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This Weekend in 1968

This Weekend in 1968: Political Plays to the Silent Center

Ann Heppermann

Kara Oehler

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The man at the center of it all
(Ollie Atkins Photograph Collection, Special Collections & Archives, George Mason University Libraries)
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1968 Nixon campaign commercial

We're bringing you an ongoing series called "This Weekend in 1968" because so much happened 40 years ago that still shapes our lives today. Last weekend, we observed the anniversary of the Poor People's Campaign -- an attempt to make poverty more visible.

So Americans turned on their TVs and saw people demanding economic justice. They saw clashes between citizens and police. It's no surprise, then, that the following week brought a famous appeal for calm.

This weekend in 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon gave a radio address that became a pivotal moment in American politics. Nixon emphasized that most Americans did not stage political protests or riots -- and he tried to make himself the candidate for these Americans.

Here's Nixon biographer Rick Pearlstein:

Rick Perlstein: You know, imagine what it was like to be kind of a white suburban family in the 1960s and see all of this chaos break out on your TV screen. Riots in city after city, blacks burning down their neighborhoods, students burning down their universities. The media was giving so much attention to these clamoring voices, clamoring for social change, clamoring for social justice. And there was just a lot of anger and resentment building up over that.

By 1968, the federal government comes out with a report -- the Kerner Commission Report -- which described the reasons for the riots.
And the preface of that report was very famous: It said "white" society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it. So this idea that ordinary middle American white people were being blamed for all of these problems was something that people were very sensitive to, and not many politicians were speaking to.

Right after the Kerner Commission Report, Richard Nixon got a very interesting memo from a young aide named Richard Whalen....

Richard Whalen: In my memo to Nixon, I suggest that a neglected social frontier exists. It is where the doors must be opened and the people prepared for the next great phase of the American experiment. It is suburbia.

In 1966 through '68, I was one of the small group of men around Nixon who wrote his speeches, gave him a steady stream of memos, ideas, phrases. At that point, there were three of us writing speeches: Ray Price, who was a very graceful liberal Republican; Pat Buchanan, who was a somewhat more pugnacious, very conservative Republican; and me, who is a sort of moderate conservative centrist.

Nixon referred to us as his bright young, men. When we were 33, we knew everything -- and now that I'm 72, almost 73, I don't think I know anything. But I never met a more confident group of people than the young people who organized around this veteran, battered loser and made him president.

Perlstein: Nixon was in the middle of a primary fight, getting ready for the Republican convention that summer, against a much more liberal candidate -- Nelson Rockefeller on his left and Ronald Reagan to his right.

There was another candidate in the 1968 presidential election, George Wallace, who was this segregationist from Alabama.

Whalen: And George Wallace was threatening a kind of authoritarian, law-and-order, tell the police to shoot on sight. Wallace was the voice of the aggrieved, almost panicky white middle class, threatened by black urban violence. We were trying very hard to put Nixon as the center, who could calm the racial storm and establish order without being a bully or an authoritarian.

"Nixon's the One" was our slogan -- not that I liked it but it was the slogan. The writers kind of hung out together, and we would argue as though Nixon were a man who had a definite thirst for whiskey and we were the bootleggers. We'd argue what sort of good should we put on his doorstep and would he like it.

Nixon liked phrases. He would tell us, "Look for that line that you can lift a speech with... the lift of a driving dream" -- stuff like that. And I hate to say it, but writers read other writers. And in 1948, I believe, Arthur Schlessinger Jr. wrote an important book called "The Vital Center," a marvelous title. So 20 years later, we picked it up. Guilty as charged.

Perlstein: Nixon went on the radio and decided basically to answer the people who felt like the liberals were claiming that it was their fault that America was going to pot.

Whalen: And the vital center becomes...

Archival Tape: "The silent center, the millions of people in the middle spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly..."

Whalen: The audiences who listened to him were silent. These were people who were not ever going to demonstrate anywhere, who were never going to riot, white or black. But they were people whose weight at the center of the political spectrum could tip to the left or to the right.

Perlstein: Imagine if Richard Nixon's soothing voice comes on the radio and says:

Archival Tape: "A great many quiet Americans have become committed to social problems that preserve personal freedom."

Perlstein: All you people who feel humiliated and who feel talked down to by the liberals who feel like the world is exploding around you and you're getting blamed for it -- instead of the people who are rioting, you actually comprise a political constituency.

Political speech is not very different from poetry, and often it can just be about the resonances of how the syllables sound together.

Whalen: And "silent majority"... tumbled out of my typewriter in the attic in Washington one night. And I looked at it and I said "That's a pretty good phrase."

Perlstein: He hit the sweet spot: the "silent majority."

Whalen: The majority -- often silent. Disinterested. Never says "Thank you." The silent majority. Says "Yeah, that's ok. That's great. OK, next."

Perlstein: And as soon as he said that, it was like, you know, rainbows pushed through the clouds and the sun shined. And basically the "silent majority forever more would become known as the coalition that Nixon spoke to.

Whalen: We gave Nixon language that carried him forward to the "silent majority" and to the role that we saw for him in that election.

Perlstein: The "silent center" speech that Richard Nixon gave in the spring of 1968 was basically the blueprint for Republican politics for the next 40 years -- this idea that the moral backbone of America are the ordinary middle American hard-working families. A new political alignment was coming into place in which what Nixon would eventually call the "silent majority."

More stories from our This Weekend in 1968 series


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