So we left off in November, 1968. Nixon has just been elected President! And all over America, people were happy!
Well, some people were. People who thought that equal rights for blacks was “a gift.” People who were afraid of activism. People who thought sharing the equality pie meant someone had to do without.
People who had fallen for Nixon’s slogan, “This time vote like your whole world depended on it.”
And the people who were against Nixon?
Weirdly, a whole bunch of articles appeared. They blamed “complacent” Democrats. They blamed Wallace and his populist message that railed against “federal judges playing God” and elitist newspaper editors. Young people didn’t want to vote for Humphrey. Humphrey himself blamed Eugene McCarthy for not endorsing him until a week before the election.
In other words: everybody found somebody to blame. And in the days leading up to the inauguration, there were protests and marches in Washington. It became the largest anti-war protest ever, with about half a million mostly peaceful protesters attending.
It also became a watershed event in the women’s rights movement.
Remember, this was a time when “nice” girls wore white gloves and girdles when they left the house. When women could legally be paid less for the same work just because they were women. When married women were property of their husbands.
The protests had begun with the showing of a film made by the Black Panthers, which seemed to indicate that it was a big tent. July 19 had begun with several male anti-war speakers addressing the crowd. But when invited speaker Marilyn Salzman Webb got up to talk about women’s liberation and was joined by Shulamith Firestone, some men in the crowd booed them. And made insulting remarks.
And what did the leader of MOBE (the group that had organized the protests) do?
Earlier in the day, he had rebuked the crowd for heckling James Johnson. Johnson had been an army recruit at Fort Hood and had refused to serve in Vietnam. He was arrested and served time in Leavenworth. When he addressed the crowd, he talked about black soldiers and about the labor movement. What I’m working up to is that the protests were already about more than the war.
Anyway, what the leader of MOBE did: He told Marilyn Salzman Webb to “shut Shulie up.”
Shulamith Firestone wasn’t the kind of woman to take being told to shut up lightly. She’d worked as tirelessly as any of them on organizing the march. She had worked against the war, and for civil rights and for many other causes. She didn’t understand why women’s issues were not considered important enough to be part of the anti-war movement. Webb, for her part, was pretty much kicked out of SDS after her speech. She would later reflect that the event made the leaders of the women’s liberation movement build their own organizations and their own politics. But she still regretted that the Left, from which all of them had come, was closed to them.
So, Nixon gets sworn in even though some people threw rocks and burning miniature American flags at the motorcade (at the time Presidents rode in the car, which is why Jimmy Carter walking to the White House eight years later was so profoundly affecting). And he gives his first speech, in which he says, “The greatest honor that history can bestow is the title of peacemaker.” (These are the words on his tombstone. Spoiler alert, he’s dead.) He said that his administration would be known for easing tensions between the superpowers.
He also delivered a message of conciliation and hope.
“Let us build a structure of peace in the world in which the weak are as safe as the strong — in which each respects the right of the other to live by a different system — in which those who would influence others will do so by the strength of their ideas, and not by the force of their arms. Let us accept that high responsibility not as a burden, but gladly — gladly because the chance to build such a peace is the noblest endeavor in which a nation can engage.”
Damn, that guy could give a speech!
Once the dust had settled, Nixon moved into the White House and started being President. So, how did he do?
He appointed his political rival George Romney (yep, Mitt’s dad) to his cabinet. And then he went to a neighborhood in DC that had been torn apart by riots to meet the people and shake hands with them. He hosted a dinner for the visiting Australian Prime Minister. He criticized the Johnson administration for allowing offshore drilling and appointed a team of scientists and engineers to deal with an oil spill off Santa Clara–and to figure out how to keep such a disaster from happening again in the future. He spoke to a lunch meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters, telling them that his administration had entered peace negotiations with Vietnam, but he couldn’t give them details.
A couple of months into his term, former President Dwight Eisenhower died. Nixon had been Eisenhower’s Vice President. Eisenhower had depended on Nixon while he was in office; Nixon had carried out much of the foreign policy. But in 1960, when a reporter asked Eisenhower to name one of Nixon’s accomplishments while in office, Eisenhower replied, “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Did Nixon decide never to speak to Eisenhower again?
No. Nixon and Eisenhower were grownups. Eisenhower apologized. And when he died, Nixon and Johnson both went to his funeral. Where no fistfights broke out. Where Nixon said, “Some men are considered great because they lead great armies or they lead powerful nations. For eight years now, Dwight Eisenhower has neither commanded an army nor led a nation; and yet he remained through his final days the world’s most admired and respected man, truly the first citizen of the world.”
To put it simply: he governed. Nixon came into the office of the President offering an olive branch to his old enemies (he even appointed a Democrat to a high-level position in his administration). He wanted to solve problems. He wanted to fulfill his promise to get out of Vietnam. He acted like a politician, like someone ready to work with Congress and local government to solve the problems of America.
He looked like a President.
But…there’s more to this story.