The dark blue curtains part. As delegates cheer, the nominee walks toward the lectern, arms loose, shoulders somewhat rigid like a man who…. No, as Henry James once said in quite a different but no less dramatic context, it cannot be done. What is there to say about Richard M. Nixon that was not said eight years ago? What is there to say that he himself did not say at that memorable “last” press conference in Los Angeles six years ago? For some time he has ceased to figure in the conscious regions of the mind, a permanent resident, one had thought, of that limbo where reside the Stassens and the Deweys and all those other ambitious men whose failures seemed so entirely deserved. But now, thanks to two murders in five years, Richard Nixon is again a presidential candidate. No second acts to American careers? Nonsense. What is lacking are decent codas. At Miami Beach, we were reminded that no politician can ever be written off this side of Arlington.
THE WEEK before the convention began, various Republican leaders met at the Fontainebleau Hotel to write a platform, knowing that no matter what wisdom this document might contain it would be ignored by the candidate. Nevertheless, to the extent issues ever intrude upon the making of Presidents, the platform hearings do give publicity to different points of view, and that is why Ronald Reagan took time from his busy schedule as Governor of California to fly to Miami Beach in order to warn the platform committee of the dangers of crime in the streets. The Governor also made himself available to the flower of the national and international press who sat restively in a windowless low-ceilinged dining room of the Fontainebleau from two o’clock to two-thirty to “just a short wait, please, the Governor is on his way,” interviewing one another and trying to look alert as the television cameras, for want of a candidate, panned from face to face. At last, His Excellency, as Ivy Baker Priest would say, entered the room, flanked by six secret servicemen. As they spread out on either side of him, they cased us narrowly and I know that simply by looking into my face they can see the imaginary gun in my pocket.
Ronald Reagan is a well-preserved not young man. Close-to, the painted face is webbed with delicate lines while the dyed hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes contrast oddly with the sagging muscle beneath the as yet unlifted chin, soft earnest of wattle soon-to-be. The effect, in repose, suggests the work of a skillful embalmer. Animated, the face is quite attractive and at a distance youthful, particularly engaging is the crooked smile full of large porcelain-capped teeth. The eyes are the only interesting feature: small, narrow, apparently dark, they glitter in the hot light, alert to every move, for this is enemy country—the liberal Eastern press who are so notoriously immune to that warm and folksy performance which Reagan quite deliberately projects over their heads to some legendary constituency at the far end of the tube, some shining Carverville where good Lewis Stone forever lectures Andy Hardy on the virtues of thrift and the wisdom of the contract system at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
The questions begin. Why don’t you announce your candidacy? Are you a candidate? Why do people feel you will take votes away from George Wallace? Having answered these questions a hundred times before, the actor does not pause to consider his responses. He picks up each cue promptly, neatly, increasing the general frustration. Only once does the answer-machine jam. “Do you want to be President?” The room goes silent. The smile suddenly looks to have been drawn in clay, fit for baking in a Laguna kiln. Then the candidate finds the right button. He pushes it. We are told what an honor it is for any citizen to be considered for the highest office on earth…. We stop listening; he stops listening to himself.
“Governor, even though you’re not a candidate, you must know that there is a good deal of support for you….” The questioner’s irony is suitably heavy. Reagan’s lips purse—according to one biographer this is a sign he is displeased; there was a good deal of lippursing during the conference not to mention the days to come. “Well,” he speaks through pursed lips, “I’d have to be unconscious not to know what was going on but….” As he continues his performance, his speech interlarded with “my lands” (for some reason Right Wingers invariably talk like Little Orphan Annie), I recalled my last glimpse of him, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco four years ago. The Reagans were seated in a box, listening to Eisenhower. While Mrs. Reagan darted angry looks about the hall (displeased at the press?) the star of Death Valley Days was staring intently at the speaker on the platform. Thus an actor prepares, I thought, and I suspected even then that Reagan would some day find himself up there on the platform. In any case, as the age of television progresses, the Reagans will be the rule, not the exception. “Thank you, Governor,” said a journalist, and everyone withdrew, leaving Ronald Reagan with his six secret servicemen—one black, a ratio considerably better than that of the convention itself where only two percent could claim Africa as motherland.
SEVENTY-SECOND STREET BEACH is a gathering place for hustlers of all sexes. With some bewilderment, they watch one of their masters, the Chase Manhattan Bank made flesh—sweating flesh—display his wounds to the sandy and the dull, a Coriolanus but in reverse, one besotted with the vulgar. In shirtsleeves but firmly knotted tie, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller stands on a platform crowded with officials and aides (most seriously crowded by the Governor of Florida Claude Kirk who wears a bright orange sports-jacket and a constant smile for his people, who regard him, the few who know who he is, with bright loathing). Ordinarily Rockefeller’s face is veal-white, as though no blood courses beneath that thick skin. But now, responding to the lowering day, he has turned a delicate conch pink. What is he saying? “Well, let’s face it, there’s been some disagreement among the pollsters.” The upper class tough boy accent (most beautifully achieved by Montgomery Clift in The Heiress) proves effective even down here where consonants are disdained and vowels long. Laughter from the audience in clothes, bewildered, looks from the hustlers in their bathing suits. “Like, man, who is it?”
“But now Harris and Gallup have agreed that I can beat….” Rockefeller quotes at length from those polls which are the oracles of our day, no, the very gods who speak to us of things to come. Over and over again, he says, “Let’s face it,” a phrase popular twenty years ago, particularly among girls inclined to alcoholism (“the Governor drinks an occasional Dubonnet on the rocks before dinner,” where did I read that?). Beside him stands his handsome wife, holding a large straw hat and looking as if she would like to be somewhere else, no loving Nancy Reagan or loyal Pat Nixon she. The convention is full of talk that there has been trouble between them. Apparently…one of the pleasures of American political life is that issues seldom intrude. Personalities are all that matter. Is he a nice man? Is she happy with him? What else should concern a sovereign people?
Rockefeller puts down the polls, takes off his glasses, and starts to attack the Administration. “Look at what they’re doing,” he says with a nice vehemence, “They’re exhilarating the war!” But although Rockefeller now sounds like a peace candidate, reprising Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, he has always been devoted to the war in Vietnam and to the principle underlying it: American military intervention wherever “freedom is endangered.” Consequently—and consistently—he has never found any defense budget adequate. Two years ago at a dinner in New York, he was more hawk than Johnson as he told us how the Viet Cong were coldbloodedly “shooting little mayors” (the phrase conjured up dead ponies); mournfully, he shook his head, “Why can’t they learn to fight fair?” Nevertheless, compared to Nixon and Reagan, Rockefeller is positively Lincolnesque. All of us on 72nd Street Beach liked him, except perhaps the hustlers wanting to score, and we wished him well, knowing that he had absolutely no chance of being nominated.
BY ADDING the third character to tragedy, Sophocles changed the nature of drama. By exalting the chorus and diminishing the actors, television has changed entirely the nature of our continuing history. Watching things as they happen, the viewer is a part of events in a way new to man. And never is he so much a part of the whole as when things do not happen, for, as Andy Warhol so wisely observed, people will always prefer to look at something rather than nothing; between plain wall and flickering commercial, the eyes will have the second. As hearth and fire were once center to the home or lair so now the television set is the center of modern man’s being, all points of the room converge upon its presence and the eye watches even as the mind dozes, much as our ancestors narcotized themselves with fire.
At Miami Beach television was everywhere: in the air, on the streets, in hotel lobbies, on the convention floor. “From gavel to gavel” the networks spared us nothing in the way of empty speeches and mindless interviews, but dull and uninformative as the events themselves were, something rather than nothing was being shown and the eye was diverted while the objects photographed (delegates et al) reveled in the exposure even though it might be no more than a random shot of a nose being picked or a crotch rearranged. No matter: for that instant the one observed existed for all his countrymen. As a result the delegates were docile beyond belief, stepping this way and that as required by men with wired helmets and handmikes which, like magic wands, could confer for an instant total recognition.
The fact that television personalities so notoriously took precedence over the politicians at Miami Beach was noted with sour wonder by journalists who have begun to fear that their rendering of events that all can see into lines of linear type may prove to be as irrelevant an exercise as turning contemporary literature into Greek. The fact that in a hotel lobby it was Eric Sevareid not John Tower who collected a crowd was thought to be a sign of the essential light-mindedness of the electorate. Yet Sevareid belongs to the country in a way few politicians ever do. Certainly most people see more of David Brinkley than they do of their own relatives and it’s no wonder that they are eager to observe him in the flesh since he has been so often a visitor in their house. Only Ronald Reagan among the politicians at Miami exerted the same spell, and for the same reason: he is a bona fide star of the Late Show, equally ubiquitous, equally mythic.
MIAMI BEACH is a rich sandbar with a drawbridge, and in no sense part of the main. The televised convention made it even more remote than it is. So locked were we all in what we were doing that Miami’s Negro riots on Wednesday went almost unnoticed. There are those who thought that the Republicans deliberately played down the riots, but that is too Machiavellian. The fact is no one was interested. For those involved in creating that formidable work of television art, the 29th Republican convention, there was only one important task, creating suspense where none was. Everyone pretended that Reagan and Rockefeller could stop Nixon on the first ballot and so persuasive is the medium that by continually acting as if there might be a surprise, all involved came to believe that there would be one.
Even Nixon who should have known better fell victim to the collective delusion. On Tuesday he made his deal with Thurmond: no candidate for Vice-President displeasing to the South. Yet there was never, we now know, any danger of the Southern delegations switching to Reagan, despite the actor’s enormous appeal to them. After all, how could they not love a man who had campaigned for a segregationist Southern politician (Charlton Lyons of Louisiana), who had denounced the income tax as “Marxist,” and federal aid to education as “a tool of tyranny,” and welfare as an “encouragement to divorce and immorality,” and who generally sounded as if he wouldn’t mind nuking North Vietnam and maybe China, too? He was their man but Nixon was their leader.
By the time the balloting began on Wednesday night, it was all over. There were of course idle pleasures. Everett Dirksen prowling from camera to camera, playing the part of a Senator with outrageous pleasure. Strom Thurmond, High Constable of the South, staring coldly at the delegates with stone catfish face. John Lindsay of New York, slyly separating his elegant persona from any words that he might be called upon to say. The public liked Lindsay but the delegates did not. They regarded him with the same distaste that they regard the city of which he is mayor, that hellhole of niggers and kikes and commies, of dope and vice and smut…. So they talk among themselves, until an outsider approaches; then they shift gears swiftly and speak gravely of law and order and how this is a republic not a democracy.
A lady from Vermont read the roll of the States as though each state had somehow grievously offended her. Alabama was plainly a thorn to be plucked, while Alaska was a blot upon the Union. She did achieve a moment of ribald good humor when she asked one state chairman which Rockefeller his state was voting for. But long before the Yankee virago had got to Wisconsin it was plain that Nixon was indeed “the one” as the signs had proclaimed, and immediately the Medium began to look in on the hotel suites, to confront the losers, hoping for tears, and reveal the winner, hoping for…well, what do you hope for with Nixon?
The technician. Once nominated Nixon gravely explained how he had pulled it off. He talked about the logistics of campaigning. He took us backstage. It was a nice background briefing, but nothing more. No plans for the ghettos, no policy for Asia, just political maneuvering. He did assure us that he would select “a candidate for Vice President who does not divide this country.” Apparently he would have a free hand because “I won the nomination without paying any price or making any deals.” The next day of course he revealed the nature of his deal with the Southerners and the price he must now pay for their support: Spiro Agnew of Maryland. Despite the howls of the party liberals and the total defection of the blacks, Nixon had probably done the wise thing. He could now give Wallace a run for his money not only in the necessary South but also among the lower white orders in the North who this year are more than ready to give their dusky cousins what the candidate once referred to, in angrier days, as “the shaft.”
Thursday was the big day. Agnew was proposed, opposed, nominated. A lumbering man who looks like a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Juan Perón, his acceptance speech was thin and ungrammatical; not surprisingly, he favored law and order. Adequate on civil rights when he became governor, Agnew behaved boorishly to the black establishment of Baltimore in the wake of riots last spring. This made him acceptable to. Thurmond. Even so, all but the most benighted conservatives are somewhat concerned at Agnew’s lack of experience. Should Nixon be elected and die, a man with only one year’s experience as governor of a backward border state would become Emperor of the West. Though firm with niggers, how would he be on other issues? No one knows, including the candidate himself whose great virtue, in his own eyes, “is that I try to be credible—I want to be believed. That’s one of the most priceless assets.” So it is. So it is.
NIXON is now on stage, ready to accept for a second time his party’s nomination. He is leaner than in the past. In a thickly made-up face, the smile is not unappealing, upper lip slightly hooked over teeth in the Kennedy manner. With his jawline collapsing in a comforting way, the middle-aged Nixon resembles the average voter who, we are told, is forty-seven years old. The candidate swings neatly to left, hands raised, two forefingers of each hand making the victory salute. Arms drop. Slide step to right. Arms again extended above head as hands make salute. Then back to center stage and the lectern. The television camera zooms in on the speech: one can see lines crossed out, words added; the type is large, the speech mercifully short.
Nixon begins. The voice is deep and slightly toneless, without regional accent, like a radio announcer’s. We have been told that he wrote his own script. It is possible. Certainly every line was redolent of that strange uncharm characteristic of the man. He spoke of Eisenhower (“one of the greatest Americans of our time—or of any time”) who was watching them from his hospital bed. “His heart is with us!” the candidate exclaimed, reminding us inadvertently that that poor organ was hardly the General’s strongest contribution to the moral crusade the times require. No matter, “let’s win this one for Ike!” (A rousing echo of Knute Rockne, a film in which the youthful Ronald Reagan had been most affecting.) Nixon next paid careful tribute to his Republican competitors, to the platform and, finally, to Spiro Agnew “a statesman of the first rank who will be a great campaigner.” He then drew a dark picture of today’s America, ending with “did we come all this way for this?” Despite the many hours of literary labor, Nixon’s style was seldom felicitous; he was particularly afflicted by “thisness”: “This I say is the real voice of America. And in this year 1968 this is….” The real voice of America, needless to say, is Republican; “the forgotten Americans—the nonshouters, the non-demonstrators”; in short, the non-protesting white Protestants, who must, he enjoined, commit themselves to the truth, “to see it like it is, and to tell it like it is,” argot just slightly wrong for now but to Nixon “tell it like it is” must sound positively raunchy, the sort of thing had he been classy Jack Kennedy he might have heard at Vegas, sitting around with the Clan and their back-scratchers.
Solemnly Nixon addressed himself to Vietnam. His Administration would “bring to an honorable end the war.” How? Well, “after an era of confrontation, the time has come for an era of negotiation.” But in case that sounded like dangerous accommodation he quickly reminded us that since the American flag is spit on almost daily around the world, it is now “time we started to act like a great nation.” But he did not tell us how a great nation should act. Last January, he said that the war will end only when the Communists are convinced that the US “will use its immense power and is not going to back down.” In March he said, “There is no alternative to the continuation of the war in Vietnam.” It is of course never easy to determine what if anything Nixon means. When it was revealed that his recent support of public housing was not sincere but simply expedient (his secret remarks to a Southern caucus had been taped), no one was surprised. “He just had to say that,” murmur his supporters whenever he contradicts himself and they admire him for it. After all, his form of hypocrisy is deeply American: if you can’t be good, be careful. Significantly, he was most loudly applauded when, inevitably, he struck this year’s favorite Republican note: Remember the Pueblo. “The United States has fallen so low that a fourth rate military power like North Korea [can] hijack a United States naval vessel….” Quite forgotton were his conciliatory words of last spring: “If the captured American Intelligence spy ship violated North Korean waters, the United States has no choice but to admit it.”
Nixon next praised the courts but then allowed that some of them have gone “too far in weakening the peace forces as against the criminal forces.” Attacks on the judiciary are sure-fire with Republicans. Witness the old Nixon five years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision on the integration of schools: “the Administration’s position has not been, is not now, and should not be immediate total integration.” Like Barry Goldwater he tends to the radical belief that the Supreme Court’s decisions “are not, necessarily, the law of the land.” Happily, once the present Attorney General is replaced, it will be possible to “open a new front against the filth peddlers and the narcotics peddlers who are corrupting the lives of our children.” As for the forty million poor, they can take heart from the example of past generations of Americans who were aided not by government “but because of what people did for themselves.” Those small inequities that now exist in the American system can be easily taken care of by “the greatest engine of progress ever developed in the history of man—American private enterprise.” The poor man who wants “a piece of the action” (Vegas again) is very apt to get it if the streets are orderly and enough tax cuts are given big business to encourage it to be helpful.
If Nixon’s reputation as the litmuspaper man of American politics is deserved, his turning mauve instead of pink makes it plain that the affluent majority intend to do nothing at all in regard to the black and the poor and the aged, except repress with force their demonstrations, subscribing finally not so much to the bland hortatory generalities of the platform and the acceptance speech but to the past statements of the real Nixon who has said (1) “If the conviction rate was doubled in this country, it would do more to eliminate crime in the future than a quadrupling of the funds for any governmental war on poverty.” (2) “I am opposed to pensions in any form, as it makes loafing more attractive to [sic] working.” (3) To tie health care to social security “would set up a great state program which would inevitably head in the direction of herding the ill and elderly into institutions whether they desire this or not.” Echo of those Republicans in 1935 who declared that once Social Security was law “you won’t have a name any longer, only a number.” Most ominous of all, the candidate of the military-industrial complex has no wish to decrease the military budget. Quite the contrary. As recently as last June he was warning us that “the United States has steadily fallen behind the Soviet Union in the leveling of its spending on research and development of advance systems to safeguard the nation.” In short, there is no new Nixon, only the old Nixon experimenting with new campaigning techniques in response, as the Stalinists used to say, to new necessities. Nixon concluded his speech on a note of selflove. Most viewers thought it inappropriate: since no one loves him, why should he? To his credit, he sounded slightly embarrassed as he spoke of the boy from Whittier—a mis-fire but worth a try.
FRIDAY. On the plane to New York. A leading Republican liberal remarks, “Awful as it was, he made a vote-getting speech.” He is probably right. Nixon has said in the past that no Republican can hope to get the Negro vote, so why try for it? Particularly when the principal danger to Nixon’s candidacy is George Wallace, in the North as well as South. Nixon is also perfectly aware of a little-known statistic: the entire black vote plus the entire vote of whites under twenty-five is slightly less than one-fourth of the total electorate. Since Nixon has no chance of attracting either category, he has, by selecting Agnew, served notice that he is the candidate of that average forty-seven-year old voter who tends to dislike and fear the young and the black and the liberal; in fact, the more open Nixon is in his disdain of this one-fourth of a nation, the more pleasing he will seem to the remaining three-fourths who want a change, any change from Johnson-Humphrey as well as some assurance that the dissident forces at work in American life will be contained. The great technician has worked out a winning combination and, barring the (obligatory?) unexpected, it is quite likely that it will pay off and Richard Milhous Nixon will become the 37th President of the United States.
The Best Man October 24, 1968