“People in Hollywood are generally afraid to be active in politics,” said actor Dick Powell in September 1960. “This is especially true of some in television who believe that their sponsors would not want them to be identified with a political party.” Another actor, Vincent Price, added in the same 1960 interview: “Here in Hollywood, actors are not supposed to have political opinions.” But many did, of course. Dick Powell, for example, was then, in September 1960, heading up a group of Hollywood Republicans supporting the Richard Nixon-Henry Cabot Lodge ticket then bidding for the White House. But by the early 1960s, and in 1968 in particular, celebrity involvement in politics would become much more prominent.In fact, by the mid-1960s, Republican actors began running for, and winning, public office. Actor/dancer George Murphy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, and actor Ronald Reagan won the California Governor’s race in 1966. Murphy was a film actor who danced with Shirley Temple in the 1938 film Little Miss Broadway and acted opposite Judy Garland in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). Murphy became active in California politics in the 1950s and had served as director of entertainment for Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential inaugurations of 1953 and 1957. By 1964, Murphy became a politician himself, winning a California U.S. Senate seat.
Ronald Reagan had been movie actor in the 1930s and 1940s, appearing in variety of films, and also became a familiar 1950s TV host for the popular “General Electric Theater.” Reagan’s second wife, Nancy, had also appeared in Hollywood films. In addition to Reagan and Murphy winning office, one of Hollywood’s most notable childhood stars from the 1940s, Shirley Temple, ran for an open seat in Congress in 1967, but did not win. Still, by the time of the 1968 presidential election, with Ronald Reagan as California’s governor and George Murphy in the U.S. Senate, Hollywood and its celebrities were clearly a presence in Republican politics. But among the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination that year, was the very un-Hollywood former Vice-President, Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon’s RiseRichard Nixon had grown up in the shadow of Hollywood, but was certainly not a Hollywood type himself or inclined toward its culture or lifestyle. Still, throughout his political career, Nixon would find a measure of star power in his campaigns, with various celebrities and studio executives supporting him. Yet in his early career, Nixon would probe Hollywood as a Congressman hunting communists, and in 1950 he would launch a Senate bid opposing former Hollywood actress, Helen Gahagan-Douglas.
Nixon first made his way onto the national scene in 1946, elected as a Congressman from California. In Washington he quickly made a career for himself in the late 1940s as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which pursued alleged communists in government and in Hollywood. Although Nixon became known for his role in the Alger Hiss case — a State Department official accused of being a Soviet spy – he also helped HUAC query Hollywood actors and executives suspected of communist activities or lacking in their loyalties. In 1947 hearings, for example, he asked Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, “How many anti-communist movies have you made?”In 1950, Nixon ran for a U.S. Senate seat from California, opposing Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas. Douglas was a 1920s Broadway actress who starred in the 1935 movie She. Elected to Congress in 1944, Douglas served three terms in the U.S. House as a liberal New Dealer. She was married to a former actor, Melvyn Douglas, later a Hollywood executive and also among “suspect liberals.” During Nixon’s Senate campaign with Gahagan-Douglas, he cited her alleged “Communist-leaning” votes in Congress. On the campaign trail he called her “the Pink Lady” (“pinko” being short slang for communist), saying at one point she was “pink right down to her underwear.” Nixon won the election, but many felt he had run a smear campaign against Douglas.
As a young Congressman and then a Senator, Nixon rose quickly in the Republican party, becoming Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice-presidential running mate in 1952 (though Nixon did have one brush with controversy that year nearly costing him his career; see “Nixon’s Checker’s Speech”). The Eisenhower/ Nixon ticket, in any case, won two successive terms — 1952 and 1956. But when Nixon ran for President in 1960, opposing John F. Kennedy, he lost. Then in 1962, he tried to become California’s Governor and lost again, this time to Democrat Pat Brown. In each of these elections, from the early 1950s, there was always some contingent of Hollywood – both actors and studios – supporting Nixon and/or the Eisenhower/Nixon ticket. Nixon first met entertainer Bob Hope in the 1950s when Nixon was Vice President. Hope would become a friend and supporter thereafter. In 1960, when Nixon ran for the White House, Hollywood stars George Murphy and Helen Hayes formed a “Celebrities for Nixon Committee.”Another Hollywood supporter helping Nixon in 1960 was Mervyn LeRoy, a film director and producer. In the 1930s LeRoy directed Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (1931) and as head of production at MGM in 1938, produced The Wizard of Oz. Involved in advancing the careers of Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner, LeRoy also produced musicals in the 1950s and a series of hits for Warner Brothers such as Mister Roberts, The Bad Seed, No Time for Sergeants, The FBI Story and Gypsy. In August 1960, LeRoy was heading up a drive in Hollywood to recruit others for Nixon. In addition to LeRoy, George Murphy, and Helen Hayes, the 1960 Nixon/Lodge ticket also had other Hollywood backers, including: Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery, Robert Cummings, Robert Taylor, Irene Dunn, Cesar Romero and Mary Pickford. Again in 1962, when Nixon ran for Governor of California, he found a similar roster of Hollywood supporters – among them, Jimmy Stewart, Red Skelton, Rosalind Russell, Dick Powell, June Allyson, Robert Young, Tony Martin, Cyd Charisse, Irene Dunn, Johnny Mathis, Louise Beavers, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. But after Nixon lost badly to Pat Brown in the 1962 California Governor’s race – by nearly 300,000 votes – he charged that the media had showed favoritism to Brown. Many pundits at the time thought Nixon was finished as a politician, especially since he declared the day after his loss: “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” But several months later, Nixon appeared on The Jack Paar Program, (a talk show similar to that of today’s David Letterman or Jay Leno ) leaving the door open to his political future.
And sure enough, by the mid-1960s, Richard Nixon was rising from the ashes of his prior losses, on his way to one of the biggest political comebacks in American history. Nixon joined a New York law firm after his California gubernatorial defeat, and from there laid the groundwork for his return. He campaigned vigorously for Republicans in the 1966 Congressional elections, providing a key base of indebted members. Republicans added 47 House seats in that election, three in the Senate, and eight governorships. Nixon was also traveling and advancing his ideas on national politics and international affairs among Republican insiders. So it was no surprise to party regulars in January 1968, when he formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney, Rocky & Reagan
Nixon’s initial challenger for the Republican nomination was Gov. George Romney of Michigan, father of Mitt Romney, the recent Republican presidential candidate of 2008. George Romney was a successful business leader at the American Motors car company from 1954 to 1962, maker of one of the early compact cars named the Rambler. He became Governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969. Romney formally entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination in late November 1967, saying, “A Republican president can work for a just peace in Vietnam unshackled by the mistakes of the past.” Although Romney led Nixon among moderates in very early polls, he soon met with political misfortune. Romney had initially supported the war in Vietnam, but later moderated his position after making a fact-finding visit there in 1965. “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia,” he explained at one point, urging “a sound peace in South Vietnam at an early time.” This was a sharp reversal from his earlier belief that the war was “morally right and necessary.” However, in making his reversal on the war, Romney explained during one interview of being misled by military officials, using the term “brainwashed,” which would turn out to be an unfortunate choice of words that eventually undid his presidential bid. By February 1968, less than two weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Romney pulled out of the race. Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, became the heir apparent to moderate and anti-war Republicans after Romney went down. A descendant of the Rockefeller oil fortune, Rockefeller had been New York’s governor since 1959. He had also run for the Republican presidential nomination twice before – once in 1960 losing to Nixon, and agin in 1964 losing to conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
In the first primary of 1968 – New Hampshire on March 12th, now without Romney – Nixon took 78 percent of the vote. Republicans wrote in the name of then yet-to-announce Rockefeller, who received 11 percent of the vote. Rockefeller became something of a reluctant candidate, but allowed party members and others to work on his behalf. And eventually, Rockefeller did get into campaign mode, putting forward a plan to disengage from Vietnam and also offering some novel Republican strategies to address urban problems. But throughout the 1968 primary season, Nixon generally led Rockefeller in the polls, although Rockefeller won the April 30th Massachusetts primary.The other Republican candidate then on the horizon, and a potential problem for Nixon, was filmstar-turned-politician Ronald Reagan. Even before he became California’s Governor in 1966, Reagan had begun to attract a national following, especially among conservatives. He had given an important, televised speech supporting Barry Goldwater for President in 1964 which had marked him as a rising star.
By 1968, with support from conservatives, Reagan emerged as Nixon’s chief rival in the Nebraska presidential primary of May 14th. Still, Nixon took 70 percent of the vote there to 21 percent for Reagan, and 5 percent for Rockefeller. Nixon continued to win the primaries, with the exception of California, which he conceded to Reagan — a primary in which only Reagan’s name appeared on the ballot.
Reagan’s large margin in California, however, gave him a narrow lead in the nationwide primary popular vote – Reagan had 1,696,632 votes or 37.93% compared to Nixon’s 1,679,443 votes or 37.54%. Some believe that if Reagan had made a committed run for the nomination, and had mounted a serious campaign earlier, he could have beat Nixon. Still, by the time the Republican National Convention assembled in August 1968, Nixon had 656 delegates, needing only 11 more to reach the nomination at 667.
Celebrities for NixonRonald Reagan, of course, was Hollywood personified, and with wife Nancy Davis who had also been an actress, they were well-connected throughout Hollywood. But Richard Nixon had his own Hollywood connections, reaching back to the older network of stars who had supported his earlier campaigns. Nixon’s Hollywood stars, however, were somewhat older than those on the Democratic side in 1968. Nixon’s group included stars who had reached their peak in earlier years, such as Ray Bolger and Rudy Vallee, for example – but stars, nonetheless, who still had a following. “I have been making speeches for the Republicans, trying to create more party unity,” explained Ray Bolger to a reporter in April 1968. “They sought me out, but I happen to be very fond of Dick [Nixon] and think he’s very able. I’ve played golf with him.” Rudy Vallee was also quoted at the time saying that Nixon was “the most qualified man in this country, intellectually and emotionally.” Nixon’s campaign would also recruit other TV entertainers, athletes, and singers to help in his 1968 presidential bid. Among these stars, for example, were: Pat Boone, Connie Francis, Jackie Gleason, Hugh O’Brian, Ginger Rogers, and last but not least, John Wayne. Wayne had backed Nixon over Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, and in 1968 he was backing Nixon again. Wayne liked Nixon for his anti-communist stance. A supporter of the Vietnam War, Wayne was a critic of Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the War. Wayne had made a popular war movie at the time that used Vietnam – a very patriotic film called The Green Berets (June-July 1968). The film had a premier in Atlanta, Georgia on June 25, 1968, which coincided with that city’s “Salute To America” celebration. Wayne served as grand marshal in the parade, and the overall event attracted some 300,000 people. The Green Berets film, meanwhile, was cheered in the south, but protested in northern cities and university towns. Nixon’s campaign staff had noted Wayne’s appeal to blue collar voters and a certain segment of the white southern vote. One of Nixon’s campaign aides at the time, Kevin Philips, explained Wayne’s appeal to a segment of voters Nixon needed: “Wayne might sound bad to people in New York,” he said, “but he sounds great to the schmucks we’re trying to reach through John Wayne — the people down there along the Yahoo Belt. If I had time I’d check to see in what areas The Green Berets was held over [in theaters], and I’d play a special series of John Wayne [Nixon campaign] spots wherever it was.” Wayne was also scheduled to speak at the Republican Convention in Miami that August.
Among other Nixon supporters were famous athletes, including, former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis, Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, and Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr. Joe Louis was long retired from the boxing ring by then, but his name was still well known to sports enthusiasts. Bart Starr was probably the most famous professional football player in the country at the time. He had led the Packers to NFL Championships in 1961, 1962, 1965, 1966, and 1967. In 1966 and 1967, he also led the Packers to convincing victories in the first two Super Bowls and was named the Most Valuable Player of both games. Pro basketball player Wilt Chamberlain — the LeBron James and Shaqueal O’Neill of his day – was nearly ten years into his career by then, and had played for the Harlem Globetrotters, the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, and Philadelphia 76ers. He would help Nixon reach out to the black community and tout Nixon’s ideas on “black capitalism.”Another Nixon sup- porter in 1968 was Tex Ritter, a singing cowboy who began a radio career in the late 1920s, and also had success with stints in radio, film, Broadway, and recording. Ritter, father of the late actor John Ritter, was also known for singing the famous High Noon film song of 1952, “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin.” It won an Academy award for Best Song of the year and also became a popular hit. Ritter sang the High Noon song at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1953, the first to be televised. By 1968, Ritter had also become quite active in Republican politics, supporting the runs of various candidates including, John Tower of Texas, Howard Baker of Tennessee, George Murphy of California, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, and Ronald Reagan in California. A personal friend of Nixon’s, Ritter also wrote a campaign song for Nixon in 1968. On one occasion when Ritter was on tour in Germany, Nixon arranged for a plane to meet Ritter and his wife so that Ritter could entertain a political gathering being held for Nixon in Nashville, Tennessee where nearly 25,000 supporters were gathered. Nixon would also garner the support from Roy Ackuff of the Grand Ole Oprey.
On August 5, 1968 at the opening of Republican National Convention, Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami Beach, Florida, there were mini-skirted Rockefeller girls, Nixon men on stilts costumed as Uncle Sam, and live elephants out in the street. Celebrities such as Hugh O’Brien and John Wayne were on hand too. On the first morning of the convention, delegates cheered enthusiastically as John Wayne spoke. Nelson Rockefeller, technically still in the running at that point, had his celebrities, too – among them, Kitty Carlisle, Teresa Wright, Nancy Ames, Hildegarde, and singer Billy Daniels. On the evening of August 7th, 1968, an estimated guest list of some 8,000 were wined and dined at a Nelson Rockefeller reception. Lionel Hampton’s band provided music, and among the guests were hundreds of celebrities.During the main business of the convention, however, Nixon was nominated on the first ballot with 692 votes. Rockefeller was second at 277, and Reagan third at 182. For vice president, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford proposed New York City Mayor John Lindsay. However, Nixon turned to Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate. After Nixon received the nomination, celebrities who had lined up for the other candidates shifted their support to Nixon. By September 1968, “Celebrities for Nixon-Agnew,” had more than 100 famous names on its roster, among them, Rory Calhoun, Ray Milland, Art Linkletter, Guy Lombardo, and Connie Francis. Three weeks later, the Democrats convened their national convention in Chicago, nominating Vice President Hubert Humphrey and U.S. Senator Ed Muskie from Maine (see companion piece on the Democrats). The Democrats’ gathering in Chicago had been quite messy and divisive, with fighting over the Vietnam War and clashes in the streets between police and demonstrators, all televised to a national audience. Nixon and his campaign capitalized on the Democrats’ misfortune by staging a massive campaign appearance in Chicago that fall, with Nixon’s “law and order” speeches blending imagery of the Democrat’s convention violence along with the general unrest in the country that year. This “law and order” theme, coupled with his courting of the “law-abiding” middle class, was used heavily in political campaign ads that fall. In May 1968, Nixon had given a radio speech that focused on the “silent center” of American voters — “the millions of people in the middle spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly” – but were at the heart of America. Nixon courted this constituency and refined his message in the fall calling these Americans the “silent majority”. The core of the idea, according to Nixon speechwriters, was found in a 1948 book by historian Arthur Schlessinger, Jr., called The Vital Center. But Nixon made it his own during the campaign, hitting the theme time and time again, at the convention and throughout the fall of 1968. Nixon claimed to speak for this majority of law-abiding citizens; citizens who felt in 1968 they were being blamed for the social problems of the day; citizens the liberals “talked down to.” Amidst the growing social upheaval, Nixon appealed to these voters, promising a return to the stability of the Eisenhower years.
The Celebrity Preacher
Another prominent American who had the ear of the middle America, and was also a supporter of Richard Nixon in 1968, was evangelist Billy Graham. Graham was a very popular religious leader with a huge following. A long-time friend of Nixon’s, Graham had prominently supported Nixon over Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. In the 1950s, he had also supported Eisenhower. When Nixon was Vice President, Graham arranged for Nixon to address major gatherings of Methodists, Presbyterians, among others, and wrote at least one speech for him, according to Garry Wills.Billy Graham’s huge popu- larity in the south was seen as especially helpful to Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” “Graham worked closely with Nixon in the 1968 campaign, advised him on relations with the Evangelical community, and vouched for him in that community,” explains Wills in his book Head and Heart: American Christianities. Graham’s huge popularity in the south, in particular, was regarded as especially helpful to Nixon’s “Southern strategy” in 1968, a bid to appeal to conservative white Democrats in southern states, many still fearful of racial desegregation. Although Graham had desegregated his own religious activities in the South during the 1950s, he denounced civil rights agitators in the 1960s. His endorsement of “law and order” fit nicely with Nixon’s plan to attract Southern whites to the Republican side by denouncing liberal activists.Graham also rose publicly to Nixon’s defense during the fall election campaign after Humphrey supporter George W. Ball, a former ambassador to the Unite Nations, had made a negative comment about Nixon’s character. “Mr Ball reflected on Mr. Nixon’s character and personal integrity,” said Graham to reporters in September 1968. “I have known Richard Nixon intimately for more than 20 years. I can testify that he is a man of high moral principle.” Ball had said he thought Nixon a man “more interested in public opinion polls that principles.” Ball said he found “no pattern in Mr. Nixon’s life. He is a man who is one thing one day, and another the next”. Billy Graham was also advising Nixon when he chose Spiro Agnew as his vice president at the Republican convention, although Graham had favored Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, an active Christian. At one of his crusade services in Pittsburgh shortly before the 1968 election, Graham accorded Nixon a place of prominence and praised Nixon “effusively,” according to author Michael G. Long in his book, The Legacy of Billy Graham.
Connie & JackieNixon also enlisted singing artists and television personalities to offer public endorsements or do campaign ads. In September 1968, the Nixon campaign made a TV commercial with singer and movie actress Connie Francis. Francis was then a popular singer and had a large following. Among her hit songs in the 1950s and early 1960s were: “Who’s Sorry Now”(#4, 1958), “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool”(#1, 1960), “Don’t Break the Heart That Loves You”(#1 1962), and others. She had also appeared in few films, such as Where The Boys Are and Follow The Boys (1963). In the late 1960s, Francis had a number of albums on the market and was also appearing on TV shows and performed for audiences abroad as well. In her appearance in the Nixon campaign ad, Francis commented on finding disrespect for America in her travels abroad, while also noting a deplorable lack of respect for authority at home. In the ad, Francis said Nixon would set things right if elected president. The spot ran during the popular Laugh-In TV show. New York Times writer Jack Gould, reviewing the Connie Francis ad, said it “embraced all the ills of the oversimplified campaign ad…”
In the fall of 1968, Jackie Gleason, the TV entertainer and film actor – making his first endorsement in national politics – threw his support to Richard Nixon. Gleason was the star of The Jackie Gleason Show and The Honeymooners, both of which were popular TV shows of the 1950s and early 1960s. Gleason had also made a few movies by then, including The Hustler of 1961, in which he played opposite Paul Newman as pool shark Minnesota Fats. ( Newman had supported Democrat Eugene McCarthy). Gleason in 1968 was still a popular celebrity and had a following throughout the country.
In the fall campaign, Gleason kicked off a one-hour long televised rally for Nixon from New York’s Madison Square Garden on October 31, 1968. He introduced the hour with his personal endorsement of Nixon, stating on the tape it was his first ever political endorsement as he made his appeal to voters.
On the tape, after a narrator introduces Gleason – who is dressed in a dapper suit with a carnation in his lapel – he makes his pitch:
“I love this country. It’s been good to me – beyond my wildest dreams. And because I love America so much, lately I’ve been concerned. Like a lot of you, I’m concerned about where American is going in the next four years. That’s why I’ve decided to speak up for Richard Nixon. He sees it like it is. And he tells it like its is. I’ve never made a public choice like this before. But I think our country needs Dick Nixon – and we need him now. I think we’ll all feel a lot safer with him in the White House.
In the next hour, you’re going to see him, hear him speak. Listen to him. Make up your own mind. Never mind what everybody else tells you he says. Listen to him say it, yourself. And see if you don’t agree with me. Dick Nixon’s time has come. We need him. You and I need him. America needs him. The world needs him. …And so Madison Square Garden, ‘a-wa-a-a-y we go!’.”
Following the election, Nixon and Gleason would continue to have contact with one another, particularly in Florida. Gleason lived in Florida and Nixon had a compound on Biscayne Bay only miles away, where he would vacation during his presidency. In addition, both were avid golfers, and Gleason would have Nixon as a guest at some of his later celebrity and charity golf tournaments. During his Presidential years, Nixon would also play golf with Hollywood celebrities from time to time.
T.V. StrategyBack on the 1968 campaign trail, meanwhile, Nixon and his handlers were careful in how they used television. Although Nixon disliked the press, and he had fared poorly in his televised debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960, his 1968 campaign made great creative use of television in political advertising. In addition to celebrities such as Connie Francis and Jackie Gleason pitching for Nixon, there were also some well known and up-and-coming politicians who made political spots supporting Nixon. Former actor and California governor Ronald Reagan made a Nixon TV ad urging voters not to vote for the third-party candidate (i.e., George Wallace), calling it a “wasted vote.” Hollywood’s U.S. Senator George Murphy of California also urged voters in a TV ad to elect Nixon, stressing Nixon’s qualifications in world affairs. And a Congressman named George Bush (i.e., George Bush senior) made a TV ad for Nixon focused on youth and Nixon’s “new answers for the 70s” — stressing Nixon’s “confidence in kids.” Law and order and crime were also themes in Nixon’s TV ads. Some played on fear, as in one showing a woman walking down a poorly lighted street while the narrator spoke of a rising crime rate, violence, and assault, and the need to make streets safe. Using the “law and order”theme, the campaign also turned out ads that tried to associate Nixon’s opponent, Hubert Humphrey, with social protest, rising crime, and violence in the streets. One ad showed a smiling Humphrey as images of Vietnam, protests, and the out-of-control Democratic convention rolled by to a Dixieland rendition of “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” The spot ran once in prime time but was pulled after Democratic protest. Nixon meanwhile, mindful of how television hurt him in 1960, refused to debate Humphrey directly and held few press conferences during his campaign. But he did appear in a series of hour-long TV programs and biographical profiles – programs produced by media consultant Roger Ailes, then in one of his first political jobs (Ailes is today the president of Fox News Channel). In these controlled settings, Nixon was interviewed by panels of carefully-selected citizens. He occasionally faced tough questions, but the discussions took place in front of partisan audiences from which the press was excluded.
“Sock it To Me”
Nixon did, however, make one notable TV appearance in the 1968 election; an appearance on one of the more popular TV shows of that day – Laugh-In. Formally known as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the comedy and variety show was something like the Saturday Night Live of its day, though more of a fad show. But it was quite popular among the young. It offered witty skits and political barbs, and made stars of Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. But most importantly for advertisers and politicians, Laugh-In had a very good rating, with millions watching. In mid-September 1968, Nixon broke from his general election campaign to appear on the show and recite the show’s signature catchphrase, “sock it to me,” often done by noted celebrities. Some believe that Nixon’s ‘sock-it-to-me’ appearance on Laugh-In helped him win the election, as it cast the otherwise formal and stodgy Nixon in a few seconds of self-deprecat- ing humor. Nixon’s taped appearance ran on September 16, 1968. Nixon himself had been reluctant to do the spot, not being a big fan of TV to begin with. And most of his aides were not very keen on the idea either, and advised against it. But one of the show’s writers, Paul Keyes, was a friend of Nixon’s, and when Nixon was out in California for a press conference they took a camera and got him aside to do the phrase. But it wasn’t easy. It took several takes. Nixon kept saying the phrase in an angry tone. Finally, Nixon did the line as a question, “Sock it to me?, with emphasis and uptick on the “me.” That was the version used, and the producer thought it made Nixon look good – so good, in fact, they thought Hubert Humphrey should appear on the show in an equal role. For Humphrey, they were thinking of using a variation of the phrase – “I’ll sock it to you, Dick” – as if responding to Nixon. But Humphrey’s handlers thought it would appear undignified, so Humphrey did not appear. Happily for Nixon, his Laugh-In appearance may have helped him in the election. Some believe that the brief clip had cast the otherwise formal and stodgy Nixon in a few seconds of self-deprecating humor. Even Humphrey would later tell the show’s producer that not making the appearance on Laugh-In might have cost him votes in the election. Nixon would also make an appearance with Laugh-In’s Dan Rowan and Dick Martin at a campaign stop in Burbank, California in October 1968 (see photo at beginning of story above).
On election day that November, in one of the closest elections in U.S. history, Nixon beat Humphrey by a slim margin. Although Nixon took 302 electoral votes to Humphrey’s 191, the popular vote was extremely close: Nixon at 31,375,000 to 31,125,000 for Humphrey, or 43.4 percent to 43.1 percent. Third party candidate George Wallace was a key factor in the race, taking more votes from Humphrey than Nixon, hurting Humphrey especially in the south and with union and working class voters in the north. Wallace recorded 9.9 million votes, or 13.5 percent of the popular vote, winning five southern states and taking 45 electoral votes. Democrats retained control of the House and Senate, but the country was now headed in a more conservative direction.
In his victory, Nixon brought some of his famous friends along with him to celebrate at the inaugural festivities. And beyond that, a few also made it into the realm of policy and received formal appointments. Shirley Temple Black was appointed by Nixon to be U. S. Representative to the United Nations. Other of Nixon’s famous friends became informal advisors and helped set a new cultural and even moral tone in the country.
In June 1969, Esquire magazine poked fun at the new “Nixon style” in Washington with a cover story depicting Nixon supporters Lawrence Welk, Rudy Vallee, Billy Graham, and Art Linkletter along with Nixon himself for the story, “Getting Hep to the Nixon Style.”
Nixon would subsequently win re-election in November 1972, crushing Democrat George McGovern. But the Watergate scandal – which began as a back-pages, police-blotter news story about a bungled break-in at the Democrat’s Washington, D.C. headquarters – was already in motion. Watergate would soon unravel to become a full-fledged national scandal that would shake the federal government to its core, bringing Nixon to impeachment and then resignation as President in August 1974. Meanwhile, back in California where Nixon’s career had begun, there were those who remembered the 1940s and 1950s, and proudly sported a popular bumper sticker during the Watergate years that read: “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan-Douglas!”
(Note: See also companion piece on the Democrats in 1968 ).
Date Posted: 11 March 2009
Last Update: 11 March 2009
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Jack Doyle, “1968 Presidential Race, Republicans,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 11,2009.
Sources, Links & Additional Information Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon video
Murray Schumach, “Producer Plans Drive for Nixon; Mervyn LeRoy, Heading the G.O.P. Hollywood Push,”New York Times, Tuesday, August 23, 1960, p. 26.
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For 1968 campaign ads, see Museum of the Moving Image, “The Living Room Candidate: Presidential Campaign Commercials: 1968.”
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Cecil Bothwell, The Prince of War, Brave Ulysses Books, 2007.
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