After dinner, we went to a television station across the street from the motel to witness another campaign ritual, “The Nixon Format.” This is a statewide hour television show that Nixon tapes in major cities with an audience of Nixon boosters, but with a panel of questioners—doctor, worker, housewife, Negro, etc.—who are supposed to be a local cross-section. This has been very effective both because Nixon is genuinely good at it, and because, with no professionals and simple answers instead of debate, he is unlikely to suffer by comparison or be put under pressure. (No one has forgotten the famous you ‘won’t-have-Nixon-to-kick-around-anymore’ fiasco, in which Nixon so publicly exceeded his breaking point. That’s the main reason he is used lightly and kept away from critics; a technique, of course, to which the front-runner is traditionally entitled.) Before each show, no matter how minor, he gathers his thoughts alone in some noiseless room for a half hour or so. He learned to be respectful of television’s power in ’60, and he’s taking no chances.
This evening, in response to questions, he favored leaving gun control up to the states and instituting a mandatory prison sentence for any crime committed with a gun; said of Johnson and Humphrey that “Neither Governor Agnew nor myself are raising questions of their loyalty” (“I’m glad there are no traitors running this year,” muttered the Time correspondent to my left); said that air and water pollution could best be handled by “tax incentives to industry,” not Federal legislation; upheld his previous statement that the Rutgers’ professor who spoke well on campus of the Viet Cong should be fired (he was); agreed with a student questioner that the FBI had no place on campus, “unless of course there is an issue involving the security of the United States”; and, reiterated his stand that he couldn’t say what his Vietnamese policy would be while Paris negotiations were going on.
Normally, the questions aren’t followed up; Nixon just proceeds to the next panelist. But Jack McKinney, a Democrat and the host of a television talk show, broke the spell by objecting to asking for further information on camera. There followed an exchange which ended with McKinney saying we were being asked to vote “on a wink and a smile” on the vital issue of Vietnam, and for a moment, the old shaky-jowled Nixon came through. He went back to Vietnam phrases from The Speech, and the moment was gone.
I went back to the hotel dragged down by an unreasoning, unshakable depression. We were going back to the ‘50s again, back to Martinis and anti-Communism and Madras minds. It hadn’t been very pleasant at the time, and having come so close to basic social changes made it, as Bobby Kennedy would have said, unacceptable.
“It’s a phenomenon we all suffer from when we first join up,” said a British journalist. “A sort of re-entry phrase, I think. With this campaign, and with most Western countries right now, we’re in for a time of reaction. We’re re-entering the past.”
An unprecedented event on the Nixon tour: a visit to a Negro neighborhood. Just before nine on this misty morning, our three busses rolled into Progress Shopping Plaza, a big new Philadelphia shopping and office center being built by black capital and black management. Our first schedules had said nothing about it, but our revised schedules indicated a rally. There were twenty black faces there—five carrying two-way radios and other marks of Secret Service men—but a Nixon staffman said there wasn’t a crowd because Nixon’s arrival hadn’t been announced in time.
The press and staff piled out, making the white-black ratio a comfortable four to one, and Reverend Leon Sullivan—confident, good-looking, a kind of black Sammy Glick who was clearly accustomed to dealing with The Man—showed a very nervous, oohing and ahhing Nixon what the future layout would be. It was impressive. Supermarkets, shops, small factories for the making of clothes and electronic supplies, a management training school: Reverend Sullivan explained it all in loving and expansive detail while Nixon said, “hmmm, I see, isn’t that interesting” or “right, right” after every phrase, and rubbed his sweating palms together. The candidate was clearly eager to say something, and before Sullivan was quite finished, he did. “Now, what you fellas need,” Nixon said seriously, “is economic power.” Some of the younger men around Sullivan looked disbelieving, but the Reverend just smiled and let The Man stand in the middle of a multi-million-dollar black-owned shopping center, and deliver his high school civics lecture. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Nixon went on, “there’s one door you people haven’t gone through yet—oh you’ve accomplished some very important things, of course, but there’s one door you must open—and that’s the door to black capitalism. The boy in the slums must have hope he can one day own the grocery store on his corner; he must have something to work for. That’s what my program of black capitalism is all about. You fellas have got to get a piece of the action.”