Nixon Was Firmly in Control … Until Dark Clouds Began Forming

A signed Richard Nixon photograph sold for $657.25 in February 2006.

By Jim O’Neal

By the time 1972 rolled around, the presidential campaign was really a story about President Nixon’s growing invincibility. In the summer, every poll gave him about 60 percent of the vote and even his tremendous financial advantage – $60 million vs. $25 million for the Dems – had little to do with the probable outcome.

Nixon was elected four years earlier on a tide of protest against the Vietnam War, but ending it seemed to be taking an eternity. 17,000 more Americans had been killed while he was trying, but by the beginning of 1972, he had reduced U.S. troop levels from 550,000 to 139,000. Importantly, the Pentagon’s weekly casualty list of 300 had dropped to zero by Sept. 21, 1972.

The sum of Nixon’s skills was a united party, led by a nominee who was now identified as the candidate of peace and détente. He had two superfluous opponents for the GOP nomination and one, Paul “Pete” McClosky from California, became an arcane trivia answer by winning 1 delegate while Nixon swept up all the rest … 1,347.

The convention stagecraft was awesome and Nixon had eliminated all the suspense by announcing his intention to keep Spiro Agnew on the ticket as his VP. (Agnew won 1,345 votes vs. one for TV journalist David Brinkley; NBC staffers quickly started wearing “Brinkley for Vice President” buttons as a joke.)

This marked the fifth time Nixon had been on the ballot – in 1952 and 1956 for VP, and in 1960, 1968 and 1972 for president. This tied FDR, who had one VP (1920) and four straight as president (1932-1944). Ronald Reagan chaired the convention and Nelson Rockefeller put Nixon’s name in nomination. GOP speakers touted their unity and hammered at the disarray on the other side.

In 1972, campaign material included George Wallace license plates.

The Democrats were still absorbed in savage internecine feuds and the battle to head the party was a melee. George McGovern very adroitly managed to make himself a dark horse to keep the glaring national spotlight off his nascent campaign. In the Florida primary, facing 11 presidential candidates, George Wallace was the big winner as a surprise candidate. He loudly crowed, “We beat all the face cards in the Democratic deck!”

By the middle of May, Edmund Muskie was out of it and the marathon was narrowing to a three-way contest between Wallace, McGovern and Hubert Humphrey. Then in May 1972 while in Maryland, Wallace was hit by a brick in Frederick, eggs in Hagerstown and six bullets in Laurel. He won both Michigan and Maryland, but for him, wounded and paralyzed, it was all over.

Then Humphrey proceeded to destroy McGovern’s chances by pointing out his quixotic stands on Israel, defense spending, welfare, labor law, unemployment compensation, taxation and even Vietnam. In three bruising debates, Humphrey obliterated any chances of McGovern to mount even a mild challenge to Nixon. The election was a blowout, with Nixon winning 49 states and nearly 62 percent of the popular vote.

McGovern rationalized his defeat by saying, “I want every one of you to remember that if we pushed the day of peace just one day closer, then every minute and every hour and every bone-crushing effort in this campaign was worth the entire effort.” I suspect he died on Oct. 21, 2012, still believing these self-delusional words.

At about the same time, the seeds of Watergate had been planted. A small unobtrusive dark cloud was forming somewhere in the atmosphere, and it would end up unraveling the entire Nixon presidency and legacy. The arc of fate is long and never-ending.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

For President Johnson, Goal was Reached with ‘Great Society’ Legislation

lyndon-b-johnson-great-society-bill-signing-pens-from-1965
A complete set of 50 pens President Johnson used to sign “Great Society” legislation in 1965 sold for $18,750 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Whether Lyndon B. Johnson intended to run a second time for the presidency (after his 1964 election) is uncertain. Many of his predecessors had made it clear that one elected term was enough.

Theodore Roosevelt made a campaign promise not to run again for president and regretted it so much that he later ran anyway (in 1912). Rutherford B. Hayes never intended to run more than once (and was happy he hadn’t), and neither did Harry Truman or Calvin Coolidge. Except for TR, these men were no longer popular by the end of their first elected term, and it most likely would have been a waste of time.

So it was with LBJ. On March 31, 1968, he took the nation by surprise when he announced abruptly in a televised address from his office, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”

Johnson had even spoken of resigning, but if anything deterred him, it was the fear of losing his “Great Society” programs in Congress. Even the media-fueled support for Robert Kennedy was threatening, because Johnson never trusted him and was leery of his lack of power with Congress to be sure the programs got enacted. Johnson cared more about his agenda than the presidency.

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President Johnson signs legislation.

Then, shortly after his retirement speech, came the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April) and Kennedy (June), which stirred even more violence in the streets. The military was on stand-by and ready to pour into Washington if rioting was too much for the police. For the man in the White House, the outside world was a horror show and the idea of returning to his ranch grew more appealing. A long-time colleague from the old days, Congressman Jack Brooks, said the president did not seek reelection because he “kind of wanted to get back home,” adding for those who might not understand, “It’s not so bad out on the ranch, you know.”

Some presidents depart the White House invigorated, but most leave exhausted. For LBJ, the office had drained his vigor and confidence. He also believed that history would never give him credit for achieving the most powerful social agenda since Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was Johnson’s political skill that made it happen, not JFK, but Johnson believed that somehow the applause would inevitably go to his more popular predecessor. Sadly, he was right, but in recent years, a more balanced narrative has evolved.

Republicans nominated Richard Nixon in August 1968 and the Democrats chose VP Hubert Humphrey. LBJ did not attend the convention to share Humphrey’s triumph since he didn’t want to add any Vietnam War baggage to the ticket. During the campaign, the war flared on and LBJ was still impassioned to end it. On Oct. 31, just days before the election, he even announced a halt to the bombing, but it was too late.

On Jan. 14, 1969, President Johnson delivered his final State of the Union to Congress. It was strong, pragmatic and well-received by his old Senate colleagues – and in a venue where he was very comfortable.

Then it was time to pack up and head back to Texas.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].