In terms of crazy presidential campaigns, 2016 has nothing on 1968. The election of 1968 saw horrifying violence, the shattering of the Democratic party along lines of civil rights and Vietnam, and the end of liberalism in the Republican party. The election of 1968 brought an incumbent president to his knees, and Richard Nixon to the White House. It changed everything, including how we think about presidential campaigns and state primaries.
Today, many Americans will cast a ballot. Midterm elections usually aren’t as attention-grabbing as presidential ones, yet this year Americans have been told that this is the most important election of their life. Certainly, given recent violence, the stakes feel high.
No, 2016 has nothing on 1968. But 2020 could be another wild-ride. As the country turns out to the polls, we look back at the midterm election of 1966, and the seeds planted that year that burst through the soil in 1968.
Two years earlier, Lyndon Johnson had won a landslide victory, winning the election in his own right after serving the rest of John F. Kennedy’s term. Meanwhile, the Republicans had suffered a terrible defeat under the banner of Barry Goldwater, who infamously declared at the Republican convention that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Johnson won a stunning 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52. He took every state except for Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The Republican party, pundits declared, was done.
Controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats seemed unstoppable. They passed Johnson’s Great Society programs, including Medicare, and legislation that strengthened civil rights and voting rights. But as Johnson’s Great Society expanded, so did the conflict in Vietnam.
In 1966, tides had shifted. The public paid more attention to Vietnam, where they could see scant evidence of American victories. The economy began to slow. Race riots erupted across the nation. Johnson saw his popularity drop to below 45%. Republicans saw their opportunity. And they fought. Hard.
Determined to help restore the party to power (and to set himself up as a presidential candidate in 1968) Richard Nixon leapt into the fray. Nixon had not won an election since 1956, as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. After his failed bid for governor of California, he had bitterly told the press that they “would not have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And yet the former vice president had quietly been making moves behind the scenes. In the final months before the 1966 election, Nixon campaigned for 86 Republican candidates down the ballot. In the end, 59 of them won their elections.
“Tricky Dick”, thought to be politically dead, gained a lot of friends in 1966. Friends who would answer the phone when he called about running for president in 1968.
Although it was not enough to wrest control of the government from Johnson and the Democrats, Republicans won 47 seats in the House, 3 in the Senate, and 8 governorships. His majorities reduced, Newsweek wrote, “in the space of a single autumn day… the 1,000 day reign of Lyndon I came to an end: The Emperor of American politics became just a President again.”
In 1966, Ronald Reagan became governor of California. George H.W. Bush won a House seat in Texas. Gerald Ford won his reelection campaign and became House Minority Leader, increasing his prominence on the national stage. Republicans, wounded after 1964, suddenly believed they could win again. And they did–seven out of the next ten presidential elections were won by the GOP.
From 1966, Johnson became increasingly unpopular and unable to push legislation like he had in the first two years of his term. In 1968, he stunned the nation by announcing he would not “seek, nor accept” the nomination of the presidency.
The election of 1968 was the most dramatic of the 20th century, but it all started in 1966. Today, Americans vote. Who knows what seeds the nation will plant today, that may bloom in 2020 or beyond?
In the hit broadway play Hamilton, George Washington sings about his need for a right hand man. Washington has a point–presidencies can either thrive or wilt depending on who the president choses to include in his inner circle.
Often the focus is on the chief of staff–Chris Whipple wrote an excellent book detailing the make-or-break relationships presidents have had with their COS. This includes Bob Haldeman, who knew better than other aides when to listen to Nixon, and when to ignore his commands as venting.
Yet the president can draw strength on people other than their chiefs of staff–a relatively new position, anyway. We take a look at members of presidential political circles who–through their absence–proved their importance to the presidency.
Ulysses S. Grant
Grant entered the White House as war hero after the Civil War. Grant was a military genius in his own right, creating and executing battle plans that eventually defeated the Confederacy. Upon hearing suggestion that his victory was due only to the overwhelming manpower he possessed in comparison to the South, Grant objected–after all, generals before him had had just as many men, and yet failed.
Grant owed some of his success to his aide, John A. Rawlins. As the war slogged on, Grant wrote that Rawlins “comes the nearest to being indispensable to me of any officer in the service.” Rawlins, writes Grant biographer Ron Chernow, “could confront [Grant] with uncomfortable truths and fiercely contest his judgement…with his thoroughgoing skepticism and mistrust of people, he was the ideal foil to Grant’s excessively trusting nature.”
Rawlins, along with Grant’s wife, Julia, also largely succeeded in suppressing Grant’s alcoholism during the war. Rawlins had Grant pledge he would not drink at all until the war ended, and he himself took a pledge to remain sober. Rawlins also organized Grant’s affairs, and helped him to maintain a positive relationship with politicians in Washington D.C. Rawlins kept Grant sober with mixed success–he always reacted with disappointment and alarm when he learned that his friend had gone on a bender. When Grant drank, he got drunk. But thanks to Rawlin’s watchful eye, he drank rarely during the war.
When Grant became president in 1869, Rawlins was one of many loyal army friends who followed Grant to the White House. But the war had worn heavily on Rawlins, and he had suffered with health problems for years. At the age of thirty-eight, he died of tuberculosis.
Grant possessed battle savvy but little business acumen, and he was more trusting of men than his late friend. Rawlins’ loss was devastating to the Grant Administration. Chernow writes: “Rawlins would have warned the president against predatory, designing figures who encircled him in Washington. He would have detected wrongdoers and been a stalwart voice against corruption…with Rawlins gone, Grant lacked that one trusted adviser…”
Grant and his administration would be plagued by charges of corruption, as the easily trusting Grant let people into his inner circle that Rawlins would have likely barred.
Harry S Truman
When Truman unexpectedly became president in 1945, he reached out to his old high school friend, Charlie Ross, to be his press secretary. Ross accompanied the president all over the world, even playing poker with Truman and Winston Churchill. David McCullough details their close relationship in his biography of Truman.
Aside from his duties as press secretary, Ross was a friend and a shoulder for the president to lean on. When Truman started talking walks on doctor’s orders, he confided in Ross that it helped him sleep better. On Ross’ counsel, Truman learned to better respond to “smarty questions” at press conferences, answering “No comment”, “your guess is as good as mine”, or, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” Ross also played a crucial role in cooling down the president, especially as an editor. When railroad workers threatened to strike, Truman was furious. He wrote a seven page speech, which he gave to Ross to read. Ross told him he needed to rework it, so they did, with the help of several other aides.
In a letter Ross wrote to Truman in 1947, he said:
“There is nothing in life, I think, more satisfying than friendship, and to have yours is a rare satisfaction indeed…the greatest inspiration, Mr. President, has been the character of you–you as a President, you as a human being. Perhaps I can say best what is in my heart by telling you that my admiration for you, and my deep affection, have grown steadily since the day you honored me with your trust.”
When Ross died unexpectedly of a coronary occlusion in 1950, Truman was devastated by his loss. He wrote a tribute describing Ross as “the friend of my youth…a tower of strength…patriotism and integrity, honor and honesty, lofty ideals and nobility of intent were his guides…” Truman could not bring himself to give the statement to the press without breaking down. “Aw hell,” he said to a group of reporters. “I can’t read this thing. You fellows know how I feel, anyway…”
That night, Truman’s daughter sang at Constitution Hall, prompting a journalist named Paul Hume to write a scathing review. Truman responded the next day, calling Hume a “frustrated old man”, the review “lousy”, and suggested that he’d like to beat Hume up.
The country, reeling under an increasingly bloody and unpopular war in Korea, reacted with fury. Telegrams to the White House were 2:1 against Truman. One such telegram read:
“How can you put your trivial personal affairs before those of one hundred and sixty million people. Our boys while your infantile mind was on your daughter’s review. Inadvertently you showed the whole world what you are. Nothing but a little selfish pipsqueak.”
George Elsey, a Truman speechwriter, noted sadly that “Charlie Ross would never have let the Paul Hume letter get out…Charlie was…a calming fine influence on Truman, a tempering influence…much more than a press secretary.”
Lyndon B. Johnson
Walter Jenkins had long been an LBJ loyalist, joining his staff in 1939 while Johnson was still in Congress. He was close with both LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird, and had been a political aide of Johnson’s through good times and bad. One of Jenkins’ children was named “Lyndon.” In her book on Lady Bird and the Johnson marriage, Betty Boyd Caroli writes that the Johnsons loved Jenkins “like a blood relative.” By 1964, he had worked for LBJ for 25 years, “[working] eighteen hour days, [canceling] critical medical appointments, and doggedly [tackling] all of LBJ’s assignments, even those delivered in such condescending, abusive terms that Jenkin’s face flushed red,” writes Caroli.
So it came as a shock to Lyndon and Lady Bird when they received a call that Jenkins–a married father of six–had been arrested on a “morals charge.” Jenkins had been caught in a homosexual encounter in a public restroom.
The subsequent conversation between LBJ and Lady Bird was recorded–known only to the president–and captures a fascinating moment in their marriage. Lady Bird wanted to help Jenkins–if he could no longer work at the White House, she wanted to offer him a job with one of the family’s television stations in Texas. LBJ refused.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Lady Bird said. “When questioned, and I will be questioned, I’m going to say that this is incredible for a man that I have known all these years, a devout Catholic, a father of six children, a happily married husband.”
Lady Bird told the president he should make some gesture of support to his longtime aide. LBJ refused.
“We just can’t win this,” the president said. “The average farmer just can’t understand your knowing it and approving it or condoning it.”
Because Johnson refused to issue a statement of support, Lady Bird wrote one herself, which she gave to The Washington Post.
(Their full conversation is available online, and is a look at the dynamics of their marriage.)
Aides to Johnson later speculated that Jenkins’ absence was detrimental to LBJ and his presidency. Johnson’s Attorney General, Ramsey Clark, thought that Jenkins’ “counsel on Vietnam might have been extremely helpful.” Johnson’s press secretary, George Reedy, agreed, later saying, “All of history might have been different if it hadn’t been for that episode.”
When it comes to a presidency, those in the inner circle can make a real difference on the president’s success. But often their impact is not felt until they’ve vanished.
When Richard Nixon departed the White House on August 9th, 1974, becoming the first president to resign from the office, he made Gerald Ford the first unelected president in American history.
As Nixon took off in his helicopter, Ford took the oath of office. After taking the oath, Ford gave a short speech which he said was not “an inaugural address, not a fireside chat, not a campaign speech–just a little straight talk among friends.” Ford went onto say that he was well aware that he had not been elected by American ballots, but he hoped he would be confirmed through American prayers.
Then Ford uttered the words that became enshrined in American memory.
“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”
Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule. But there is a higher Power, by whatever name we honor Him, who ordains not only righteousness but love, not only justice but mercy.
As we bind up the internal wounds of Watergate, more painful and more poisonous than those of foreign wars, let us restore the golden rule to our political process, and let brotherly love purge our hearts of suspicion and of hate.
Ford entered the White House with a list of issues to tackle. There was the Cold War, the end of the war in Vietnam, unrest in the Middle East, and inflation, among other things. Not to mention he had to define his presidency as independent from Nixon’s, while serving out the rest of Nixon’s second term.
Ford had to move his family into the White House; he had to address a divided and bitter nation; and he had to deal with the question that had been born even before he took the oath of office, of whether or not he should pardon Richard Nixon for any crimes associated with Watergate.
Ford and his family would not move to the White House until 10 days into his term, and in the meantime Ford would continue to commute from his home in Alexandria, Virginia. The images of Ford leaving his home, looking very much like a regular businessman on his way to work, and not the leader of the free world, obscures the reality of the heavy burden which had fallen on his shoulders. Betty Ford, who had remarked at the beginning of Ford’s political career that she was “unprepared to be a political wife” but was unworried because she “didn’t think he was going to win” would leave her own mark on the presidency and the role of First Lady. Only a month into the role she held her first press conference and answered questions about women in politics, abortions, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She would also bring awareness to breast cancer and addiction, acknowledging her struggles with both.
As the question of a Nixon pardon floated in the air–Alexander Haig, the chief of staff under Nixon and Ford had first broached the issue with the new president 10 days before Nixon’s resignation–one of Ford’s first acts as president was to address Congress. He did so three days after taking the oath of office.
“I am not here to make an inaugural address,” Ford said. “The nation needs action, not words…my fellow Americans, we have a lot of work to do.” To Congress he said, “I do not want a honeymoon with you. I want a good marriage.” Ford, who had climbed the ropes in Washington as a member of Congress, seemed uniquely able to build such a relationship. Yet he would veto 66 bills passed by the Democratic Congress, many of which were then overridden by Congress–the largest percentage of overrides since Congress overrode Andrew Johnson’s vetoes following his unexpected ascension to the presidency.
Ford later reflected: “When I was in the Congress myself, I thought it fulfilled its constitutional obligations in a very responsible way, but after I became president, my perspective changed.”
The decision to pardon Nixon came about a month after Ford took office, and was initially met with outrage and opposition from the country and from many of Watergate’s main players. Although Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein initially met the news of the pardon with dismay, they much later acknowledged that Ford had made the right choice. Woodward called the pardon “an act of political courage”, with Bernstein agreeing that the pardon took “great courage.”
Despite the retrospective, Ford erased any good will he may have had in his first weeks in the presidency by pardoning Nixon. He set himself up for a tough reelection, in which he would be challenged by a right-leaning upstart named Ronald Reagan, and would eventually lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
As Democrats gear up for midterm elections in 2018 and the presidential election in 2020 the party struggles to define its message. It cannot simply be the party of anti-Trump–especially if it aims to win back two-time Obama voters who turned Republican in 2016. Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s former communications director and current co-host of the left-leaning podcast Pod Save America, has suggested that the Democrats take up “corruption” as part of their messaging. In recent weeks, his colleagues at Crooked Media have pushed this–corruption, collusion, and chaos.
It’s reminiscent of another young political operative. This one a Republican, and in the year 1952. Richard Nixon, as a candidate for the vice presidency, pushed the similarly sounding message of “Korea, Communism, Corruption”–K1C2.
While Eisenhower maintained a healthy distance from the campaign, Nixon leapt into the fray. He put up a fight for the presidency that would embitter many against him for the rest of his political career, including Harry Truman, who interpreted Nixon’s messaging as a sly way of calling him a traitor. (Truman would later insist that Nixon had personally accused him of treason, although no evidence exists to support this). Even in Nixon’s lowest point of the campaign–when he was forced to defend his use of a political slush fund in the now famous “Checkers” speech–he was sure to add at the end that electing Eisenhower was important because the Democrats had left the government riddled with Communists and corruption.
At one rally, Nixon said: “If the record itself smears, let it smear. If the dry rot of corruption and Communism, which has eaten deep into our body politic during the past seven years, can only be chopped out with a hatchet, then let’s call for a hatchet.”
At another, he went further, accusing the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, of “carrying a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson’s cowardly college of Communist containment.”
As for Korea, Eisenhower, a war hero, promised to visit the battlefield after the election. He and Nixon could argue that Stevenson lacked the necessary military experience, while no one could doubt Ike’s credentials. The war weighed heavily on the country. Truman kept a letter and a purple heart from a distraught parent in his desk, who sent it to him as the man “directly responsible” for their son’s death.
In the end, the alliteration worked–Eisenhower won 55% of the popular vote, won 39 out of 48 states, and took 442 electoral votes. He even won Stevenson’s native state of Illinois. Of course there were other factors at play. The Democrats had been in power since 1933 and there was a general feeling of fatigue toward their policies. Ike also campaigned on the promise of change.
Still, perhaps communications professionals of the Democratic party can take a page from Richard Nixon’s book. A s simple message, endlessly repeated, can go a long way.
Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
The President & the Apprentice by Irwin F. Gellman
In honor of Women’s History Month, History First is going to spend some time talking about the women standing beside American presidents. First–one of our favorites: Pat Nixon.
Pat Nixon, who holds the honor of being the first First Lady with a college degree, had a remarkable life long before meeting Richard Nixon. Born Thelma Ryan, she went by the nickname “Buddy” as a girl and “Pat” when she got older–apparently changing to Pat after the death of her father, who’d often referenced her birth being only a few hours before Saint Patrick’s day. By the time she was seventeen, both her parents had died–leaving her to care for her brothers.
When she graduated high school, Pat moved to New York City and worked in a Catholic hospital in the Bronx. Upon returning to California, she worked her way through college and earned a degree from the University of Southern California. Her tuition cost 240$. Pat worked 40 hours a week to pay it.
Having worked for this degree, and having attained a job as a teacher in Whittier, California, Pat Ryan had no desire to find a husband and settle down. But her acting partner in a local theatre group had other ideas. Richard Nixon pursued her with a persistence that many would see today as over the top and creepy. When he first asked her out, she said no. When he asked her again, she laughed. “Don’t laugh,” he told her, according to John A. Farrell’s Nixon biography, Nixon, The Life, “someday, I’m going to marry you.”
Indeed, Richard Nixon went to great lengths to keep Pat in his life, including driving her to dates with other men. When she moved without telling him her new address, he sent a letter to her school, writing that he had to see her again–anytime “that you might be able to stand me!”
Still, the two came from similar backgrounds of hard work and tough luck, and Pat seems to have changed her mind. Two years after they met, she accepted his proposal of marriage.
As First Lady, she encouraged Americans to volunteer their time to good causes, and continued Jackie Kennedy’s project of preservation of the White House. She had the first wheelchair ramps installed at the White House (which is remarkable, since twenty years earlier, the president himself used a wheelchair). She also created White House tours for visitors with trouble seeing or hearing.
Many within Richard Nixon’s inner political circle saw Pat as the human side of the president they needed to project to the public. Charles Colson, a White House aide who would later be incarcerated for charges relating to Watergate, wrote a memo to the president about First Lady Nixon’s recent humanitarian trip to Peru. (Pat Nixon would be the most traveled first lady until Hillary Rodham Clinton entered the White House):
“As you know we have tried hard…to project ‘color’ about you, to portray the human side of the President…because of the hostility of the media, it has been an exceedingly difficult, frustrating and not especially successful undertaking. Mrs. Nixon has now broken through where we failed. She has come across as warm, charming, graceful, concerned, articulate and most importantly–a very human person. It would be hard to overestimate the political impact…She is an enormous asset.”
Pat Nixon’s other legacies include the White House being lit at night, historical markers along the White House fence so that visitors could learn about the house and its history, and the refurbishing of the White House itself.
The marriage was far from perfect–Pat once wrote a friend that when it came to household chores, “Dick is always too busy, at least his story, so I do all the lugging, worrying and cussing,”–but their relationship remained solid. It takes only a look at Richard Nixon’s face at the funeral of his wife to see the impact she had on him. And not only him–but the on the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who visit the White House, and the First Ladies who followed in her footsteps and her example.
January 3rd is a day that holds special significance for John F. Kennedy. In 1947, it was the day that he was sworn into Congress for the first time as a member of the House of Representatives. On January 3rd in 1960, 13 years later, it was reported that JFK had thrown his hat in the ring to be the next president.
JFK wasn’t the only young Congressman to be sworn in that day in 1947. He was joined by his future political rival Richard Nixon.
Although they would face each other in the bitterly contested election of 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were friendly in the House. According to the 2017 Nixon biography Richard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell, the two young congressmen once shared a train car back to D.C. after a cordial debate in West Virginia. They bonded over their passion for international affairs. “Neither one of us was a backslapper,” Nixon wrote later. “He was shy…but it was a shyness born of an instinct that guarded privacy and concealed emotion. I understood these qualities because I shared them.” The Nixons were later invited to attend Jack Kennedy’s wedding.
When Nixon ran for Senate he had the support of the Kennedy clan. According to Farrell’s biography, John Kennedy stopped by Nixon’s office with a check from his father for one thousand dollars. The message? Joseph Kennedy wanted Nixon to win.
By 1960, the two would be rivals. Although Kennedy had followed Nixon to the Senate, Nixon had become Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president. While Kennedy finished his Senate term, Nixon spent eight years traveling the world on Ike’s behalf. In 1960 Nixon would argue experience; Kennedy would insist that after eight years of Ike, the country was ready for something new. Kennedy officially announced his candidacy on January 2nd–on January 3rd the announcement made front page news as Kennedy added his name to a growing list of White House-hungry Democrats. A week later, on January 9th, Richard Nixon likewise declared his candidacy.
On another January day in 1961, Nixon (the outgoing vice president) would stand behind Kennedy to watch his rival take the oath of office.
Although the Nixon/Kennedy relationship soured, Nixon later penned a thoughtful note to Jackie Kennedy following her husband’s assassination in Dallas in 1963.
In this tragic hour Pat and I want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you. While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947…If in the days ahead we could be helpful in any way we shall be honored to be at your command.
Jackie later replied, thanking Nixon for his note, and writing:
“Dear Mr. Vice President –
I do thank you for your most thoughtful letter –
You two young men – colleagues in Congress – adversaries in 1960 – and now look what has happened – Whoever thought such a hideous thing could happen in this country –…please be consoled by what you already have – your life and your family…