Thursday, August 8, 2013

Introducing the 'New' Nixon

On this night 45 years ago, Richard Nixon delivered his second presidential nomination acceptance speech. He had been presenting himself as a "new Nixon" — which meant (presumably) that he had changed since the last time he sought the presidency in 1960 — and his speech on this night in 1968 was his opportunity to make his case to the American people.

Neither Nixon nor anyone who listened to him speak could have known that a burglary that wouldn't happen for nearly four years would lead him to make a very different kind of speech on precisely the same date six years later.

On this night in 1968, Nixon used the word "new" some two dozen times in his speech — most frequently with the word "leadership."

There was a genuine yearning for new in America in 1968. The war in Vietnam had been losing support steadily since Walter Cronkite delivered his commentary on the war in February (in which he famously declared that the United States was "mired in a stalemate" and could not win).

People on both sides of the fence were dissatisfied with how things were going in Southeast Asia. You could see the defections in the declining poll numbers — in support of the war and in support of the administration that was conducting it.

Just about every other policy was satisfying no one. Race riots had occurred in just about every major city. Crime was seen as out of control. Environmental policy was under fire.

Many people think America today is a polarized nation. But it really can't compare to the America of 1968.

Nixon told the Republican delegates — and the folks watching at home — 45 years ago tonight that it was time for "new leadership."

That kind of appeal — or something like it — is typically made by the nominee of the out–of–power party. But when Nixon ran in 1960, he represented the party that had been in power for the previous eight years, and he had no real choice but to defend the policies of the Eisenhower administration of which he had been (and still was) a part — even the policies with which he may have disagreed.

He couldn't very well appeal for new leadership when he had been part of the old leadership.

Nevertheless, defending the Eisenhower administration probably wasn't such a hard thing to do. In the fall of 1960, Gallup consistently reported that President Eisenhower's approval ratings were in the upper 50s.

In 1968, after eight years of Democratic rule, Nixon was running as the challenger. He was freed from the yoke that incumbency can be. He was his own man, a "new" Nixon, and he wanted everyone to know it.

Eight years earlier, Nixon had not taken advantage of the asset the popular Eisenhower had been until the final weeks of the campaign. It was believed by many that Ike made a difference, helping Nixon close the gap nationally and in several states. Had it not been for Eisenhower, the 1960 campaign might not have been as close as it was.

It was very close, one of the closest presidential elections in this country's history, but Nixon came up short.

In 1968, Nixon was destined for another cliffhanger, but he would face it as his own man, no longer beholden to Eisenhower although Nixon did make a personal appeal to the delegates on Ike's behalf. Eisenhower was in Walter Reed Hospital when Nixon delivered his speech, and the former vice president implored the delegates to "win this one for Ike!"

Nixon was already confident of victory — or, at least, he seemed to be. He assured the delegates there was a distinction between his 1960 campaign and his 1968 campaign. "This time we're going to win," he said.

I don't know if he truly believed that, but he was convincing — in his way.

Nixon went on to explain to the delegates and the viewers at home why that was so. "My fellow Americans," Nixon continued, "we are going to win because our cause is right. We make history tonight — not for ourselves but for the ages. The choice we make in 1968 will determine not only the future of America but the future of peace and freedom in the world for the last third of the 20th century."

As Nixon outlined what he saw as the challenges facing America, he said, "[L]et us begin by committing ourselves to the truth — to see it like it is and tell it like it is — to find the truth, to speak the truth and to live the truth — that's what we will do. ... The time has come for honest government in the United States of America."

Ironic, considering the legacy of lies the Nixon administration ultimately would leave behind.

There wasn't really anything new in Nixon's speech, historian Theodore H. White wrote. "[T]hose who had followed [Nixon] could transmit, at the end of every 10th sentence, the tested punchline. What was new was context and frame. He was saying exactly what he thought: it was to be the campaign of a conservative but not the radical conservatism of Barry Goldwater driving from the party all those who disagreed; it was a centrist conservatism, inviting both extremes to a unifying moderation."

The American people, desperate for honesty in government after being repeatedly deceived in the Vietnam years — and some, perhaps, believing Nixon when he said he was a "new" Nixon — responded to Nixon's call.

And that, too, is ironic because, six years later — to the day — Nixon announced that he would resign, revealing that there never was a "new" Nixon — just the old one in disguise.

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