Behind us, a choir began to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” For a moment, it didn’t quite sink in. “They shouldn’t sing that hymn,” said the Midwestern reporter softly. “It doesn’t belong to them.” June 6th. A long slow train. Old hopes that I had managed to forget since that first re-entry phase despair a week ago washed over me again. Only worse.
Governor Kirk and Nixon stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders. A banner read, “Register Commies Not Guns,” and the valley of beaming satisfied faces ignored the hymn. I discovered, to my humiliation, that I was crying. It suddenly seemed that we were surrounded by the enemy—by anti-life, conserving, neighbor-fearing people: or rather by good people whose neighbor-fearing instincts were being played upon—and that the enemy was going to win. Not just this election, which might not matter much, but the power to impose themselves, here and in many other countries where waves of reaction were beginning, for a long dark time to come. I had got through funerals, Chicago, and most personal sadnesses dry-eyed, but this ridiculous rally in Tampa was too much. The hymn went on and on, and the Nixon cheers went on and on. It wasn’t the victory of one man or the death of another. It was the death of the future. And of our youth, because we might be rather old before the conservers left, and compassionate men came back.
The hymn stopped. Nixon had got to the city-listing part of The Speech when a small group carrying black flags of mourning and peace signs walked slowly out. The crowd booed them, and Nixon deplored them. No contest.
I woke up this morning in the Key Biscayne motel where the press corps is being pampered for the weekend, incorporating into a dream the chant, “Nixon afraid to debate Humphrey. Why? Nixon afraid to tell the people the truth. Why?,” I had the feeling it had been repeated over and over in the dream, and it continued awake. A small plane, I learned from the bellboy, was circling overhead with a loudspeaker. And a wired-for-sound boat was cruising back and forth off the beach.
As usual, the Humphrey camp had miscalculated. Nixon was not staying at the motel, but with Bebe Rebozo, a longtime friend and local millionaire, who kept a posh vacation home nearby.
But reactions are truthful that early in the morning, and I discovered I was cheering that little mis-scheduled, bad-taste plane along. The chant was ridiculous, but I was glad to hear it. There was no rational choice between the Plastic Man and the Cowardly Lion, but there was an emotional one. Nixon was intelligent and pragmatic, but what good is intelligence in the service of no instinct at all? At least there was some dim chance that Humphrey was still emotionally available. And that might make a crucial difference to me, as well as black people and poor people. It might even make a difference in Vietnam. Can a man put all his energies into ending the war, after all, if he can’t identify with the victims?
As Nixon himself says, “People who talk about the New Nixon didn’t know the Old Nixon very well.”