Editor’s Notebook: Stage directions

August 10, 2023 4:55 am

Richard Nixon (right) stands with fellow Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller during the 1968 New Hampshire Republican primary on March 11, 1968. (Keystone | Getty Images)

A former president – and current presidential candidate – visited New Hampshire this week. I found a livestream of his Tuesday afternoon speech so I could follow along, and even from that distance the whole thing was dizzying.

First of all, it looked really hot in there. (The candidate himself put the temperature at about 110 degrees, though he’s not known for having a stranglehold on facts.) Second, the suburban venue was packed like a Fenway-bound subway car on game day. Those two physical factors alone made me grateful to be at my desk 35 miles north, and that was before the performance started.

Often, my internal monologue during a stump speech is that of a detached spectator. “Hey, that’s actually a pretty detailed policy statement” or “Ah, a chunk of red meat for the base” or “Hmm, I’ll have to check but I’m pretty sure that (stat, quote, anecdote, etc.) is (not completely true, totally false, a lie and he knows it, etc.).” But sometimes I’m just a guy in the audience mesmerized by the iconoclasm of modern political scripts and the skill of the performers – especially this week’s visitor.

I’m not sure when the stage directions changed.

Years ago, my fascination with Richard Nixon, his closest aides, and his presidency (which I was born into) brought me to Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President” series. I recommend the books – spanning the presidential campaigns of 1960-1972 – if for no other reason than each volume is a remarkable example of journalism as history. Not only that, White somehow manages consistent thrills, and not just for history buffs and political junkies, without ever abandoning his trademark earnestness. He is a sharp witness without a rooting interest – except in the arenas of decency and democracy.

About a quarter of the way into 1968’s volume, White sets up Nixon’s “first formal speech, the campaign kick-off” at the long-gone New Hampshire Highway Hotel in Concord: “[H]e speaks to several hundred Republicans eating their roast beef, and begins,” White writes.

Before I tell you how, according to White, Nixon kicked things off in ’68, I want to acknowledge that it’s not so much that the political performers have changed as the performances themselves. We know, through thousands of hours of Oval Office tapes released during Watergate, what Nixon sounded like off the stage in all its ugliness and depravity. But what he said in Concord 55 years ago to launch his bid for the presidency offers insight into how his campaign viewed the people who would choose the Republican nominee:

“The finest hours in our nation’s history have been a triumph of the American spirit. Let us continue.” 

A solid, if hackneyed, start. From there, he criticized the incumbent.

“When the strongest nation in the world can be tied down for four years in the war in Vietnam, with no end in sight; when the richest nation in the world cannot manage its own economy; when the nation with the greatest tradition of respect for the rule of law is plagued by rampant lawlessness . . . I don’t think America can afford four more years of Lyndon Johnson in the White House.”

Note that he didn’t paint himself as a victim despite his bitter election loss to the JFK-LBJ ticket in 1960, nor did he attack Johnson personally. Nixon was telling New Hampshire voters that the 1968 election wasn’t about vengeance or righting a past wrong, whatever motivations he held in his heart, but changing direction for the good of an entire nation. And then he made his big, vote-snagging pitch to Granite State Republicans:

“We need leadership that recognizes that the real crisis of America today is a crisis of the spirit. What America needs most today is what it once had, but has lost: the lift of a driving dream.”

The lift of a driving dream. Again, America knows a lot more about Richard Nixon in 2023 than we did in 1968, but just think for a moment about this particular appeal to voters. He and his team believed the best way to win a Republican primary in the first-in-the-nation state was not to sell fear and hatred but a dream – no matter how rooted in myth – of something not only better but so close you could almost touch it.

Imagine that.

Watching Tuesday afternoon’s production, I was reminded again how dark our political performances have become. The worst part is that I suspect he was giving his modern audience exactly what it wants.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin. Email: [email protected]