Revisiting The 1968 Republican Convention

Aug 4, 2018
Originally published on August 17, 2018 12:27 pm
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DON GONYEA, HOST:

All this year, NPR has been looking back at the significant moments in 1968, a turbulent time for the country - assassinations, anti-Vietnam War protests, unrest in major cities. The Democratic convention in Chicago in late August of that year was very much a reflection of the times. It was dominated by demonstrations and discord.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting).

GONYEA: But the Republican Convention, which came first that summer, was different, opening 50 years ago this weekend. The GOP event nominated Richard Nixon and was mostly quiet and orderly. Republicans wanted to present their party as a picture of a buttoned-down organization.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIXON'S THE ONE")

CONNIE STEVENS: (Singing) Stand up, and let's strike the band up.

GONYEA: And if it was all no more cutting-edge than this Nixon campaign jingle sung by pop star Connie Stevens (ph), all the better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIXON'S THE ONE")

STEVENS: (Singing) I said that Nixon's the one.

GONYEA: In 1968, Richard Nixon arrived in Miami Beach the overwhelming frontrunner, though still short of the needed delegates. Bill Plante was a reporter for CBS News. Now retired, he recalls a background briefing with Nixon just weeks before the convention.

BILL PLANTE: (Reading) This is June 27 of 1968.

GONYEA: Plante reads from his original typed notes.

PLANTE: And this is probably not a direct quotation, but close. (Reading) So those who are running my delegate operation are very confident now. They believe that we'd win today.

GONYEA: But Nixon had two big-name challengers - Ronald Reagan, the first-term governor of California and the rising conservative star, and Nelson Rockefeller, the three-term governor of New York. Rockefeller was a moderate Republican. Reagan posed the greater threat. The challengers teamed up in a bid to deny Nixon victory and to force a wide-open battle for delegates where one of them could emerge as the nominee. Historian and Reagan biographer Craig Shirley says conventions were different then. Delegates were more empowered than they are today.

CRAIG SHIRLEY: Modern conventions is that somebody runs for president, they win delegates in a state, either winner take all or proportionately, and those delegates are locked up and committed to vote at least on the first, second and often the third ballots for the person to whom they are committed. It wasn't that way in 1968.

GONYEA: Another example of how different things were - Reagan didn't officially declare his candidacy until just before the convention. All year, he'd been coy about his plans. It was will he or won't he as he courted party conservatives and toured the country doing events like this one in Iowa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: You know, you have all been so kind, and you've remembered all the things to make me feel good. Which makes me really feel good because there's one thing you could have remembered, and I'm glad you forgot. Here it is 30 years later, and you've forgotten that when I was here before, I was a Democrat.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: So Reagan jumped in at the 11th hour, an early big moment for him on the national stage. But Nixon was organized and ready. And he had the very important support of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who kept Southern delegates on board.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: South Carolina, home of that great American Strom Thurmond, cast 22 votes for the next president of the United States, Richard Nixon.

GONYEA: First ballot, Nixon won. In his acceptance speech, the nominee invoked dark themes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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. We see Americans hating each other, fighting each other, killing each other at home.

GONYEA: Nixon spoke of the need for law and order and lamented the declining respect for the U.S. abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: For five years, hardly a day has gone by when we haven't read or heard a report of the American flag being spit on, an embassy being stoned...

GONYEA: As candidate and as president, Nixon famously referred to his supporters as the silent majority. In Miami Beach, he spoke of them as the forgotten Americans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIXON: It is the voice of the great majority of Americans - the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters the non-demonstrators.

GONYEA: This played into his so-called Southern strategy aimed at conservative white voters, including Democrats, in southern states. To Americans watching on TV, the GOP convention was orderly almost to a fault. In November, Nixon won a close election. Here's former CBS reporter Bill Plante.

PLANTE: 1968 was a year when perhaps the kind of plain vanilla or, you know, extremely normal-looking operation like that Republican convention would have been soothing to a lot of people.

GONYEA: Now, that orderliness for the GOP would not last indefinitely. Let's look at the major players from that convention. Ronald Reagan - in 1976, he would challenge Gerald Ford, the sitting president, from his own party. Reagan would lose but went on to win the presidency in 1980. Conservatives led by Reagan would become the force within the GOP with moderate Republicans like Rockefeller a vanishing species. As for Nixon, there's that thing his presidency is best known for - Watergate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.