Portion of a larger Paul Conrad cartoon from the 1970s showing President Richard Nixon caught up in a Watergate spider web.
Paul Conrad, an American political cartoonist who distinguished himself in the 1970s by being named to President Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list,” did his best with his art to get under Nixon’s skin. In the 1970s, Conrad was among cartoonists who chronicled Nixon’s troubles during his presidential demise via the Watergate scandal – Watergate being the office complex in Washington, DC where the attempted electronic bugging of Democratic Party headquarters would lead to a White House slush fund, an attempted cover up, and ultimately Nixon’s resignation from office. Conrad’s spider web cartoon at right, for example, reveals a Nixonian web of Watergate co-conspirators, their names cleverly spelled out in the web’s structure — i.e., “Ehrlichman,” “Haldeman,” “Magruder,” “Dean,” and others — those involved with Nixon in the Watergate scandal who helped incriminate and ensnare him in the end.
Paul Conrad was also probably the first cartoonist to associate the Watergate break-in with Nixon, publishing the cartoon below on June 18, 1972, the day after the Watergate break-in was reported as a minor burglary. At the time, only a handful of people even suspected there might be a White House connection. Conrad by then was an established national political cartoonist and known as an “equal opportunity offender,” lampooning all manner of politicians and public figures regardless of affiliation.
In this June 1972 Paul Conrad cartoon, Democrats are peeking out their doorway, looking at a Nixon-caricatured repair man, saying: “He says he’s from the phone company...”
Political cartoons, of course, have been an important part of the cultural landscape and print media for centuries. They have often proven to be especially illuminating of current events, educating the public, and becoming historic guideposts to what happened and when it happened. Paul Conrad’s work did its share of illuminating and educating, and as such his work was part of that time’s cultural tableau. Some of Conrad’s work is briefly reviewed here, mostly with examples from the Nixon years. Conrad’s cartoons, however, covered a range of politicians and he also used his pen to bring attention to social injustice, environ- mental pollution, civil rights, homelessness, corruption, war, and other subjects.
“Throughout our history…,” Conrad explained to the Des Moines Register’s Tom Longden in 2009, “it’s always come down to the friction between the haves and have-nots, or between the average Joes and the large corporations. So that’s a recurring theme in my work.”
In his career, Conrad skewered 11 presidents – Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes. He also won three Pulitzer Prizes for this work of poking fun at politicians during a 50-year career. He spent 30 years at the Los Angeles Times, where his lampooning helped raise the newspaper’s national profile.
Paul Conrad working on a drawing at his desk, 1970s.
Paul Conrad was born in 1924, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and grew up in Des Moines. He has often said his first drawings appeared on the bathroom stalls of his Catholic elementary school. After high school he and his twin brother went to Alaska, where Paul drove a truck and played piano in a brothel. During World War II, he served in the U.S. Army and fought at Guam and Okinawa, Japan. After the war he enrolled at Iowa State University to play in a dance band, but later dropped out, then enrolling at the University of Iowa. There, he began drawing cartoons for the student newspaper. After graduating in 1950 with an art degree, he moved to Denver and soon became recognized as one of the country’s leading young political cartoonists working at the Denver Post, where he stayed for 14 years. Conrad won his first Pulitzer there in 1964. He joined the Los Angeles Times that year after being contacted by it publisher, Otis Chandler, who was then trying to make his paper less conservative. The liberal Conrad gladly obliged. He spent the next 30 years there ruffling feathers of politicians and others. Frank Sinatra once called him “a disgrace to responsible journalism,” and in 1968, Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty sued him for libel over a cartoon that suggested the mayor he had lost his mind. That suit was dismissed. Paul Conrad drew cartoons at the Los Angles Times six days a week, wining two of his Pulitzers there — one in 1971 and another in 1984. He retired from the Los Angeles Times (but not drawing) in 1993. In the 1970s, especially, Conrad’s favorite target was President Richard Nixon.
Nixon’s Enemies List
Paul Conrad’s caricature of President Richard Nixon sitting amid pages and pages of his infamous “enemies list.” Caption reads: “His own worst enemy.” Date: 1973.
In 1973, it was revealed in Congressional Watergate hearings that Richard Nixon’s White House team had amassed a listing of political enemies. The list of major political opponents was first compiled by presidential assistant Charles Colson special counsel to the White House, in September 1971. The list was part of a campaign officially known as the “Opponents List” or the “Political Enemies Project.” The existence of such a list first became public when former White House lawyer and Nixon ally, John Dean, mentioned them during the Senate Watergate hearings, Dean noting then that a list existed containing names of those the president did not like. On June 27, 1973, the Senate Watergate Committee released the first White House Enemies List in two parts, a top 20 list for special attention and another list of about 200 “Political Opponents” organized in categor- ies. Together, these names comprise what is also known as “Nixon’s First Enemies List.” The official purpose of the list, as described by the White House Counsel’s Office in one 1971 memo, was to “screw” Nixon’s political enemies by means of IRS tax audits and/or other means, such as manipulating grant availability and federal contracts, or through litigation and prosecution. In an August 1971 memorandum from John Dean to Lawrence Higby, Dean explained the purpose of the list:
“This memorandum addresses the matter of how we can maximize the fact of our incumbency in dealing with persons known to be active in their opposition to our Administration; stated a bit more bluntly—how we can use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies….”
Later, a much longer list consisting of some 576 names was also revealed – a list which included hundreds of names that had been sent by Nixon’s people to the IRS in 1972 for possible tax audits. That’s the list on which Paul Conrad’s name appeared. Conrad, however, was in good company, as the full list included many political notables, selected publications, and celebrities, among them: Bill Cosby, Gregory Peck, Ted Kennedy, Shirley Chisholm, Joe Namath, Jane Fonda, Bella Abzug, Barbra Streisand, Carol Channing, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and many others.
A Paul Conrad 1970s cartoon depicting President Nixon as a criminal barricaded in the White House with caption, “If you want me, you’re gonna have to come in and get me!” – reminiscent of some Hollywood movie scenes.
For Paul Conrad, being on Nixon’s enemies list was no idle threat. The IRS audited Conrad’s tax returns for tax years 1968 to 1973. Conrad, in fact, had been in Nixon’s sights for some time. In any case, Conrad continued his Nixon drawings, some of which during the Watergate era became so strong that the Los Angeles Times moved them off the editorial page and onto the op-ed page. As Nixon faced an almost certain impeachment in House of Representative and likely conviction in the Senate, Conrad did an Easter Sunday cartoon of Richard Nixon nailing himself to a large cross that the Los Angeles Times refused to run, believing it too offensive. After the White House tape recording system came into play, helping incriminate Nixon, Conrad drew Nixon in a cartoon pinned down by audiotapes, after a scene from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, with Gulliver (Nixon) among the Lilliputians. Near Nixon’s end in the White House, Conrad had Nixon in very dark cartoon with crown on his head quoting Shakespeare’s King Richard II: “O that I were as great as my grief, or lesser than my name. Or that I could forget what I have been. Or not remember what I must be now.” Later, at Nixon’s resignation and his famous departure by helicopter, Conrad drew Nixon’s helicopter flying over the White House with the caption: “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.” Some years later, in 1977-78, Conrad savored some irony when he was chosen that year to hold the Richard M. Nixon lecture chair at Whittier College, the president’s alma mater. Conrad would also skewer President Gerald Ford in September 1974 for pardoning Richard Nixon. That cartoon has Gerald Ford looking out at the reader, holding an official looking, scroll-type piece of paper with seal, etc. that is titled “Pardon” and reads: “I herewith pardon Gerald R. Ford for the presidential pardon granted to former president Richard M. Nixon by President Gerald R. Ford. – (signed), Gerald R. Ford.” Said Ford of Conrad: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you’ve been the subject of a Paul Conrad cartoon.”
Paul Conrad, “We're Gonna' Make History, Hubert!!,” Los Angeles Times, 1968, Re: Continued Bombing of Vietnam. Syracuse University Library’s Special Collections Research Center.
Conrad, mostly a liberal Democrat, was not partial to political party. In fact, in the 1950s, he voted for Republican Dwight Eisenhower but later soured on Ike’s policies. His cartoons could also be praiseworthy, and one 1958 Eisenhower cartoon lauded Ike’s enforcement of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation order. Ike had sent army troops to enforce the law and help integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Conrad also went after the Democrats. In the 1960s, he lampooned Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and became quite critical of Johnson. Conrad believed Johnson’s policies during the Vietnam War were despicable, drawing one 1964 cartoon showing Congress supplying the president with a “blank check” to wage war on Vietnam. “I really detested Lyndon Johnson,” Conrad said. “For the Vietnam thing, that’s the one you could really get your teeth into. That was wrong, man, from the word go.” Another of Conrad’s LBJ cartoons from 1968, shown above right, came at the time Johnson was bombing North Vietnam. The cartoon has Johnson with his vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, riding a bomb similar to a scene from the Dr. Stranglove film in which actor Slim Pickens rides a bomb in similar fashion. The caption reads: “We’re gonna’ make history, Hubert!”
Paul Conrad’s Nancy & Ronald Reagan in send up of “American Gothic” during 1980s farm crisis.
Conrad also did some notable cartoons on Ronald Reagan. In fact, he first took after Reagan in the 1960s when Reagan was governor of California. Conrad’s cartoons often had Reagan in over his head, and he sometimes cast him as a clown. Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler reportedly received a number of early-morning calls from Reagan or Nancy complaining of Conrad’s portrayals. But after Reagan became President, Conrad continued his lampooning. He once had president shown as “Reagan Hood,” stealing from the poor to give to the rich. Another, shown at left, had Ronald and Nancy Reagan in a send up of Grant Wood’s classic American Gothic pose, made during the 1980s farm crisis when thousands of farm families were losing their farms to foreclosures, and as some charged, to Reagan policies. Conrad also skewered Reagan’s foreign policies; one cartoon had the president in a bathtub playing with warships and a rubber duck. In 1993, Conrad accepted a buyout from the Los Angeles Times, but he continued to draw syndicated cartoons for more than 15 years.
In 1994, Paul Conrad cast Bill Clinton as playing the Republican's song.
In the early 1990s, Conrad came after President Bill Clinton with a few hits as well. “Clinton was a disappointment,” Conrad would later say. “I mean, he became more of a Republican than most Republicans. He sold out the Democratic party, as far as I can tell.” One 1994 cartoon by Conrad, shown at right, has Clinton kow-towing to the Republican agenda, playing his saxophone into the Republican elephant’s trunk, with the caption, “Young man with a horn.”
In his career, Paul Conrad also did some sculpture, and he designed limited-edition bronze figures depicting Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Golda Meir and Martin Luther King Jr. One of his sculptures, entitled “Chain Reaction,” made of chains depicting the dangers of a nuclear war, was placed in front of the Santa Monica Civic Center in California. His cartoons have also been published in a number of books, including: When in the Course of Human Events (1973, with Malcolm Boyd), The King and Us (1974), Pro and Conrad (1979), Drawn and Quartered (1985), Con Artist (1993), Drawing the Line (1999), and I, Con (2006).
Paul Conrad's Sarah Palin, post-election 2008, slaying the Republican elephant.
Paul Conrad turned out more than 20,000 political cartoons in his career, many of which were syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and seen by millions. In 1993, he was the subject of a PBS documentary, Drawing Fire. After the 2008 election, he depicted Sarah Palin with a smoking machine gun in one hand as she held up the trunk of a slain Republican Party elephant in the other. Paul Conrad died of natural causes in September 2010. He was 86 years old. He leaves behind an important time capsule of 50 years of political and social observation.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Enemy of the President, 1970s,” PopHistoryDig.com, May 19, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Paul Conrad casting Nixon as Shakespeare’s King Richard II: “O that I were as great as my grief, or lesser than my name. Or that I could forget what I have been. Or not remember what I must be now.” 1970s.
Another Paul Conrad “American Gothic” send up, this one charging Ronald Reagan’s policies with driving small farmers out of business & killing their communities.
Matt Schudel, “Paul Conrad, 86: Pulitzer-Winning Political Cartoonist,” Washington Post, September 6, 2010, p. B-4.
Tom Longden, “Paul Conrad’s Cartoons Carry Strong Messages,” Des Moines Register, March 25, 2009.
Yvonne French, “Afflicting the Comfortable: Cartoonist Paul Conrad Puts Words Behind the Pictures,” Library of Congress.
Paul Conrad, Drawing the Line: The Collected Works of America’s Premier Political Cartoonist, Los Angles: Los Angeles Times, 1999 (this collection of 200 Conrad pieces spans his career from the 1960s to the 1990s).
Paul Conrad, Con Artist: Paul Conrad: 30 Years With the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles: Los Angeles Times, 1993 (a three-decade retrospective of Conrad’s work at the Los Angeles Times).
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!”
1952 Vice Presidential candidate Richard Nixon with family dog, ‘Checkers,’ among campaign gifts which Nixon sought to explain in his famous, nationally-televised September 1952 speech.
In September 1952, the Republicans had just set their national ticket for the fall elections. It was Dwight David Eisenhower for President of the United State and Richard M. Nixon for Vice President. Eisenhower, or “Ike” as he was known, was the popular military general who had been Supreme Allied Commander during the critical D-Day landing of World War II. Richard Nixon was a young rising political star from California who had been elected to Congress in 1946, and made a name for himself as an agressive anti-Communist serving on the House Un-American Activities Committee. Four years later at age 38, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. There he became an outspoken critic of President Truman’s conduct of the Korean War and wasteful spending by the Democrats. Nixon was then regarded as a good choice to run with Eisenhower. So in the fall of 1952, with six weeks to go until the national elections, the Republicans appeared to be set with their ticket.
Nixon in some consternation after September 1952 meeting with Ike. Senator William Knowland is at right.
But then on September 18th, 1952, the New York Post ran the front-page headline: “Secret Nixon Fund,” with a detailed story and second headline inside the paper that read: “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” The newspaper story charged that wealthy Californians had given $18,235 to a secret campaign fund for Nixon in return for political favors. Other newspapers picked up the story. The New York Herald Tribune called on Nixon to withdraw from the Republican ticket. Some Republican party leaders asked him to resign. The secret fund, in turned out, was for political purposes and was perfectly legal. But the impression created by the stories was that Nixon was on the take; being paid to do the bidding of special interests.
Eisenhower was not happy with the story, having been critical of the Truman Administration for corruption during the campaign. Privately, it was said that Ike thought it might be a good thing if Nixon took himself off the ticket. But others, including Nixon supporter and former New York governor and presidential candidate Thomas Dewey, suggested that Nixon use the new medium of television to respond to the charges. Eisenhower agreed, advising Nixon: “Tell the country everything you have ever received, how much money you have earned, what it’s been used for, what your worth is.”
Nixon on TV making his case.
National politicians then had not used television for such purposes, but Nixon needed to clear his name and do it quickly as the Republican ticket was at stake. So the Republicans put up $75,000 to buy 30 minutes of prime-time television for Nixon to plead his case. Nixon hired an advertising agency to help produce the live broadcast. The ad agency brought in soap opera directors from Hollywood for advice and also rounded up the best make-up artists and prop men to assist with the broadcast.
The speech was broadcast nationwide on September 23, 1952 from the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood where TV stage crews built a mock middle-class den with desk and fake library as part of the set. Nixon would address a combined TV and radio audience that included a network of some 64 NBC televison stations,194 CBS radio stations, and the 560 stations in the Mutual Broadcasting network. In 1952, about 40 percent of the nation’s homes had television sets and about 80 percent had radios. It would be one of the first political uses of television to appeal directly to the populace.
Nixon standing in his studio-made office during his Sept 1952 'Checkers' speech.
In the speech, Nixon began seated at a desk, with his wife Pat nearby, sitting in a parlor chair. The camera focused mostly on Nixon, who also stood up and walked close to the desk at one point. In his talk, Nixon made clear that he “wasn’t a rich man,” laying out some family history, describing his father’s grocery store and his own experiences working his way through law school. Nixon denied any wrongdoing with regard to the fund, citing an independent audit that cleared him of any malfeasance. The money, he asserted, did not come to him as income, but rather as reimbursement for expenses. He also gave a complete financial history of his personal assets, finances and debts, including his mortgages, life insurance, and loans. He went into great personal detail, saying for example, he owned a 1950 Oldsmobile, had two houses with mortgages, and was making regular payments on a $3,500 loan from his parents. This litany painted Nixon and his family as living an austere lifestyle.
Nixon’s wife, Pat, on the set during speech, was also shown in some camera shots.
“Well, that’s about it,” he said, summing up the financial disclosures. “That’s what we have and that’s what we owe. It isn’t very much, but Pat and I have the satisfaction that every dime that we’ve got is honestly ours. I should say this — that Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat.” Then came the Checkers part of the speech, which Nixon would later say came from his memory of Franklin Roosevelt’s swipe a critical press corps who would soon be attacking his dog, Fala. Checkers was given to Nixon as a gift, and Nixon explained it this way: “One other thing I probably should tell you…. We did get something — a gift — after the election. A man in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. . . . We got a message from the Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. . . . You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel in a crate. . . . Black and white, spotted. And our little girl, Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.”
Nixon also turned the speech back on the Democrats, and challenged Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson to give a similar public account of his finances. He also attacked alleged corruption in the Truman administration and labeled Truman’s foreign policy a failure that had led to the Korean War. He ended by appealing directly to the public, urging his listeners and viewers to telegraph or write the Republican National Committee on whether he should remain the Vice-Presidential nominee.
Nixon with Pat, daughters & Checkers.
When the speech ended it was unclear what the response would be, though there were reportedly some in the studio who were moved to tears over Nixon’s “plain folks” disclosures and the Checkers story. Nixon himself thought he had failed. However, he did get an early telephone call from Hollywood movie producer Daryl Zanuck giving his speech a rave review. But the national press was not as generous. Nixon, said the New York Post, had indulged in “a private soap opera” in which “the corn overshadowed the drama.” The New York Times charged that Nixon made no acknowledgment “that he had made any sort of mistake in accepting these funds in the first place.” But the voters reacted much differently. They were moved by Nixon’s distress and his candor. As soon as Nixon went off the air, telegrams began pouring into the Republican Party’s national headquarters, the effect of which would not be revealed to Nixon or the nation for a day or so. It turned out that the mail was hugely in Nixon’s favor. By one count, some three million letters and two million telegrams came in. The New York Daily Mirror of September 25, 1952 had a large front page photo showing an aide working behind piles of letters and telegrams with the headline, “Nixon Wires Swamp GOP.” The Herald Tribune, which had called for Nixon’s resignation from the ticket only days before, now pronounced him “fully vindicated.” On the campaign trail a day or two later in West Virginia, Eisenhower greeted Nixon warmly as it was clear by then that Nixon had helped himself and the Republican ticket going into the national elections.
Nixon on TV during his Checkers speech.
Nearly 60 million people had watched Nixon on television, which was half the total number of potential viewers and the largest TV audience ever until the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debate eight years later. Radio was still an important source for news and the day’s politics, with 70 percent of voters getting their information from radio. The Mutual radio network estimated that nine out of ten radio homes had their sets tuned to Nixon’s speech. But the election of 1952 would be the last modern campaign when more voters got their candidate information from radio. Still, in this instance it was television that helped Nixon clear his name and regain his political footing. And in the process, Nixon discovered that he could use television to ignore the print media.
Halberstam on Nixon
Journalist David Halberstam, writing years later about the Checker’s speech in his book The Powers That Be, made the following observations about the speech and how it changed Nixon’s thinking about the national media. Halberstam relies here on one of Nixon’s aides, Ted Rogers, who had worked with Nixon since the days of his 1950 Senate campaign:
. . .On the famous Checkers speech, . . .Rogers had his doubts about putting Pat Nixon on [the set] that night, thinking it might be improper. But Nixon insisted. It was, Rogers thought, as if it were the Nixons against the world. In her husband’s mind, her honor and reputation had been attacked just as his own had been. Rogers had no idea what Nixon was going to say that night, and when the speech was over, with Nixon bursting into tears at the end, deeply moved by his own words, Rogers, like many others, thought it masterful. It had clearly saved Nixon’s place on the ticket, and it had turned the flow of the campaign around.
But there were doubts about it later. It was as if somehow in saving himself, Nixon had paid too high a price. He had made himself even more the issue — not his politics, but himself. . . . From then on. . . Nixon became an electronic candidate. . . . [H]e did not care much about the writing press. . . He had done it his way, with no impertinent questions and answers at the end. Suddenly, television was magic. . . . There was a growing feeling among the political and journalistic taste makers of the country that Nixon was not quite acceptable for very high office. He had gone just a little too far. (The taste makers sensed that perhaps Dwight Eisenhower shared their opinion, although Ike welcomed Nixon back on the ticket.) . . . .
There was something else that Rogers noticed about the Checkers speech — the powerful impact it had, not just on the nation and not just on Eisenhower, but on Nixon himself. From then on, as far as Rogers was concerned, Nixon became an electronic candidate. He had an immediate consciousness of the power of television. From then on, he did not care much about the writing press (though he liked reporters of all sorts less and less). He had done it his way, with no impertinent questions and answers at the end. Suddenly television was magic. Rogers, who liked much of the writing press, noticed immediately Nixon’s changed attitude toward reporters. Up until then he had been very cautious and solicitous in the care and feeding of reporters, and reasonably accessible. But from then on it changed. If the [campaign] bus was ready to roll and they weren’t there, he’d simply say, “F___ ‘em, we don’t need them.” The Checkers episode had taught Nixon first that the national press was potentially antagonistic and harmful to him, personally, and second that he could go over their heads.”
Dwight D. Eisenhower & Richard M. Nixon on November 4, 1952, after winning the national election. (AP photo.)
That fall, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket crushed the Democrats’ Adlai Stevenson – John Sparkman ticket. Richard M. Nixon would be Vice President of the United States for the next eight years. Television had helped Richard Nixon weather the storm that nearly led to his removal from the Republican ticket. But television for Nixon would not always prove to be the beneficent saviour it had been in this case, as he would later discover in the first televised presidential debates of 1960 with Democrat John F. Kennedy.
See also at this website: “1968 Presidential Race, Republicans” (in- cludes Nixon’s run for the White House and role of celebrities in his and other campaigns); “The Frost-Nixon Biz, 1977-2009”( the media, publishing, film & theater business that grew up around the David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews); and “Enemy of the President, 1970s” ( includes Watergate political cartoons from Paul Conrad who appeared on Nixon’s “enemies list.”). See the Politics & Culture page for other story choices in that category. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you - Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Nixon’s Checkers’ Speech, 1952,” PopHistoryDig.com, September 7, 2008.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
The February 24th, 1953 issue of ‘Look’ magazine continued to probe questions about Richard Nixon, asking in a banner tagline across its cover, “Is Nixon Fit to Be President?,” also offering “copies of his income tax returns.”
See History.com video story on Nixon & his Checkers Speech narrated by Roger Mudd, which is preceded by short commercial and runs into other segments on the Nixon presidency.
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James Reston, “Eisenhower Backs Nixon on Ticket,” New York Times, Saturday, September 20, 1952, p. 1.
Edward T. Folliard, “Ike Wants to Know His Running Mate Is Morally Clear Before Closing Case,” Washington Post, September 21, 1952, p. M-1.
Associated Press, “Eisenhower to Make Up Mind After Nixon Speech Tonight,” Washington Post, September 23, 1952, p. 1.
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