Richard Nixon, center, is flanked by Dan Rowan, left, and Dick Martin right, of ‘Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In’ TV show at October 1968 campaign stop in Burbank, CA. Nixon appeared on ‘Laugh-In’ in mid-Sept 1968 in the humorous 'sock-it-to-me' segment, covered later below. (AP photo)
In the 1968 presidential race, Hollywood and celebrity involvement in politics reached a level not seen in several decades. The participation of movie stars, singers, directors, authors, sports figures, and other celebrities in the election was more prominent among Democrats perhaps, but was also a factor on the Republican side. Historically, Republicans were more suspicious of liberal-leaning Hollywood than Demo- crats. And Hollywood itself, especially after the communist witch hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s, was leery of politics generally.
“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.
Ronald & Nancy Reagan at victory party after winning the 1966 California governor's race.
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 cheering himself over election returns in 1950 in defeat of Democrat Helen Gahagan-Douglas in U.S. Senate race.
Richard 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?”
George Murphy, shown here with Shirley Temple in 1938, helped Richard Nixon in his bid for the White House in 1960, and became a U.S. Senator himself in 1964.
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.”
Nixon had met Bob Hope in the 1950s when he was Vice President with Eisenhower. Hope became a Nixon supporter, and is shown here in September 1969 with President Nixon in the Oval Office.
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.
Nixon on Jack Paar TV show, believed to be March of 1963. Parr is holding Nixon’s book, ‘Six Crises,’ published in 1962.
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.
In some 1967 polling, Michigan Governor George Romney, a former auto company executive, led Nixon among moderates.
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, shown on Time’s Aug 1960 cover, had previously battled Nixon for the nomination and lost.
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.
Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis star in 1957's ‘Hellcats of the Navy,’ by Columbia Pictures.
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 Nixon
Nixon shown here with Rudy Vallee in the 1960s. Vallee had been a well known radio and Hollywood film star of the 1930s & 1940s.
Ronald 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.
John Wayne’s movie, ‘The Green Berets', was released in July 1968.
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.
Green Bay Packer quarterback Bart Starr – shown on a ‘Sport Illustrated’ Jan 1967 cover – was a Nixon supporter in 1968.
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.”
Tex Ritter, who sang the famous 1952 movie song, ‘Do Not Forsake Me Oh, My Darlin’, was a Nixon supporter in 1968.
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.
Republican convention in Miami, August 1972, where Nixon was nominated on the first ballot.
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.
John Wayne adressing convention.
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).
Ronald Reagan threw his full support to Nixon at the 1968 convention.
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.
Nixon campaigning in the Philadelphia, PA area, July 1968.
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.
Billy Graham & Richard Nixon, 1970.
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 & Jackie
Popular singer Connie Francis, shown here on an album cover, made a TV ad for Nixon in 1968.
Nixon 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…”
Jackie Gleason, popular in his 1950s ‘Honeymooners’ TV sit-com, shown here in the 1961 film ‘The Hustler.’
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:
Nixon with Jackie Gleason on golf course.
“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!’.”
Richard Nixon with Jimmy Stewart, Fred MacMurray, and Bob Hope at Burbank, CA Lakeside Golf Club in January 1970. (AP photo)
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.
Esquire’s May 1968 cover had some fun with a stock Nixon photo mixed with some cosmetics ad copy. ‘This time he’d better look right,’ said the cover note, alluding to Nixon’s poor showing vs. JFK in 1960. Nixon did not debate Humphrey in 1968 and held few press conferences.
Back 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’sLaugh-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).
Nixon campaigning in Philadelphia, PA, on Chestnut Street, September 1968. (AP photo).
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.
Esquire magazine ran a June 1969 cover story on ‘the Nixon style’ featuring his celebrity friends (behind Nixon): Art Linkletter, Billy Graham, Rudy Vallee & Lawrence Welk.
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!”
Paul Newman, one of many notable Hollywood stars who became active on behalf of presidential candidates during 1968's primary & general elections. Life magazine, May 10, 1968.
In 1968, celebrity participation in the presidential primary and general elections of the United States reached a level that had not been seen in some years. This participation was more prominent among Democrats perhaps, but was also a factor in the Republican races. Many in Hollywood and the arts community had been wary of political activism after experiencing the communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s. Congressional hearings, loyalty oaths, and Hollywood blacklists during that period had terrorized actors, producers, musicians, and others, wrecking careers and ruining lives.
Yet in the 1960s, the caldron of social issues and political unrest throughout the country, coupled in 1967-68 with an offering of hopeful candidates — especially on the Democratic side — brought both older and newer Hollywood celebrities into the political process like never before. “In no other election,” observed Time magazine in late May 1968, “have so many actors, singers, writers, poets, artists, professional athletes and assorted other celebrities signed up, given out and turned on for the candidates.”
A war was then raging in Vietnam and a military draft was taking the nation’s young to fight it. President Lyndon Johnson had raised U.S. troop strength in Vietnam to 486,000 by the end of 1967. Protests had erupted at a number of colleges and universities. In late October 1967, tens of thousands of demonstrators came to the Pentagon calling for an end to the war. In addition, a growing civil rights movement had pointed up injustice and racism throughout America. Three summers of urban unrest had occurred. Riots in 1967 alone had taken more than 80 lives. In the larger society, a counter culture in music, fashion and values — brought on by the young — was also pushing hard on convention. And all of this, from Vietnam battle scenes to federal troops patrolling U.S. cities, was seen on television as never before. Society seemed to be losing its moorings. And more was yet to come, as further events — some traumatic and others unexpected — would fire the nation to the boiling point. There was little standing on the sidelines; people from all walks of life were taking sides.
From left, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte & Charlton Heston at 1963 Civil Rights march.
Hollywood and the arts community had a long history of political involvement and activism on behalf of presidential candidates, dating at least to the 1920s. Even in the dark days of the 1950s there had been a sizeable swath of Hollywood backing Democrat Adlai Stevenson for his Presidential bids of 1952 and 1956. And in the 1960 election of Jack Kennedy, there was notable support from Frank Sinatra and friends, as well as Kennedy family connections to Hollywood. Others, like singer Pete Seeger, had never stopped their activism, even in the face of political pressure. By the early 1960s, with the civil rights movement in particular, a new wave actors and singers such as Joan Baez, Harry Belefonte, Marlon Brando, Bob Dylan, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman and others were becoming involved in one way or another. Some lent their name or provided financial support; others joined marches and demonstrations. By the mid-1960s, however, the Vietnam War became a goading factor for many in Hollywood. And among the first to speak out and oppose the war was an actor named Robert Vaughn.
TV actor Robert Vaughn led early Hollywood opposition to the Vietnam War.
The Man from UNCLE
Robert Vaughn was the star of a popular primetime TV spy series called The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which ran from September 1964 to mid-January 1968. Vaughn was among the first to criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson on the Vietnam war — and he did so very publicly in a January 1966 speech. In Indianapolis, at a dinner given to support Johnson’s re-election, Vaughn spoke out against the war and LBJ’s policy there. “Everyone at the front table had hands over their eyes,” Vaughn later explained when asked about the reaction. Vaughn became worried about the Vietnam War after immersing himself in all the documents, books and articles he could find on the subject. “I can talk for six hours about the mistakes we have made,” he told one reporter in 1966. “We have absolutely no reason to be in Viet Nam-legal, political or moral.”
In late March 1966, Vaughn went to Washington to meet with politicians. He lunched with Senator Frank Church (D-ID) and also had a lengthy meeting with Senator Wayne Morse (D-OR) to discuss the war. He told the press then “the Hollywood community is very much against” the Vietnam War. “[T]he Hollywood com- munity is very much against” the Vietnam War. – Robert Vaughn, March 1966. But wasn’t it risky for a star to be so outspoken, he was asked? “I’ve had nothing but encouragement from my friends in the industry, from the studio, even the network,” he said. On his visit to Washington that weekend Vaughn was a house guest of Bobby Kennedy’s at Hickory Hill in nearby Virginia. He continued to be visible in the Vietnam debate, appearing as a guest on William F. Buckley’s TV talk show, Firing Line. He also engaged in impromptu debate with Vice President Hubert Humphrey on a live Minneapolis talk show. At the peak of Vaughn’s popularity, he was asked by the California Democratic Party to oppose fellow actor, Republican Ronald Reagan, then running for California governor in the 1966 election. Vaughn, however, supported Democrat Edmund G. Brown, who lost in a landslide to Reagan.
Vaughn would continue to oppose the war, leading a group called Dissenting Democrats. By early 1968, Vaughn supported the emerging anti-war presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN), then running for his party’s nomination. (Vaughn had later planned to switch to Robert Kennedy, a close friend, if Kennedy won the June 1968 California primary).
McCarthy at 1968 campaign rally in Wisconsin.
Gene McCarthy had announced his candidacy for the White House on November 30, 1967. Opposing the war was the main issue for McCarthy, who had been prodded to run by anti-war activists. On the Republican side, former vice President Richard Nixon announced his candidacy in January 1968. And on February 8th, Alabama’s Democratic Governor George Wallace — the segregationist who in June 1963 had stood at the doors of the University of Alabama to block integration — entered the presidential race as an Independent.
McCarthy attracted some of the more liberal Democrats in Hollywood, including those who had been for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. “…[H]e’s the man who expresses discontent with dignity,” actor Eli Wallach would say of McCarthy in 1968. Wallach had won a Tony Award in 1951 for his role in the Tennessee Williams play The Rose Tattoo and also became famous for his role as Tuco the “ugly” in the 1966 film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Wallach liked the fact that McCarthy had taken “a firm position on the war in Vietnam.” Wallach and his wife Anne Jackson, a stage actress, were among those who held fundraisers and poetry readings for McCarthy. Actress Myrna Loy was another McCarthy supporter. She had played opposite William Powell, Clark Gable, Melvyn Douglas, and Tryone Power in films of the 1930s and 1940s. Loy was a lifelong activist who had supported Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956. In 1968, she became a stalwart for McCarthy, making personal campaign appearances for him and hosting fundraisers. But perhaps the most important Hollywood star to come out for McCarthy was Paul Newman.
The Paul Newman Factor
Paul Newman at 1968 fundraiser.
Paul Newman was then among Hollywood’s most popular actors, and among its top five box office draws. By 1968, he had appeared in more than a dozen major films and had a following of both older and younger Americans. Among his films, for example, were: Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), as boxer Rocky Graziano; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), opposite Elizabeth Taylor; and The Young Philadelphians (1959). He also appeared with his wife Joanne Woodward in several films including: The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys!, (1958), From the Terrace (1960), Paris Blues (1961), and A New Kind of Love (1963). Other signature films of Newman’s in the 1960s were: Exodus (1960), TheHustler (1961), Hud (1963), Harper (1966), Hombre (1967), and Cool Hand Luke (1967). Along with Joanne Woodward, Newman took time away from his profession during 1968 to work months at a time for McCarthy. He made numerous campaign appearances for McCarthy throughout the country during the Democratic primaries and also became a McCarthy delegate to the Democratic convention.
Campaigning by Newman at a McCarthy rally in Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, 1968.
Newman’s support for McCarthy — like many others — was largely because of the Vietnam War. McCarthy, however, was not well known outside of the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C. and his home state of Minnesota. In addition to actively campaigning for McCarthy, Newman was also filmed in political ads for the candidate, and emceed a telethon to raise money for McCarthy that had been quite successful. But it was Newman’s early help in the New Hampshire primary that was particularly important for McCarthy — especially given the results and the political fallout that followed. In fact, some credit Newman with raising McCarthy’s visibility enough to enable him to make the strong showing he did in New Hampshire — a showing which later affected decisions by both Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy.
Newman made campaign appearances in New Hampshire during February and March 1968, some with wife Joanne Woodward. Tony Randall and Rod Serling also made appearances for McCarthy in New Hampshire. But it was Newman who drew the crowds and notice by the press. In March 1968, Newman went to Claremont, New Hampshire to campaign for McCarthy. Tony Podesta, then a young MIT student, was Newman’s campaign contact. Podesta worried that day that only a few people might show up to hear Newman. Some credit Paul Newman with raising McCarthy’s visibility in New Hamp- shire, enabling his strong showing there. Instead, more than 2,000 people came out to mob Newman. “I didn’t come here to help Gene McCarthy,” Newman would say to his listeners that day. “I need McCarthy’s help.”
“Until that point,” said Podesta, “McCarthy was some sort of a quack not too many people knew about, but as soon as Paul Newman came to speak for him, he immediately became a national figure.” In New Hampshire, the Manchester Union Leader newspaper published a political cartoon showing Newman being followed by McCarthy with the caption: “Who’s the guy with Paul Newman?” Author Darcy Richardson would later write in A Nation Divided: The Presidential Election of 1968, that Newman’s visit to the state “caused a great stir and drew considerable attention to McCarthy’s candidacy.” New Republic columnist Richard Stout, attributing honesty and conviction to Newman’s New Hampshire campaigning, wrote that the actor “had the star power McCarthy lacked, and imperceptibly was transferring it to the candidate.” Barbara Handman, who ran The Arts & Letters Committee for McCarthy, would later put it more plainly: “Paul turned the tide for McCarthy. . . Paul put him on the map — he [ McCarthy] started getting national coverage by the press. He started being taken seriously.”
New Hampshire Earthquake
On March 12, 1964, McCarthy won 42 percent of the vote in New Hampshire to Lyndon Johnson’s 49 percent, a very strong showing for McCarthy and an embarrassment for Johnson. McCarthy’s campaign now had a new legitimacy and momentum that would have a cascading effect on decisions that both Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy would make. Paul Newman, meanwhile, continued to campaign for McCarthy beyond New Hampshire and throughout the election year.
March 22, 1968 edition of Time magazine, reporting on McCarthy’s surprising showing in New Hampshire & the emerging Democratic fight.
McCarthy soon had a long list of luminaries supporting his run for the White House, including: Alan Arkin, Betty Comden, Melvyn Douglas, Adolf Green, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Barbra Streisand, Jill St. John, Darren McGavin, Eva Marie Saint, Burt Lancaster, Sonny Fox, Alan Jay Lerner, Dick Van Dyke, and Leonard Nemoy. Bette Davis was also a McCarthy supporter and served as hostess for some of his functions. Playwright Arthur Miller, and author William Styron were also active for McCarthy as were folk singers Peter, Paul & Mary. Some of the famous names would also participate in what were then called “Eugene cabarets”– fundraising, entertain- ment, and other gatherings held in New York, San Francisco, and other cities using an admission price to raise money for McCarthy. These events ranged from nightclub shows to poetry readings. One featured Elaine May doing comedy, another had social critic and cartoonist Jules Feiffer as the guest. In Los Angeles, a “Eugene cabaret” featured novelist William Styron, actor Ossie Davis, and writer James Baldwin in a debate on Styron’s novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. In later months, the “Eugene cabarets” would be contributing $11,500 a week to McCarthy’s campaign. And there would be larger events too. In mid-May 1968, some 19,000 Eugene McCarthy supporters attended a star-studded event at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Playwright Neil Simon along with comedians Tony Randall and Larry Blyden performed a satirical skit spoofing Johnson and Humphrey, along with other events. The entertainers that night raised $300,000 for McCarthy. But it was the New Hampshire primary that had sent McCarthy on his way. Also important for McCarthy in New Hampshire had been the college kids who came “clean for Gene” and gave endless hours to his campaign. However, in the wake of McCarthy’s surprise showing in New Hampshire, came Bobby Kennedy.
Bobby Kennedy, 1968.
Kennedy In, LBJ Out
On March 16th, four days after the New Hampshire primary showed Lyndon Johnson to be vulnerable and McCarthy viable, Bobby Kennedy jumped into the race, angering many McCarthy supporters. Kennedy had agonized over whether to enter the race for months, and in fact, McCarthy and supporters had gone to Kennedy in 1967 to urge him to run. McCarthy then decided to enter the race after it appeared Kennedy was not going to run. But once Kennedy entered the race, he and McCarthy engaged in an increasingly heated and sometimes bitter contest for the nomination.
In 1968, however, party leaders still had a great deal of influence in the nominating process and the selection of delegates. Primaries then were less important and fewer in number than they are today. Still, a strong showing in certain primaries could create a bandwagon effect and show the party establishment that a particular candidate was viable. In 1960, John Kennedy helped get the party’s attention when he defeated Hubert Humphrey in the West Virginia primary. Now in 1968, Gene McCarthy had the party’s attention.
Lyndon Johnson's surprise announcement of March 31, 1968 made headlines across the country.
Robert Kennedy would have to defeat McCarthy and President Johnson in every primary that he could then still enter. Among the primaries then available were: Indiana and Washington, D.C. on May 7th; Nebraska on May 14th; Oregon on May 28th; California and South Dakota on June 4th; and New York on June 18th. But then unexpectedly, following Kennedy’s announcement less than two weeks later, came another jolt for the party. Lyndon Johnson, a sitting president and the presumed nominee of his party, stunned the nation by announcing on national television that he would not accept nor seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Johnson, among other things, had seen polling data from the then-pending Wisconsin primary showing McCarthy in the lead, which on April 2nd McCarthy would win with 56 percent of the vote to LBJ’s 35 percent.
King shot, April 4, 1968.
On April 4th, 1968, several days after LBJ’s bombshell, the nation was ripped apart by news that civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. In the next few days, dozens of American cities erupted in violence.
RFK at scene of his famous speech in Indianapolis the evening Martin Luther King died. AP Photo/Leroy Patton, Indianapolis News.
Robert Kennedy, who had then begun his campaign, had arrived in Indiana on April 4th to begin some campaigning there for the upcoming primary. On a flight from Muncie to Indianapolis, he learned that civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot, and before landing heard that King had died. Despite warnings from Indianapolis police that they could not guarantee his safety, Kennedy decided to proceed with plans to address an outdoor rally to be held in the heart of the city’s African American community. On that cold and windy evening, Kennedy broke the news of King’s death in an impassioned, extemporaneous speech on the need for compassion in the face of violence. It has proven to be one of the great speeches in American political history. Although a number of cities erupted with riots following King’s death, Indianapolis did not. Political campaigns, meanwhile, were suspended for about a week as the nation mourned King’s death.
By the end of April, the nation was boiling on other fronts, too. Student protesters at Columbia University in New York City took over the administration building on April 23rd and shut down the campus. On the campaign trail, McCarthy won the April 23rd Pennsylvania primary, and a few days later, on April 27th, Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, former Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, formally announced he would seek the Democratic presidential nomination.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey enters the race for the Democratic nomination, April 1968.
Humphrey, however, was taking a distinctly different route to the nomination than McCarthy and Kennedy. Humphrey, for the most part, did not go the primary route, although he did have surrogates in a few states. Instead, Humphrey planned to use the “party machine” to gather his delegates and was the favored establishment candidate.
Lyndon Johnson would also help Humphrey, but mostly from behind the scenes since Johnson was regarded a liability for any candidate given his Vietnam record. Meanwhile, on the campaign trail, a showdown of sorts was brewing between Kennedy and McCarthy as the May 7th Indiana primary approached.
Celebs for McCarthy
In April and early May of 1968, there was a lot of campaigning in Indiana, and star power was again at work with celebrities helping McCarthy. In April, Paul Newman was drawing large crowds in the state for McCarthy, where he made 15 appearances. At one of those stops, Newman explained from a tailgate of station wagon: “I am not a public speaker. I am not a politician. I’m not here because I’m an actor. I’m here because I’ve got six kids. I don’t want it written on my gravestone, ‘He was not part of his times.’ Also making appearances for McCarthy in Indiana were Simon & Garfunkel, Dustin Hoffman, Myrna Loy, and Gary Moore. The times are too critical to be dissenting in your own bathroom.” Newman continued campaigning for McCarthy through May 7 and was then still drawing crowds, with his own motorcade sometimes followed by cars of adoring fans.
Also making appearances for McCarthy in Indiana were actor Dustin Hoffman, singing duo Simon & Garfunkel, Myrna Loy, and TV host Gary Moore. Simon & Garfunkel sang at a McCarthy fundraiser at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in May 1968, where Dustin Hoffman introduced them. Hoffman’s popular film at the time, The Graduate — filled with a Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack — was then still in theaters. This celebrity support for McCarthy, as Newman had shown in New Hampshire, was important for McCarthy. “When you have a candidate who is not as well known, and there’s no money so that you can’t by television time,” explained Barbara Handman, head of the Arts and Letters Committee for McCarthy, “these people [celebs] become more and more effective for us. They’re well-known drawing cards…” Handman had previously headed up similar committees for Jack Kennedy in 1960, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Her husband, Wynn Handman, was co-founder of the American Palace Theater. Both were well connected in Hollywood.
Celebs for Kennedy
Andy Williams, Robert Kennedy, Perry Como, Ted Kennedy, Eddie Fisher at unspecified 1968 fundraising telethon, Lisner Auditorium, G.W. University, Wash., D.C. (photo, GW University).
Robert Kennedy, a celebrity in his own right, would draw crowds like a rock star once his campaign got going — especially later in California. But even Kennedy had famous names on his side. After he announced his candidacy in March 1968, his campaign was deluged with offers of help from Hollywood — some 100 actors, directors and producers called offering their support. And in a blow to McCarthy, some of his early Hollywood supporters, such as Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Sammy Davis Jr., Candice Bergen, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams, and the rock ‘n roll group, Jefferson Airplane, now broke for Kennedy. Among other Hollywood and celebrity supporters working for Kennedy were: Warren Beatty, Bill Cosby, Tony Curtis, Bobby Darin, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemon, Shirley MacLaine, Malina Mercouri, Jack Parr, David Suskind, Nancy Wilson, Gene Kelly, Jack Lemon, Gregory Peck, and Rod Steiger. Sammy Davis, Jr., who was performing in Chicago in the spring of 1968 in Golden Boy, would campaign for Bobby on his days off at small colleges in the nearby states of Nebraska and Indiana. Filmmaker John Frankenheimer directed and produced ads for Robert Kennedy, and Kennedy also hired documentary filmmaker Charles Guggenheim to produce campaign films.
Bobby Kennedy campaigning in Indianapolis, May 1968. Behind Kennedy to the right, are NFL football stars Lamar Kundy, Rosey Grier and Deacon Jones. (photo by Bill Eppridge from his book, 'A Time It Was'.
Kennedy also had a number of professional athletes in his corner, including NFL football stars Lamar Lundy, Rosey Grier, and Deacon Jones and former prizefighter Tony Zale. Rafer Johnson, a 1960 Olympic gold medalist, headed an “Athlete’s for Kennedy” committee and often accompanied Kennedy on his tours through black communities.
Lesley Gore, a pop singer who by then had several Top 40 hits — including “It’s My Party” (1963), “You Don’t Own Me” (1964), “Sunshine, Lollipops & Rainbows” (1965), and “California Nights” (1967) — also became a Kennedy supporter. At 21 years old, and about to graduate from Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, Gore became head of Kennedy’s effort to get young voters, called “First Voters for Kennedy.” She volunteered after she heard that Kennedy needed someone to attract young voters. “I understand there are 13 million first-time voters this year,” she told a New York Times reporter in early April 1968. “After my graduation next month I intend to give more of my time to visiting colleges and universities around the country.” In this effort, Gore would be traveling with actresses Candice Bergen and Patty Duke, and also the rock group, Jefferson Airplane.
Andy Williams, a friend and skiing companion to Kennedy, was also a key supporter. “I’m doing it because I think it important,” Williams told a New York Times reporter. “I am worried about the image of America. People don’t think Nixon is swell, and they don’t think Humphrey is swell. Bobby has star quality.” Williams would refurbish his guest house for use by the Kennedy family when Bobby campaigned in California.
Sinatra for Humphrey
Frank Sinatra & Hubert Humphrey, Washington, D.C., May 1968.
One entertainer noticeably absent from the Kennedy list was Frank Sinatra. Sinatra had backed JFK in 1960 but had a falling out with Jack Kennedy after that election. And as Attorney General, Bobby had initiated some actions against the Las Vegas gambling scene where Sinatra had friends and interests. Sinatra supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey for the nomination, and had met with Humphrey in Washington in early May, pledging to make campaign appearances for Humphrey in California and elsewhere. Sinatra headlined an Oakland, California gala for Humphrey and a delegate slate that opposed RFK in May. At the Oakland fundraiser, held on May 22, 1968, Sinatra gave an extensive live performance, which in recent years has been found on the web in various bootleg editions. Sinatra also performed for Humphrey at other events, including an early August 1968 gala at Cobo Hall in Detroit, and he also did a TV ad for Humphrey that fall.
During his campaign, Humphrey would gather additional Hollywood and celebrity supporters beyond Sinatra. Among these were some of the older and more established Hollywood names, sports stars, and other leading names, including actress Tallulah Bankhead, opera star Roberta Peters, jazz singer Sarah Vaughan, former heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, writer and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, and fashion designer Mollie Parnis.
Indiana & Beyond
A Gene McCarthy campaign celebration, 1968.
Back on the campaign trail, Kennedy won the Indiana primary on May 7th, and then defeated McCarthy in the Nebraska primary on May 14th. But McCarthy upset Kennedy in the Oregon primary on May 28th — the first time a Kennedy had ever lost a public election. After Kennedy’s defeat in Oregon, the California June 5th primary became the crucial showdown for Kennedy and McCarthy.
Both candidates campaigned vigorously throughout California, a winner-take-all contest with a large pot of delegates. McCarthy stumped the state’s colleges and universities, where he was recognized for being the first candidate to oppose the war. Kennedy campaigned in the ghettos and barrios of the state’s larger cities, where he was mobbed by enthusiastic supporters. A few days before the election, Kennedy and McCarthy also engaged in a televised debate — considered a draw.
On the east coast, meanwhile, and in New York city in particular, there was a star-studded celebrity fundraising rally for McCarthy in New York’s Madison Square Garden on May 19, 1968. One Canadian blogger, who as a teenager happened to be in New York city that weekend with a friend, recently wrote the following “forty-years-ago” remembrance of the event:
. . .Rob and I did many crazy things that weekend. . . .We learned that McCarthy was having a rally at Madison Square Garden on the Sunday night so along we went figuring we’d meet some more chicks. That event was awe inspiring.
All sorts of famous people spoke or performed that night. Paul Newman, Phil Ochs, Mary Tyler Moore to name a few. A new, young actor said a few words to the crowd on behalf of the candidate. We recognized him as the star of the ‘adult’ movie we had seen the night before. The movie was The Graduate and he was a very young Dustin Hoffman.
Celebrities walked thru the arena imploring people to donate to the campaign. Tony Randall came up our aisle and we gave him a couple of bucks. Stewart Mott (General Motors rich kid) stood up and donated $125,000 right there on the spot. The crowd was delirious. Sen. McCarthy spoke to the crowd and promised to take his fight against Sen. Kennedy all the way to the Chicago convention in August. It was pretty heady stuff for a 17 year-old from Toronto….
RFK campaigning in California.
On May 21, 1968, the Kennedy campaign in California unveiled its “Hollywood for Kennedy” committee. According to Joseph Palermo’s book, In His Own Right, this committee was chaired by singer Andy Williams, and included, among others: Lauren Bacall, Otto Preminger, Mahalia Jackson, Sidney Portier, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak, Trini Lopez, Milton Berle, Henry Mancini, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Marlo Thomas. According to Palermo: “Kennedy could count on well-known actors and entertainers who shared his views on the war and on race relations.“…Kennedy’s enlistment of the Hollywood elite built on his family ties to the entertainment industry dating back to the 1920s…” – Joseph Palermo . . . A unique tactical alliance developed between California’s exorbitantly wealthy celebrity class, and some of the poorest, most dispossessed people of the state. Kennedy’s enlistment of the Hollywood elite built on his family ties to the entertainment industry dating back to the 1920s, and helped craft the image that he might restore to the White House some of the glamour of Camelot.” Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, also campaigned for Kennedy in California, as did John Fell Stevenson, the son of Adlai Stevenson. The Kennedy campaign also organized two star-studded “Kennedy for President” galas, one at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on May 24, the other at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium on June 1st. These were nationally-televised events that gave Kennedy added exposure.
Robert Kennedy campaigning.
On June 4, the day of the California primary, after a grueling campaign of some 85 days to that point, Kennedy rested with his wife Ethel and six of their children at the Malibu, California home of movie director and friend, John Frankenheimer. Late in the day, Frankenheimer brought Kennedy to the campaign’s election night headquarters at the Ambassador Hotel. In a suite there, Kennedy awaited the results in the company of friends and supporters, among them, Andy Williams, Shirley MacLaine, Rafer Johnson, and Milton Berle.
Four hours after the polls closed in California, Kennedy claimed victory as he addressed his campaign supporters just past midnight in the Ambassador Hotel. On his way through the kitchen to exit the hotel, he was mortally wounded by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. His death became yet another of 1968’s convulsing events. Seen as an emerging beacon of hope in a dismal time, many had pinned their hopes on Kennedy and took his loss very personally. The Democratic party went into a tailspin as a stunned nation grieved. Thousands lined the tracks as Kennedy’s funeral train moved from New York City to Washington D.C. Millions watched his funeral on television. At the request of Bobby’s wife, Ethel, Andy Williams sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Kennedy’s funeral.
New York Times headlines, June 5, 1968.
Kennedy had defeated McCarthy in California, 46 percent to 42 percent. Kennedy’s team believed that by winning California, he would knock McCarthy out of the race and set up a one-on-one contest against Hubert Humphrey at the national convention that August. Kennedy had also planned to woo Humphrey delegates before the convention. Still, Kennedy was in second place overall after the California primary, with 393 delegates compared to Humphrey’s 561. McCarthy then held 258 delegates. McCarthy was aiming for the New York primary, where he had support from antiwar activists in New York City.
Historians and journalists have disagreed about Kennedy’s chances for the nomination had he not been assassinated. Michael Beschloss believes it unlikely that Kennedy could have secured the nomination since most of the delegates were then uncommitted and yet to be chosen at the Democratic convention. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and author Jules Witcover have argued that Kennedy’s broad appeal and charisma would have given him the nomination at the convention. And still others add that Kennedy’s experience in his brother’s presidential campaign, plus a potential alliance with Chicago mayor Richard Daley at the Democratic Convention, might have helped him secure the nomination.
Leading up to Democratic convention in Chicago, former Kennedy supporters tried to sort out what had happened and whether and how they would line up with other candidates. George Plimpton, a well known New Yorker and journalist who authored the 1963 book Paper Lion, had been a Kennedy supporter. He was with Kennedy the night he was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen, walking in front of him. In New York, on August 14, 1968, Plimpton sponsored a party at the Cheetah nightclub on behalf of McCarthy supporters, along with co-sponsor William Styron, author of the The Confessions of Nat Turner. Henry Fonda was scheduled to host a McCarthy rally in Houston. “I started out with Senator Kennedy,” explained Fonda to a New York Times reporter, “Now I think McCarthy is the best choice on the horizon.” McCarthy supporters had other rallies and fundraisers scheduled in 24 other cities for mid-August ahead of the Chicago convention, including one at New York’s Madison Square Garden that included conductor Leonard Bernstein and singer Harry Belafonte. Hubert Humphrey’s campaign also had fundraisers, including one in early August at Detroit’s Cobo Hall with performances by Frank Sinatra, Trini Lopez, and comedian Pat Henry.
Humphrey campaign poster.
Trini Lopez, a popular singer in the 1960s who had more than a dozen pop and adult contemporary hit songs, including 1963’s “If I Had A Hammer,” worked vigorously for Humphrey in August1968. Lopez postponed an opening at Harrah’s nightclub in Las Vegas to travel with Humphrey and help him with younger voters. Humphrey also made pre-convention campaign appearances with other music celebrities, including one with singer James Brown in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where Humphrey targeted “black business ownership” as the subject of his pitch, but also, after Brown’s prompting, did a little “soft shoe” Boogaloo with the singer. On the California television show It’s Happening, Humphrey chatted with the leader of the rock group, Paul Revere and The Raiders, attempting to reach younger voters.
By mid-August 1968, “Entertainers for Humphrey” included Hollywood names such as Bill Dana, Victor Borge, Alan King, and George Jessel. There were also more than 80 other luminaries in a somewhat less well-known “arts & letters” group including: classical pianist Eugene Istomin, author and scholar Ralph Ellison, violin virtuoso Isaac Stern, manager/impresario Sol Hurok, playwright Sidney Kingsley, opera singer Robert Merrill, authors John Steinbeck, James T. Farrel, and Herman Wouk, and dancer Carmen de Lavallade. Humphrey had also picked up some former supporters of Republican Nelson Rockefeller, including architect Philip Johnson and dancer Maria Tallchief. But Humphrey’s biggest challenges were directly ahead at the Democratic National Convention.
National Guardsmen at the Conrad Hilton Hotel at the Democratic National Convention.
Turmoil in Chicago
As the 1968 Democratic National Convention opened in Chicago on August 26, 1968, there was a fractured party and little agreement on the main platform issue, the Vietnam War. In addition to the formal business of the presidential nomination inside the convention hall, there was a huge focus on the convention location as a protest venue for the Vietnam War, as thousands of young activists had come to Chicago. But Chicago’s Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley — also the political boss running the convention — had prepared for anything, and had the Chicago police and the National Guard ready for action. Tensions soon came to a head.
Convention floor, 1968.
The convention became a national spectacle — both inside the hall and outside in the streets — and one of the most violent political scenes in American history. And much of it was played out on prime-time television. Americans were shocked to see Chicago police brutally beating anti-war protesters in the streets. Tear gas used to disperse the protesters wafted into hotel suites of delegates and even that of candidate Humphrey. At the convention itself, Chicago mayor Richard Daley was blamed for the police clubbings in the streets. Daley at one point was seen on television angrily cursing Senator Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, who had made a speech denouncing the excesses of the Chicago police. Inside the hall, CBS News reporter Dan Rather was attacked on the floor of the convention while covering the proceedings.
Haynes Johnson, a reporter who then covered the convention for the Washington Post , has recently written: “The 1968 Chicago convention became a lacerating event, a distillation of a year of heartbreak, assassinations, riots and a breakdown in law and order that made it seem as if the country were coming apart. In its psychic impact, and its long-term political consequences, it eclipsed any other such convention in American history, destroying faith in politicians, in the political system, in the country and in its institutions. No one who was there, or who watched it on television, could escape the memory of what took place before their eyes.”
Paul Newman & Arthur Miller at convention.
A number of Hollywood activists and celebrities who had campaigned for various candidates attended the convention — some as formal delegates. Paul Newman and playwright Arthur Miller, for example, came as McCarthy delegates from Connecticut. Television coverage of the convention not only captured the action of the formal proceedings and some of the violence in the streets, but also did interviews with various pundits and some of the attending celebrities. ABC News of August 28, 1968, for example, included short interviews with Paul Newman, Tony Randall, Gore Vidal, and Shirley MacLaine. Sonny Bono — of the famed “Sonny & Cher” rock star duo — had come to Chicago to propose a plank in the Democratic platform for a commission to look into the generation gap, or as he saw it, the potential problem of “duel society.” Bono, then 28, would become a Republican Congressman in the 1990s. Dinah Shore made a brief convention appearance for McCarthy, singing her famous “See The USA in Your Chevrolet” anthem, adapting it as, “Save The USA, the McCarthy Way, America is the Greatest Land of All,” throwing her trademarked big kiss at the end.
Humphrey supporters, 1968 Democratic National Convention.
During the convention process, there had been some attempt to prevent Hubert Humphrey from getting the nomination. Robert Kennedy’s death had sent the already frayed Democratic Party into some disarray. Kennedy’s delegates had not united behind any single candidate: some went to McCarthy, some went to a late candidacy of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, and others simply did not vote. The splintering of Bobby Kennedy’s supporters appeared to help Humphrey. And the Vietnam plank being considered was not supported by many liberals. At the convention, McCarthy would say that “if Senator Kennedy had not died, we would have this party under control on Vietnam.” And although McCarthy did not personally like Robert Kennedy and fought him bitterly in the primaries, he offered to support a make-shift plan to nominate his younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, on the first ballot. McCarthy was approached on the proposal by Stephen Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, and McCarthy offered to throw all his weight to Ted Kennedy. McCarthy’s gesture was unexpected, but the Ted Kennedy effort faltered in any case. In the end, Humphrey beat McCarthy and McGovern on the first ballot. The convention then chose Senator Ed Muskie of Maine to be Humphrey’s running mate. But Time magazine would later report in its September 6th issue, showing the Humphrey-Muskie pairing on its cover, but with Mayor Daley in the background, “What was to have been remembered as the Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey may go down in history instead as an event of rancor and rioting.”
Time cover Sept 6, 1968: Humphrey-Muskie ticket shadowed by Chicago.
Post-Chicago, a number of active Democrats, including various Hollywood supporters, were not happy with the choices before them. Walter Matthau called the Humphrey-Nixon face-off “a choice between strychnine and arsenic.” Paul Newman told a Time reporter he might need “a month of serious drinking” before deciding on whether to support Humphrey actively. Newman did say, however, that he would cast his ballot for Humphrey. Steve Allen, also among McCarthy’s Hollywood supporters, lent his name to the Humphrey campaign as well.
Humphrey, for his part, attempted to reach out to Hollywood celebrities, as California would be a crucial state in the general election. Humphrey met with a number of celebrities during and after the convention, one of whom was Warren Beatty. Beatty in 1967 had directed and starred in the movie Bonnie & Clyde, a huge box office hit. Beatty had appeared in a number of earlier films as well, from Splendor in the Grass (1961) to Kaleidoscope (1966). Beatty reportedly offered to make a campaign film for Humphrey if he would agree to denounce the war in Vietnam, which Humphrey would not do. During September and October 1968, a number of Hollywood’s stars and celebrities came around to support Humphrey, with gala events and/or rallies such as one at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in New York in late September, and another at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in late October.
Hollywood actor E.G. Marshall narrated a political ad for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 that pointedly raised doubts about opponents Nixon and Wallace.
There were also celebrities who helped Humphrey in television advertising, such as E. G. Marshall, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor. Marshall played a lawyer named Lawrence Preston on a popular 1960s TV show, The Defenders and also co-starred in a famous 1957 movie 12 Angry Men. Marshall narrated a four-minute TV ad for Humphrey that contrasted Humphrey’s record versus that of opponents, Richard Nixon and George Wallace. In the ad, the authoritative and well-spoken Marshall stood by large, life-size photographs of each Wallace and Nixon, ticking off the problems of each candidate as he stood by their likeness. At the end, alongside of Humphrey’s photograph, after extolling his best qualities, Marshall concludes: “There is only one man of the three who trusts me, and who trusts you…. Now he is asking us to trust him… This is a time when a good man can become a great man. I believe in Hubert Humphrey, and I trust him. And God willing, he will be our next President.”
New York Times, 7 Nov 1968.
On November 5th 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, especially in the south and among union and working class voters in the north. Nearly 10 million votes were cast for Wallace, some 13.5 percent of the popular vote. He won five southern states and took 45 electoral votes. Democrats did retain control of the House and Senate, but the country was now headed in a more conservative direction. In the wake of their loss, the Democrats also reformed their presidential nominating process. As Kennedy and McCarthy supporters gained more power within the party, changes were adopted for the 1972 convention making the nominating process more democratic and raising the role of primary elections. Hubert Humphrey would become the last nominee of either major party to win the nomination without having to compete directly in primary elections.
Warren Beatty, who worked for Bobby Kennedy in 1968, continued his activism & political film making, flirting with a White House bid himself in 1999.
Many of the celebrities who worked for Democratic candidates in 1968 did not throw in the towel after that election. They came back in subsequent presidential election cycles to work for and support other Democrats ranging from George McGovern and Jimmy Carter to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. And some of 1968’s activists, and their successors, also continued that long history of Hollywood film-making that has focused on American politics as film subject. Among some of the post-1968 films that explored that realm, for example, were: The Candidate (1972, with Robert Redford, screenplay by Jeremy Larner, a Gene McCarthy speechwriter); All the President’s Men (1976, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford); Wag The Dog, (1997, with Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro), Bullworth (1998, produced & directed by Warren Beatty who also plays the central character), and others.
And certainly by 1968, if not before, it had become clear that Hollywood and politics were intersecting in an increasing number of ways, especially in the packaging of candidates. Hollywood techniques were fast becoming political techniques. Hollywood personalities like Ronald Reagan and George Murphy were winning political office by then as well — Murphy taking a U.S. Senate seat as a California Republican in 1964, and Reagan elected in 1966 as California’s Republican Governor. Certainly by 1968, if not before, it had become clear that Hollywood and politics were intersecting in an increasing number of ways. Reagan, of course, would become president in 1980, and others from Hollywood, such as Warren Beatty, would also consider running for the White House in the year 2000.
Today, celebrities and Hollywood stars remain sought-after participants in elections and political causes of all kinds. Their money and endorsements are key factors as well. Yet polling experts and political pundits continue to debate the impact of celebrities on election outcomes, and many doubt their ability to sway voters. Still, in 1968, celebrity involvement was a factor and did affect the course of events, as every political candidate at that time sought the help of Hollywood stars and other famous names to advance their respective campaigns.
See also, “The 1968 Exhibit,” a traveling and online exhibit organized by the Minnesota History Center partnership with the Atlanta History Center, the Chicago History Museum and the Oakland Museum of California.