Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ahead of His Time

Having a summer cold is awful. But if there’s one advantage, it’s that you get to catch up on your reading. Currently, I’m working on White House Ghosts: The Presidents and Their Speechwriters.”

It’s a pretty left-handed book, being that the author, Robert Schlesinger, is the son of JFKspeechwriter, Arthur Schlesinger. Still, I was surprised at the fair treatment he gives Richard Nixon. Every other chapter applauds the Democrats and laughs at the Republicans.

However, Schlesinger writes his chapters on Nixon with a twinge of sadness. When it came to speechwriting and keeping on top of his speechwriters, Nixon knew his stuff. He and Lyndon Johnson had the misfortune to follow in the considerable speechwriting footsteps of Kennedy.

Kennedy and Ted Sorenson were practically roommates, so that Sorenson knew what Kennedy was thinking before Kennedy knew what Kennedy was thinking. The first rule of thumb among presidential speechwriters is that the writer must give the president all the credit for the speech.

The book is full of contrasting presidential styles, backbiting and sniping among the speechwriters, and plenty of good tips for anyone who finds themselves in the position of writing speeches. Above all, the person giving the speech must have buy-in or the speech won’t work.

Every president after FDR found themselves fumbling for the Big Idea, that phrase that would serve as the president’s signature policy. Obviously, FDR’s was the New Deal. Presidents since then had struggled for that signature. Some wore well with the press – The Great Society. And others, with the American Public.

Nixon didn’t like the idea of talking down to the American people. In spite of being, or maybe because he was, a lawyer, he strove for concepts that average people would understand. “Joe Six-Pack” he liked to call them.

He was preparing a speech in 1969 about a proposed build-up in Vietnam. He would have to ask for the support of Americans already tired of the war. During the 1968 campaign, he had spoke about “quiet Americans” and the “quiet majority.” Vice Presidential candidate Spiro Agnew declared that it was “time for America’s silent majority to stand up for its rights.”

Nixon would use the phrase in his Nov. 3 Vietnam War speech. He would talk about ending the war and winning the peace. But it was his reference – in lower case letters in his notes – to the “silent majority” that elicited 50,000 telegrams and 30,000 letters.

The reaction came as a surprise to Nixon. “It was one thing to make a rhetorical appeal to the Silent Majority – it was another actually to hear from them.” If he’d known it was going to catch on that way, he would have put the phrase in capital letters, he said.

He was predicted to win the 1972 presidential election, which he did, by a landslide, only making the whole business of Watergate even more incomprehensible to the Silent Majority he had championed.

The burglars, or “plumbers”, had broken into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters allegedly in search of proof of foreign contributors to the Democrat presidential campaign. All America really heard was that these guys had broken in and that the President tried to cover up for them (his only actual crime) when, in the opinion of the Silent Majority, he ought to have burned the tapes and let the whole lot of them swing. They’d been trying to blackmail him for more money to keep silent.

It was a sad and foolish end to an otherwise decent presidency, from a president who had a good sense of speechwriting and of the mood of the average American. The Democrats and their propaganda machine – with a good deal of help from Nixon himself – got rid of Nixon.

They didn’t find it quite so easy to get rid of the Silent Majority, though. Seven years later, we would elect a popular, Conservative president. A transition in radio broadcasting from the AM band to the FM left a void which conservative talk radio quickly filled, led by the mighty Rush Limbaugh.

Then cable television began to mature, new enough and underestimated enough for at least one conservative news outlet to take hold. Finally, the Internet was born. The Liberals smugly assumed this was completely their territory, that “older” Americans would never catch on.

Now they’re trying to play catch-up, using their current bureaucratic powers to restrict the content on cable and on the Internet. Kind of like closing the door after the horse gets out of the barn.

I remember when Spiro Agnew used the phrase “silent majority’. I was about nine years old. I was 13 when the Watergate break-in occurred. I remembered Nixon’s words about a New American Revolution, too. I kept them in mind when I stood up with some other students to protest a communist history teacher’s hijacking of our American History course.

Watergate put an end to what might otherwise have been an admirable political career. It didn’t silence the Silent Majority Nixon envisioned, though, or the New American Revolution they would lead.

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