This year marks 50 years since Richard Nixon won the presidential election in 1968, beating then Democratic nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The beginning of his presidency marked the end of an era of tumultuous activism across the country, anti -Vietnam protests and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boston was not spared from that volatility. Nixon’s election also marked a shift to more conservative politics. As part of our year long series, 1968 +50, WGBH’s Morning Edition anchor Joe Mathieu spoke with John Farrell, a presidential biographer and author of the “Richard Nixon: The Life.”
Joe Mathieu: Talk to us about the political temperature in America the day of that election.
John Farrell: It was an astonishing year, as your viewers have learned listening in the past weeks, with all the trauma that you spoke of. And there was almost a sense of exhaustion by the time that Nixon was elected. And in fact, although an awful lot is said about Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the law and order campaign, the real demagogue that year was George Wallace who was running as a third party candidate. And Nixon was seen by many, including a lot of the liberal intelligentsia, as sort of the candidate who could restore order- the rightful way of things, conventional thinking and behavior. And so you even had people like Hunter Thompson and Norman Mailer coming out and endorsing Nixon and young folks like Bob Woodward voting for him.
Mathieu: Fear and loathing on the campaign trail.
Farrell: Exactly. Yeah.
Mathieu: Massachusetts was of course home to the Kennedys. What was Nixon’s relationship with this state?
Farrell: Because Massachusetts was identified with the Kennedys, his relationship with the state was always very frosty and it went both ways. Massachusetts never loved him. And of course in 1972, when he ran for re-election, the state was the only state to vote for George McGovern. And when we finally got on into the Watergate era, the bumper sticker appeared ‘don’t blame me, I voted for McGovern’, so Massachusetts got the last laugh.
Mathieu: What do you make, though, of the political pendulum swinging toward Richard Nixon? Nobody could have imagined that the time he ran before.
Farrell: No, he was a pragmatist, a cynic, somebody who was always going to read the tea leaves. He had a wonderful political antenna. He had this way of taking his own personal grievances, identifying them in his audiences and then drawing on his own feelings to tap that resentment in the voters. He said famously once that the secret to politics is that people react to fear, not to love. They don’t teach you that in Sunday school but it’s true. And that was the way that he practiced politics so when it was required for him, for example, to try to get black votes in the late 50s and early 60s, he voted for all the major or supported all the major civil rights legislation. Then in 1968, as the country began to change, you see Nixon, the candidate, talking about how busing for racial equality is awful. You see old supporters like Jackie Robinson leaving his side. And you see an uptick in the harsh rhetoric about law and order.
Mathieu: This is sounding familiar. We keep hearing ahead of tomorrow’s elections that the Republican Party is now Donald Trump’s party and Trump has boasted, John, about getting letters from Nixon and as you suggested, well maybe you didn’t mean to but it kind of sounds like the Trump playbook.
Farrell: I personally think Trump is much more like Wallace. I think that if you look at his first two years in office, he has none of the accomplishments that Nixon had. If Donald Trump manages to turn things around in his second two years and actually get some accomplishments, then I’ll begin to listen to the comparisons but at this point I think Trump is more of a demagogue, he’s a showman, he’s a con man, much more like George Wallace than Richard Nixon.
Mathieu: Point taken. But he also knows how to harness fear as a political tool.
Farrell: Yes he does. I mean, the basic Nixonian way of arousing resentment and grievance- I call it the politics of grievance. I think Trump may have even gotten it from the Nixon playbook because back during the campaign he’s talked about things like. He used Nixonian phrases like ‘silent majority’ and ‘law and order’. They had close friends in Roy Cohn and Roger Stone so on his way up they sort of shared advisers. So there is there is a connection, I think, with Trump the candidate but not with Trump the president.
Mathieu: Are there lessons for voters today when we look back on that time in 1968?
Farrell: I think one thing that you really have to do as a voter is understand how valuable and precious that right to vote is. Nixon got in a great deal of trouble by polluting the 1972 elections- not quite the way that the Russians did last time, although both of them involved break ins at the Democratic National Committee. But Watergate was a big scare and for people of my age we remember that it was followed by these great reforms, campaign finance reforms and lobbying reform, all these were diluted over the years as the special interests came out from under the rocks and decided that they were going to exert themselves again. And I think that the power of the individual vote began to shrink. People started thinking that the game is rigged that the big guys have all the money and have all the power. But on Tuesday, I think that we will show that from all the early voting totals, that Americans have sort of been reawakened to the value of the ballot. And one thing that I hope is that in the future some of these laws like campaign finance reform and lobbying disclosure laws are reinvigorated because in one thing, Trump is right, Washington D.C. is a swamp and it needs to be drained.