If these men had ranged back and forth across the political spectrum, wasn’t it possible that Richard Nixon had done the same? Well, at least enough to make him more tolerable than Humphrey? If all of us, congenital liberals for the most part, were willing to bypass the voting right we had been educated, or brainwashed, into believing was sacred and/or effective, shouldn’t we also be willing to vote for a Republican? Not just a Democrat-in-disguise like Lindsay, or even Javits, but an honest-to-God mainstream Republican?
I’m not sure how many of us, the McCarthy-McGovern-Kennedy supporters, were seriously considering a vote for Nixon qua Nixon during all these discussions. We still regarded him, even the first-time voters who had no memory of him in office, with a mixture of fear (would he still believe the Adlai Stevensons of the world were “spreading pro-Communist propaganda”?) and boredom (could we stand four years of having all human experience reduced to clichés?). But we had a lot of secondary reasons. Hawkish though he had always been, he at least had no reason to defend this Vietnam war, and therefore might end it sooner. As one of the conservative white middle class, he might be able to move them more easily. Mightn’t it be better to have a pragmatist with minimal philosophy who listened to opinion polls, than an ideologue like Humphrey who seemed still to believe we should be the world’s policeman? And finally, emotions came into play again: we wanted to punish Humphrey and the Democratic Party. It seemed they would benefit by defeat.
Besides, Nixon appeared destined to be President no matter what we did. The more we speculated, the fewer personal impressions or hard information we could come up with. Would familiarity breed more or less contempt for Nixon than it had for Humphrey? As the only one present with a press card, I was designated to become a kind of Manchurian candidate on Nixon’s campaign plane; a personal correspondent who would report—not the respectful, circumspect news one reads in the New York Times—but Nixon’s behavior and the atmosphere of the men around him, and anecdotes revelatory of character; the sort of things politicians tell each other in the Senate cloakroom. Bearing in mind that New York constituency bounded by Zen macrobiotic or soul food on the Left and La Grenouille on the Right, I was supposed to just hang around and keep my eyes and ears open.
And so I did.
There are a whole series of places in New York designed solely to make out-of-towners feel at home—The Playboy Club, those big Times Square motor inns, a certain kind of Midwestern cafeteria—and the heart-of-America Nixon campaign was stopping for a brief fund-raising banquet at one of them: the Americana Hotel, a little bit of Detroit right here in downtown Manhattan. In the lobby, middle-aged women who wore wrist watches and dyed-to-match shoes with their evening gowns were escorted by self-conscious husbands in black tie and cummerbunds. This $1000-a-plate dinner, and a simultaneous Agnew banquet in Los Angeles, were being seen on closed circuit television at banquets in other cities. The net take was said to be nearly $5 million, but the impact on me was not cash but Instant Nostalgia; nostalgia for a Midwestern childhood in which these banquet-goers had been the respectable burghers, and my high school mates—football playing, Negro-hating Hungarians and Poles—had gone to work in their factories and filling stations. Nothing had changed, not one healthy face, or dry-cleaned dress, or John Dewey heart. Could they have been flash-frozen since 1952?
The high point of the evening was a tanned and hearty Richard Nixon standing on stage with arms above his head, fingers moving up and down in his odd, benedictory “V” sign, to acknowledge a standing ovation. He was clearly at ease. He was, as Art Linkletter said in his introduction, “a man whose time has come,” and the New York Republicans who came up for their moment of waving and smiling—Javits, Goodell, and Lindsay—looked sheepish and ill-at-ease beside him.
Then came what the newsmen around me said was The Speech: that collection of good political generalities so inexorably the same that reporters could recite it with him, and could interpret any minute change with the skill of a Kremlinologist. Thus, a seemingly innocuous sentence like Nixon’s paraphrase of Teddy Roosevelt—“This isn’t going to be a good country for any of us to live in until it’s a good country for all of us to live in”—acquires more significance when it is left out in the South. Other stock phrases—like “The most important civil right is every American’s right to safety”—become more important simply because they are left in.