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