Campaign '68 Transcript
Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American Radioworks documentary.
Reporter: Senator Kennedy has been shot in the head.
Reporter: Several guardsmen using their rifles as clubs, hitting the demonstrators.
1968 was a violent, wrenching election year. And it was a watershed in American politics.
George Wallace: Well we're going to show Mr. Nixon and Mr. Humphrey that there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country! [Crowd cheers]
On November 5, 1968 voters abandoned liberal leadership and a new era of Republican conservatism was born.
Rick Perlstein: Richard Nixon was offering himself as sort of "America's white picket fence."
In the next hour, Campaign '68, from American Radioworks. First this news.
Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Campaign 68. I'm Stephen Smith.
Radio Announcer: Goooooood Morning Vietnam!
In 1968, America was at war in Vietnam. Almost half a million Americans were serving there. 20,000 had died.
[Sound of helicopter]
Reporter: We're making steady progress in Vietnam.
[Sounds of gunfire]
Reporter: …where 5,000 marines dig in under constant artillery and mortar fire.
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
Lyndon Johnson: The enemy continues to pour men and material across frontiers and into battle, despite his heavy losses.
[Sound of helicopter]
In 1968, most Americans still supported fighting for a military victory in Vietnam. But opposition was growing.
[Sounds of crowd commotion]
Reporter: Tonight there has been more violence in Chicago.
Reporter: Carrying a Viet Cong flag, more than 500 marched on police headquarters this afternoon…
Man: We must stay in the streets and stay in active resistance or else there will be no peace.
Martin Luther King, Jr.: …fight in this unjust war. And what we are saying is that we want them to come home. It's time to come home from Vietnam! [Applause]
Man: Get the gun! Get the gun!
1968 was a frightening year in America. Assassinations and racial violence tore at the country.
[Sound of fire alarm]
Reporter: Smoke from fires in downtown Washington is visible here at the White House. Police cars and ambulances are moving up and down the streets.
Voice on bullhorn: At this time we will clear the streets…please return to your homes.
Reporter: Several guardsmen using their, their rifles as clubs, hitting the demonstrators.
H. Rap Brown: I say violence is necessary. Violence is a part of America's culture. It is as American as cherry pie.
[Sound of siren passing]
Johnson: This nation faces once again the consequences of lawlessness, hatred, and unreason in its midst.
That last voice was Lyndon Baines Johnson, president of the United States. At the beginning of 1968, party leaders expected LBJ - a Democrat - to run for reelection. By the end of the year, Johnson was out. And so was his party. The Democrats had dominated government for more than a generation, all the way back to Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. But in 1968, voters repudiated liberal leadership. That ushered in a new era of Republican conservatism that would shape American politics for the rest of the century. Over the next hour, American RadioWorks looks back at the watershed contest that was "Campaign '68."
Our election story begins in early 1968 with a relatively obscure Democratic politician.
Announcer: Senator McCarthy speaks to New Hampshire...
Eugene McCarthy: I'm Senator Eugene McCarthy. I'm challenging president Lyndon Johnson in the democratic primary here in New Hampshire for the Democratic nomination for the presidency…
Eugene McCarthy was running to protest Johnson's escalation of the war in Vietnam. Revolutionaries in the communist-run North and in the U.S.-backed South were trying to take over the country. Johnson was throwing more and more American money and military power into the fight.
McCarthy: An escalation of military commitment. An escalation of objectives without end. Finally we reached the point, I think, where we must say that this war is no longer morally justifiable [Applause].
[Sounds of people on Nashua Street]
McCarthy took his anti-war presidential campaign to the wintery streets of New Hampshire in the early months of 1968.
Man: Who are you?
McCarthy: I'm Senator McCarthy.
Man: Oh, good luck. I'm for LBJ all the way! All the way! All the way! That's my boss. Thank you sir…
The prospects for winning New Hampshire's Democratic primary looked grim. McCarthy wasn't well known. His campaign had virtually no money. But McCarthy volunteers poured into New Hampshire - especially young people.
Brown: My original motivation in coming here was the war.
Harvard grad student Sam Brown was interviewed in New Hampshire.
Brown: Johnson's going to end it by sending more Americans to die and to kill more Vietnamese. And Gene McCarthy offers an honorable and rational solution to the war. And that's why we're here.
[Music: Peter, Paul and Mary's McCarthy campaign song: "If you love your country and the thing for which it stands, vote for Gene McCarthy and bring peace to this, our land…"]
McCarthy's anti-war campaign also attracted 1960s star-power. Folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary performed on his behalf. Actor Paul Newman campaigned in the streets of New Hampshire. And on the radio, the voice of TV's Twilight Zone pitched for McCarthy.
Rod Serling: This is Rod Serling. Just stop and think for a minute. How would you feel if you woke up Wednesday morning to find that Eugene McCarthy had won the New Hampshire primary? Wouldn't you feel that suddenly there was new hope for America? That perhaps we might break out of the dreary circle of rising discontent and continuing stagnation? Wouldn't you be proud that New Hampshire had changed the entire political picture of the nation and restored vitality…
Whatever hope he inspired, McCarthy's fight seemed truly quixotic. The entire Democratic Party hierarchy backed President Johnson. Plus, McCarthy just didn't seem to want the White House that much.
British Reporter: Senator McCarthy, what makes you run?
McCarthy: That's a hard question. I suppose I'll spend most of the campaign explaining why I'm making this race. I, uh… would say of all the people running that I'm probably the least who would like the presidency but it kind of fell to me to make the test I think on this issue since no one else would do it.
Events in Vietnam would drive that war issue home.
[Sounds of Tet firefight]
At the end of January 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive. Americans called the communist soldiers "Charlie," and "Charlie" was staging a major assault across South Vietnam. Pacifica Radio reporter Dale Minor was pinned down with U.S. Marines in the ancient city of Hue.
Dale Minor: As of last night, there were 71 marines killed here in the fight for the Imperial City as….. [Sounds of gunfire get closer]
Soldier: Charlie is trying to do something here that, uh… He's out to prove to us that he can kill a hell of a lot of Americans if he really wants to.
The Tet offensive was a political disaster for President Lyndon Johnson. He'd been promising victory for so long that the North's sweeping attack shocked Americans.
Walter Cronkite: To say they we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion.
Two weeks after Tet, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite came back from a trip to Vietnam with a pessimistic view of the war's prospects.
Cronkite: The only rational way out will be to negotiate. Not as victors but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
President Lyndon Johnson said privately, ''If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America.'' Public opinion on Vietnam was changing, and Johnson was vulnerable. When New Hampshire Democrats went to the polls to vote in the March primary, a lot of them refused to support their president. Johnson ended up beating Eugene McCarthy by only seven points. For an incumbent, this was deeply worrying. And soon, another Democrat - a famous and controversial man - would challenge Johnson.
Robert F. Kennedy: I am today announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States…
Robert F. Kennedy was a Democratic U.S. Senator from New York.
Kennedy: I run because I am convinced that this country is on a perilous course and because I have such strong feelings about what must be done, and I feel that I'm obliged to do all that I can. I run to seek new policies…
Kennedy joined the Democratic nomination contest on March 16th. He would be a candidate for just 82 days. In that brief time, his campaign reflected the passions and the perils of 1968.
[Sound of applause]
Kennedy: Thank you very much.
The first campaign stop was Kansas, where Kennedy gave a major speech on the Vietnam War.
Kennedy: Governor Landon, Governor and Mrs. Stark.
Kennedy reminded a crowd at Kansas State University that he had served in the administration of his late brother, President John F. Kennedy. As attorney general, Robert Kennedy had been his brother's closest advisor.
Kennedy: I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path. It may be that the effort was doomed from the start …If that is the case, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.
Both Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy faced long odds trying to unseat a party incumbent. But two weeks after Kennedy joined the race, President Lyndon Johnson made a stunning and unexpected announcement on national television.
Johnson: I shall not seek, and I will not accept the nomination of my party as another term as your president.
Rather than face a fight for the party nomination and the possibility of humiliating defeat, LBJ bowed out.
Thurston Clarke: And there is great sense of national euphoria for the next four days, particularly the anti-war people. They felt they'd won.
Thurston Clarke is author of The Last Campaign - a chronicle of Robert Kennedy's presidential run. He says Lyndon Johnson's decision re-shaped the focus of the Democratic race.
Clarke: He also announces a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, and that he's ready to enter into peace negotiations in Paris with the Communists. So in a stroke, he kind of gets rid of Kennedy's big two issues - at least the two issues that he'd been pushing until then, which were the unpopular Vietnam War was and the unpopular president who was waging it.
[Music: Kennedy campaign song: "… this man is your man, that man is Robert Kennedy. This man is your man…"]
The first big test for Kennedy was the Indiana primary, where he needed to beat Eugene McCarthy and prove he could run a viable campaign. With the Vietnam issue cooling down…
Clarke: Kennedy had decided he was going to go back to the, really what he'd made his signature issues in the Senate, which were: poverty, economic injustice, hunger and the plight of the American - Native Americans. And so that's when - he was launching that campaign on April 4th, when he flies to Indianapolis.
April 4th would be remembered as one of the darkest days of 1968. It also thrust the issue of American race relations to the front of Kennedy's campaign.
Reporter: Memphis police report they have just confirmed that Reverend Martin Luther King has been shot. The shooting incident occurred at a motel where king was staying while in Memphis.
Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak in a black neighborhood of Indianapolis that day. Local authorities warned him not to go. They feared violence. Kennedy refused to change plans. Historian Thurston Clarke:
[Sounds of crowd]
Clarke: The crowd waiting for him at 17th and Broadway is about 3,000 people. Two thousand or so probably didn't know about King's being shot or killed. Surrounding them are 1,000 people who do know. And some of them are militants who are armed-they have Molotov cocktails, they have guns and they're planning to burn the city. Kennedy arrives, walks up to the platform, and Kennedy says, "Do they know about Dr. King yet?"
Kennedy: Do they know about Martin Luther King?
Clarke: And the man says, "Uh, well, er, uh, no, not exactly. We've left that to you." So now Kennedy has to bring the news of the King assassination to this crowd.
Kennedy: Ladies and Gentlemen…. I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you. Could you lower those signs, please? I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world… and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee. [Crowd screams]
Frank Mankiewicz: You could hear from the gasp in the audience that many people had not heard that news.
Frank Mankiewicz was Kennedy's press secretary and was with him in Indianapolis.
Mankiewicz: And he went on to talk about violence, and the need to avoid it. And it was the only time in his entire campaign, anywhere, that he'd ever spoken publicly about the assassination of John Kennedy.
Kennedy: For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with - be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed; he was killed by a white man.
Mankiewicz: "A member of my family…" That was the closest he could come to saying, "my brother, the president."
Kennedy: But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem-my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness; but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.
[Sound of siren]
Across the nation, American cities erupted.
Riot marchers: Hut! Hut! Hut!
In Baltimore, Chicago, Newark and more than 100 inner cities, African-Americans rioted. But in Indianapolis, Kennedy's speech made the difference, says author Thurston Clarke.
Clarke: Indianapolis was one of the only major American cities, despite its poor race relations in 1968, that wasn't struck by riots.
The Democrats paused their campaigns. Kennedy went to Martin Luther King's funeral and then, he returned to Indiana.
[Sounds of Terre Haute factory]
At a factory in Terre Haute, workers asked Kennedy about the national unrest.
Man: What about all this rioting?
Kennedy: I think that we can't have rioting. [We] can't tolerate violence and the lawlessness that has existed. I think it destroys the very fabric of our country and our society.
As a former attorney general, Kennedy's law-and-order background appealed to whites in Indiana. There and across the country, many whites felt threatened by the rise of black militancy. They associated mounting urban crime and violence with the Black Power movement. Kennedy understood that in 1968, many white people resented black demands for greater equality.
Kennedy: White people think we passed all of these laws. We passed education laws; we passed the Poverty Bill; we appropriated a great deal of money for welfare. We've done all of these things - isn't that enough? Why aren't the black men - why isn't he satisfied?
Kennedy spoke on a national television program from Indianapolis.
Kennedy: The black man on the other hand - the conditions for them are steadily getting worse, not better, despite the programs. It's more difficult to get a job; it's more difficult to get an adequate and satisfactory education for your children. The housing is getting to be more substandard and more dilapidated, and more run down. So they begin to lose hope in society. They see the speeches made by those of us in political life. They say, "You talk about it, and you say what you're going to do, but nothing ever happens."
Kennedy's message was risky. He challenged Indiana's small-town Democrats to care about the seemingly far away inner cities. The voters of Indiana responded.
[Sound of applause]
Announcer: Now walking into the room and getting a cheer, of course, is Senator Robert Kennedy, a victor, being pressed next to the door. It's a tremendous jam…
Kennedy won the Indiana primary on May 7, 1968 by a healthy margin. He won over blue-collar whites and most of the state's African-Americans, beating McCarthy 42 to 27 percent. Kennedy had his first, crucial victory. McCarthy's campaign momentum began to flag. [Drum beats] And there was yet another Democrat who had entered the race.
[Music: Ink Spots Humphrey campaign song: "Here comes the prez! Here comes the prez! When Humphrey is voted in, and becomes our president, he will preserve our country, when Hubert Humphrey wins this year…"]
When Lyndon Johnson withdrew from the race, Vice President Hubert Humphrey had an opening to the White House. In the middle of spring, Humphrey jumped into the contest.
Hubert Humphrey: And here we are, just as we ought to be. Here we are, the people. Here we are in the spirit of dedication. Here we are the way politics ought to be in America: the politics of happiness, the politics of purpose, and the politics of joy. And that's the way it's gonna be, too, all the way, from here on out. [Applause]
The ebullient Hubert Humphrey was called "the happy warrior." But Humphrey's joyful politics struck an odd note in 1968 - a point that TV journalist David Brinkley made on NBC.
David Brinkley: Vice President Humphrey's decision to be the "happiness" candidate for president is an interesting psychological exercise. There is no doubt people would rather be told good things than bad. But in the recent history of this country, most of what has happened has been bad - war, race riots, inflation, danger to the dollar and all the rest of it. Most of the other candidates point to that clear list…
Excessive optimism was just one of Humphrey's obstacles to the nomination. The vice president's biggest problem was simply being vice president: Humphrey was identified with the deeply unpopular policies of Lyndon Johnson.
Humphrey: Well, Mr. President, that's generally the way I start out anything I have to say these days [laughter]. President White, Dr. Harris…
That became clear when Humphrey made his first presidential campaign appearance on a college campus. After giving a speech at Kent State University in Ohio, Humphrey was about to answer questions when dozens of students stood up and walked out on him to protest the Vietnam War and the draft.
Humphrey played it off.
Humphrey: My dear friends, we were just testing the exits. They work at both ends of the hall. [Applause]
One of the toughest questions for Humphrey to handle - at Kent State and throughout his campaign - was whether he would abandon LBJ's policy of escalation in the Vietnam War.
Humphrey: I have a delicate role and a delicate road to follow. And I share this intimate thought with you and uh…as best I can. I am the Vice President of the United States. Whatever I say on foreign policy or national security is looked upon as an expression of the government … Well, how easy it would be for me to stand up here and just be a free swinger. And have this audience cheer 101 things that you could say.
Ted Van Dyk: It was a terrible box. You don't find many vice presidents marching out to disagree with their presidents.
Ted Van Dyk was a close aide to Hubert Humphrey. He says Humphrey tried several times to pull away from the president and declare his own Vietnam policy. But Lyndon Johnson could be a ruthless and resentful man.
Van Dyk: He told Humphrey that he would denounce him publicly as playing politics with peace; for endangering the lives of servicemen in Vietnam. And after all, when you are a vice president, it's very difficult if you challenge frontally a president who says he will destroy you if you issue such a statement.
LBJ hated that Vietnam had become known as "Johnson's War." Before he left office, he wanted to broker "Johnson's Peace." LBJ had no intention of letting his own vice president's political fortunes get in his way.
Humphrey got into the race late enough in the campaign that he skipped the state primaries. It was a different political system back then. Only thirteen states held primaries and that meant party bosses had tremendous power over who won the nomination. Humphrey concentrated on winning over party stalwarts. That left Kennedy and McCarthy to duke it out for voters in the primaries. California was the final prize - and a must-win for Kennedy. On the evening of June 5th, Kennedy campaign headquarters was the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Reporter: Senator Kennedy has finally arrived here at one of the two big ballrooms…
Kennedy won California decisively. In his victory speech, the senator made some weary jokes, thanking supporters and his dog, Freckles. Then he declared "on to Chicago" and to the Democratic convention in August.
Kennedy: And my thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there. [Applause]
Crowd: We want Bobby! We want Bobby! We want Bobby!
Kennedy press secretary Frank Mankiewicz was there that night.
Mankiewicz: As Senator Kennedy was finishing his speech, one of our guys came up and said, "He's too tired. He doesn't want to go through the crowd."
Kennedy usually left a room by threading through the crowd. But this night he took a back door to the kitchen. A young hotel worker named Sirhan Sirhan was waiting.
Mankiewicz: And, uh, that's when we heard the shots.
[Sounds of screaming]
Announcer: Oh my God. Senator Kennedy has been shot in the head.
Man on P.A.: A doctor! We need a doctor right here, at the microphone! Please, immediately!
Reporter: Senator Kennedy's press aide Frank Mankiewicz, as he stepped to the microphones at Good Samaritan Hospital.
Mankiewicz: Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968.
Reporter: We are now looking at the main altar of St. Patrick's Cathedral and lying before it is a coffin that contains the remains of Robert Kennedy.
At the funeral mass in New York City, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy gave the eulogy for his brother. He concluded with a quotation from Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw that Robert Kennedy often used at the end of a campaign rally.
Ted Kennedy: As he said many times in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: "Some men see things as they are and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?'"
When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, the Democrats temporarily suspended their campaigns in respectful silence. Eugene McCarthy never really got back into the race - not whole-heartedly. Humphrey's campaign also seemed to stall. The divided and dispirited Democrats limped through the summer towards their national party convention.
[Sound of music fanfare]
Cronkite: Good evening, from the CBS News convention anchor booth in Chiago's International Amphitheatre, the site of the Democratic National Convention.
The Democrats met on August 26th to choose their 1968 presidential candidate. Robert Kennedy was dead. Eugene McCarthy was well behind in polls and in the race for delegates. Hubert Humphrey was all but guaranteed the party's nomination. Still, no one thought the convention would be easy, including newsman Eric Severeid.
Eric Severeid: This convention rather accurately reflects the divisions and the raw nerves of the whole country. It's a nervous nation; this is a nervous convention.
But few fully anticipated what would happen in Chicago.
Reporter: Carrying a Viet Cong flag, more than 500 marched on police headquarters to protest the arrest of new left leader Tom Hayden and organizer of this Chicago campaign…
Anti-war demonstrators from across the country descended on Chicago. Over four days they clashed in the streets with police and National Guard.
Reporter: There's some fighting. I see one guardsmen - several guardsmen using their rifles as clubs, hitting the demonstrators. [Sounds of teargas explosions] There goes more teargas. There's a wave of it. The people are engulfed by the teargas. The demonstration now is over…
[Sounds of arguing inside the convention]
Bitter divisions over Vietnam were also tearing the Democrats apart inside the convention hall.
Reporter: Why are you taking the man off the floor?
Convention worker: The sol - the Secret Service told us to get him off the floor. He will not show his identity…
Reporter: Who is the man?
Convention worker: I don't know who he is…
Cronkite: "Stop the war," they're shouting now. Uh, Humphrey just needs 1311 for nomination. He's got 1594 by our CBS delegate count…
Humphrey earned enough delegates to win the nomination, but Vietnam made his moment of victory reek of defeat. Chicago was a disaster for the Democrats.
Cronkite: This is still a volatile convention, as you see here, with this demonstration on the floor…
Humphrey aide, Ted Van Dyk.
Van Dyk:If you were a voter watching on national television, you saw rioting and violence in the city of Chicago, and inside the hall, you saw anger and disorder as well. So Democrats came to be perceived as divided, angry, in the midst of chaos. Even the nature of the convention did not help in the fall election, of course.
Presidential nominees usually leave their party's convention with a boost in the public opinion polls. Humphrey plunged. And when the 1968 general election campaign commenced in September, the Democratic nominee would face more than just a Republican opponent. 1968 was already one of the most dramatic presidential campaigns of the 20th century, and a gripping second act was yet to begin.
I'm Stephen Smith. You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, Campaign '68. Coming up…
Rick Perlstein: Richard Nixon was offering himself as sort of "America's white picket fence," the way to enclose themselves within the safety of their own routines against a world that suddenly looked like it offered nothing that was safe. It was an extraordinarily compelling message, and one the Democrats at that point were completely unprepared to take advantage of.
Visit our website to find out more about the major candidates for president in 1968. You can see a slide show about Robert Kennedy's campaign, and see some of Hubert Humphrey's television ads. While you're there, subscribe to our podcast as well. That's all at americanradioworks.org.
Our program continues in just a minute, from American Public Media.
[sounds of '68 Republican National Convention]
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, Campaign '68. I'm Stephen Smith.
Agnew at RNC: It is my privilege to place in nomination for the office of President of the United States the one man whom history has so clearly thrust forward… the man for 1968 … the Honorable Richard M. Nixon!
[Sounds of applause and fanfare]
August 7th, 1968. The Republicans nominate former Vice President Richard Nixon as their presidential candidate. It's Nixon's second bid for the White House. In 1960, Nixon lost to Democrat John F. Kennedy by the tiniest margin in U.S. history. Over the following eight years Nixon crossed the country campaigning for other Republicans. Historian Rick Perlstein, author of the book "Nixonland," says all that time on the road gave Nixon a deep sense of what many voters yearned for in 1968.
Rick Perlstein: In a world that seemed to be falling apart, coming apart at the seams, with chaos around every corner, Richard Nixon reestablished himself as a figure of destiny by speaking to people's craving for order. "Law and order," he called it.
Over the course of the 1968 campaign, a lot of symbolism got packed into that phrase "law and order."
Richard Nixon: As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad.
Perlstein: This is his speech to the Republican National Convention in 1968 accepting their nomination.
Nixon: We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home. And as we see and hear these things, millions of Americans cry out in anguish: Did we come all this way for this? Did American boys die in Normandy and Korea and in Valley Forge for this? Listen to the answers to those questions. It is another voice; it is a quiet voice in the tumult of the shouting. It is the voice of the great majority of Americans; the forgotten Americans; the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.
Perlstein: "The non-shouters, the non-demonstrators." Note the rhetoric. The idea that the people who just kind of lived by the established rules of society - you were silent. And Richard Nixon was there to say - no - you're right. You're the moral ones. And I'm the one to stand up for you … He would give them voice.
Nixon: They are black, they are white; they're native-born and foreign-born; they're young and they're old. They work in America's factories; they run America's businesses. They serve in government. They provide most of the soldiers who die to keep us free. They give drive to the spirit of America; they give lift to the American dream; they give steel to the backbone of America. They're good people. They're decent people. They work and they save and they pay their taxes and they care.
Perlstein: Richard Nixon was offering himself as sort of "America's white picket fence," you know, a way to enclose themselves within the safety of their own routines, against a world that suddenly looked like it offered nothing that was safe. It was an extraordinarily compelling message and one that Democrats at that point were completely unprepared to take advantage of.
Van Dyk: We'd been so absorbed in the peace issue…
Ted Van Dyk was a campaign staffer for the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey.
Van Dyk: …and doing something about Vietnam, and bringing the party back together and bringing home the defecting Kennedy/McCarthy voters that we did not accurately gauge the extent of the alienation by more conservative, blue-collar, middle-minded voters who would fall away from the Democratic party.
In September '68, Nixon led Humphrey in the polls by more than 15 points, and Humphrey's campaign was starved for money. Nixon looked strong.
Announcer: Millions of Americans just like you, all over the nation, have grown tired of the leadership that the national Democrats and the national Republicans have provided in recent years…
But there was a third candidate in the mix - an independent who threatened to steal votes from both Humphrey and Nixon.
Announcer: Governor George C. Wallace has a winning way with people. He goes to them and he gets with them. He talks a language that you and most Americans can understand…
George Wallace was the former Democratic governor of Alabama. He was a long-time defender of racial segregation. Wallace promoted local control of public schools, which was a way of saying he opposed federal efforts to integrate the nation's classrooms.
George Wallace: So if you want to waste your vote in November, you can vote Republican or Democratic because they don't think like you do, they don't think like I do, and not a single one of these parties … has told you that they will turn back to you your domestic institutions, which includes the public school system of Houston, Texas. And when I become your president, we gonna turn back lock, stock, and barrel for the people of this city and this state the right to run your schools in an matter you see fit! [Applause]
Journalists and other politicians denounced Wallace as a demagogue. They said he used fear and prejudice to rally support. Wallace denied the charges.
Wallace: I want to say this about race tonight because each place that I go, I'm asked that question and I think that this will suffice. I have never in my life made a statement or a speech that reflected upon anybody because of race, color, creed, religion, or national origin. And I don't intend to do so tonight. [Applause]
The trick Wallace used was to avoid making direct statements about race. Historian Dan Carter wrote a book about Wallace called "The Politics of Rage." Carter says Wallace talked about race in a kind of political code that his audience clearly understood.
Dan Carter: So that for example he gets up and says, "I don't care if a homeowner doesn't want to sell his home to a blue-eyed Japanese, then that's perfectly alright with me." Well everyone knows he's not really talking about a blue-eyed Japanese; he's talking about an African-American. But when people complain that it's racism, he can play the role of the innocent: "I haven't even mentioned race and yet you're accusing me of being a racist." So he certainly wasn't the only politician who did this, but he was the first one to really master the technique, I think.
Wallace used another wedge from the populist tool-bag. He pitted white, working class people against big-shot, establishment elites, intellectuals and government bureaucrats
Wallace: Yes, they've looked down their nose at you and me a long time. They've called us rednecks, the Republicans and the Democrats. Well we're going to show Mr. Nixon and Mr. Humphrey that there sure are a lot of rednecks in this country [Applause]
[Music from Wallace rally]
There was a lot of theater at a George Wallace campaign rally. The Wallace show attracted big crowds and some of them were anti-Wallace demonstrators. When long-haired leftists started shouting at Wallace from out in the audience, he was ready.
Wallace: Let me say this much. Any of you anarchists in Georgia or California or wherever you happen to be, you better have your day now because after November 5th you are through in this country. [Applause]
Carter: Unlike modern candidates who will do anything to keep from having hecklers in the audience, Wallace loved hecklers in the audience.
Dan Carter says Wallace made sure hecklers did not get kicked out of his rallies so he could tangle with them.
Carter: Long-haired hippies screaming and yelling - that's exactly the kind of opponent you want to have on television.
The Wallace strategy worked. In September of '68, the polls showed him with 21 percent of the vote. Democrat Hubert Humphrey condemned Wallace as a racist - he also wrote off the majority of white Southern voters as unwinnable. Richard Nixon took a different tack. Nixon saw how Wallace appealed to the values of conservative Southern whites and began to woo those voters himself.
Kevin Phillips: It was a little tricky. You had to be careful at what you said. You couldn't over-pitch to the Deep South because you weren't going to win it.
Kevin Phillips is a political analyst who worked on Nixon's 1968 campaign. Over-pitching the South would mean looking too divisive to the rest of the nation. Phillips said Nixon tried to peel away voters who thought Wallace was an extremist but still shared some of his views. Many of them were life-long Democrats who felt that civil rights laws and social programs had gone too far in trying to end racial inequality.
Phillips: Well, my view, and I'll state it bluntly, is there was some truth in what Wallace said. The liberals had gotten so carried away that it was self-defeating. And that a more sophisticated statement of part of what Wallace was saying was actually quite valid.
Wallace's extremism allowed Nixon to say some of the same things without sounding "off the rails." This - along with other campaign tactics - became known as Nixon's "Southern strategy" to win over Dixie Democrats alienated from their party. Historian Dan Carter.
Carter: I mean it was John Haldeman who was one of Nixon's of course closest advisors, said the key always for us was to appeal to people's racial feelings without ever letting them acknowledge to themselves we were talking about race. And while there were many other issues - economic issues - I just don't see how you can look at the '68 campaign and not see race at the very center of it, and at the center of this political transformation that's taking place.
The conservative shift in American politics was one of the big political legacies of 1968. A second legacy was an intensive new use of television to win the White House. TV viewership boomed in the 1960s. To capture that audience, Richard Nixon ran the most sophisticated television campaign yet seen in America.
Nixon TV ad: Never has so much power been used so ineffectively as in Vietnam. If, after all this time…
Nixon TV ad: In recent years, crime in this country has grown nine times as fast as the population.
Nixon TV ad: I see the face of a child. What his color is, what is his ancestry is, doesn't matter.
Nixon TV ad: America is in trouble today, not because her people have failed, but because her leaders have failed.
Nixon had top-flight ad men and television producers in his campaign. They figured out the best way to package him for the public. The team agreed that Nixon came off best in more informal settings. So they staged town hall meetings where the candidate took questions from voters.
Mr. Hutchins: Mr. Nixon, does "law and order" now take on a new meaning since black Americans are making a demand for equality, while for years the Ku Klux, White Citizen Councils and other organized bigoted groups have slaughtered, murdered, maimed and burned the churches and edifices of the black people all over this nation and especially in the South?
Sometimes the questions were challenging. But this man and the rest of the audience were hand-picked for the event. This interchange allowed Nixon to defend his views on crime against charges of racism.
Nixon: Mr. Hutchins, you've put your finger on a very troublesome question for every American - white American, black American. And let me be quite direct in the answer: I don't go along with people that say that "law and order" is a code word for racism. I don't go along with that because my studies of this situation indicate that black Americans have as just as great a stake in a law-and-order society as white Americans.
Ray Price: It was one way of trying to break away from having to do everything through the media screen.
Ray Price was a speechwriter for Nixon in 1968.
Price: Nixon was very good one on one, he was very good with a group of people. He was at home; he was at ease in this. He liked answering questions; he'd been doing it all his life…he, you know, he was good at it.
Nixon: Law and order is in the interest of all Americans. Let's just make sure that our laws deserve respect; then, they will be respected by all Americans. [Applause]
Humphrey TV ad: What has Richard Nixon ever done for you? What has Richard Nixon ever done for me? Uh… Medicare! Naw, that was Humphrey's idea. But Nixon, Nixon…
While Nixon and Wallace capitalized on the law-and-order anxieties that voters had, Democrat Hubert Humphrey's advertising encouraged voter anxiety over Nixon and Wallace themselves.
Humphrey TV ad: Mr. Wallace talks about law and order. But under the Wallace administration, Alabama had the highest murder rate in country. Mr. Nixon wants to offer security to older citizens. But Mr. Nixon opposes Medicare.
Television advertising was just part of the media battle in 1968. Television's massive popularity was accompanied by the growing power of TV news to shape public opinion. So, political campaigns had to play well on the network news. And that's where Nixon excelled.
News Announcer: The sharpest contrast between the Humphrey and Nixon campaigns is to be found in terms of organization. Nixon's campaign has it. Humphrey's doesn't. Or if it does, every effort is being made to camouflage it. Schedules on the Humphrey campaign bear a certain resemblance to the Easter Bunny: No one over the age of consent has any business believing in either one.
Humphrey: Now, we may not be as well organized as the Nixon machine, but I guarantee you, we have more fun, and we know what's goin' on! [Applause]
Perlstein: Humphrey did what a politician traditionally did when they were behind: He campaigned his heart out. He campaigned like a maniac.
Historian Rick Perlstein.
Perlstein: He did 10, 12, 15 events a day. Nixon had another strategy - he only gave one or two events a day. He realized that most of the voters would only see him on TV. That he didn't have to bust his butt going from rally to rally. So what he would do is, he would schedule one or two rallies, and lo and behold, on the evening news every night, you would see the one gaffe that Hubert Humphrey had made on his 10 or 12 or 15 rallies during the day, and you would see the perfectly rehearsed, perfectly fresh talking points of the Nixon campaign.
As the presidential contest rolled into the final month, prospects for peace in Vietnam seemed to be improving. This helped Humphrey, and his campaign picked up a lot of steam once he finally made a speech describing his own plan for the war. By the end of October, he and Nixon were running neck and neck. And just five days before the election, President Johnson announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam. At a televised rally that night, Nixon said that he would stick to the high road and stay neutral about Johnson's peace initiatives.
Nixon: I will only say what I have said previously, that I trust that this action may bring some progress in those talks. And I will say further, my friends, that as a presidential candidate, and my vice presidential running mate joins me in this: Neither he nor I will say anything that might destroy the chance to have peace; we want peace over politics in America. [Cheers]
But while Nixon kept quiet publically about the peace process, documents show he was secretly using back channels to sabotage Johnson's deal. Through a well-placed representative, Nixon told America's South Vietnamese allies that if they held out for peace until after the election, Nixon would get them a better deal than Lyndon Johnson. It may have been a dirty ploy to win the election, but historian Rick Perlstein says Nixon believed it was fair play.
Perlstein: He thought that the fact that Lyndon Johnson had initiated this bombing halt was an attempt to steal the '68 election for Hubert Humphrey. He always thought he was playing defense.
Cronkite: Good evening everyone. We may be here for a very long night tonight. The last polls show that this is going to be a very close election.
November 5th 1968. Election day.
Reporter: the following states have now gone Republican or for Nixon: Kentucky, Vermont and Kansas, with a total of 19 electoral votes…
It was a long night. A presidential race that in September looked nearly impossible for Humphrey ended up being remarkably close: less than one percent of the vote made the difference. The next morning Humphrey spoke to supporters in Minneapolis.
Humphrey: I'm sure you know that I've already called Mr. Nixon…expressed to him our congratulations. And I sent the following telegram just a few moments ago to Mr. Nixon.
Nixon was in New York.
Nixon: Having lost a close one eight years ago and having won a close one this year, I can say this: winning's a lot more fun [laughter and applause].
As for third-party candidate George Wallace, his popularity fell late in the campaign when voters began to view him as too polarizing and unpredictable. Still, Wallace won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and took fives states in the Deep South.
[Music: "Hail to Chief"]
Nixon: I, Richard Millhouse Nixon, do solemnly swear…
Judge: That you will faithfully execute the office…
Nixon: That I will faithfully execute…
Richard Nixon took the oath of office in January 1969. Soon after, his campaign staffers began planning for his reelection. Nixon strategists set out to focus on issues that divided Democrats - not issues to unite Republicans. Historian Dan Carter says Nixon also used his "Southern Strategy" to win a second term.
Carter: Nixon realizes that basis for not only his reelection, but also a Republican majority, rests upon making certain that what has traditionally been the Democratic South becomes the Republican South. And although there are certainly other issues involved, race is going to be the wedge that is going to make that switch possible.
Historian Rick Perlstein says that political techniques now taken for granted in American presidential campaigns took hold in 1968, like polarizing wedge issues and the power of single-interest groups.
Perlstein: The idea was you intentionally find fault lines that get Americans angry at each other, hating each other and that your side of divide will be bigger… and then you win.
Perlstein calls this the "awful legacy of 1968" - an unrelenting series of culture wars.
Perlstein: It made dividing instead of uniting basically the tactical goal. So we have two sets of Americans who believe that the other side is courting civilizational chaos.
Looking back at 1968, it's obvious that major changes were taking place in American politics. Democrats had dominated the government since the 1930s. But the traditional alliances that backed old-style liberals like Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey fell apart. Millions of Democrats abandoned the party.
Campaign tactics were also forever changed. The high-gloss media packaging of candidates became standard fare. And the politics of resentment, practiced crudely by George Wallace, was polished and refined by more sophisticated candidates over the rest of the 20th century. Forty years later, the dark art of political division is now pursued in America with a precision and a ferocity hardly dreamed of in 1968.
Campaign '68 was produced by Kate Ellis and me, Stephen Smith. It was edited by Emily Hanford. The American Radioworks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Suzanne Pekow, Nancy Rosenbaum, Ariel Kitch, and Craig Thorson. Special thanks to historian Doug Rossinow, the Pacifica Radio Archives, the University of Minnesota Archives, the Minnesota Historical Society, and radio station WSQL.
There's a lot of great stuff about the 1968 election at our web site: americanradioworks.org. You can find slide shows, campaign commercials, profiles of the major candidates - and hear this program again. You can also sign up for our e-mail newsletter and download our other great documentaries, all at americanradioworks.org.
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