaigns in U.S. history. He carried 13.5 percent of the popular vote and received 46 votes in the Electoral College, but he won states only in his Deep South home base – Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia. Adding the Wallace and the Nixon votes, together, which represented 57 percent of the vote, the election represented a firm rejection of Johnson’s policies and their perceived effect on creating an atmosphere of dangerous permissiveness. Many white voters in particular had grown tired of the revolution in civil rights and the indecisive results in Vietnam and wanted a return to what they saw as normality.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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