Full disclosure, right here at the outset: Richard Nixon is my favorite President. Not my choice for "Greatest President" (going to have to go with FDR there) but clearly at the top of "Most Fascinating," or "Most Compulsively Readable." My interest in RN (as he often styled himself) may run in the family. My greatest-generation-era Dad (an anti-JFK Irish Catholic) voted for Nixon 5 times on the national ballot (4 winning, one losing ticket). My brother, a journalist, confessed some years back to a passion for reading Nixon biographies-- he counted 50 or so at the time that he had tucked away.
So working on the 1968 Exhibit has allowed me ample opportunity to exercise my guilty pleasure of reading about Richard Nixon. As I wrote a while back, commenting on a magazine cover that declared that "the Nixon Era Begins" with his election to the presidency in November, it seems like ALL of the Sixties -- and at least a few years of the 1970s-- was The Nixon Era. Yes, this Vice President for almost all of the 1950s lost the presidential race to JFK in 1960, and lost again two years later to Pat Brown in the California governor's race, but he always seems to be THERE, lurking around the corner, waiting, working patiently for His Time, which he seized, brilliantly, in 1968.
Not that everyone was thrilled with the outcome in November 1968, not even Republicans. A cloud of suspicion and anxiety about RN filled the airwaves and the media as the positioning and the campaigning ramped up. Early in the year, LOOK magazine hired novelist Fletcher Knebel (co-author of the 1962 best-selling Seven Days in May) to profile the presumptive candidate, and ran the story as "The Puzzling Case of Richard Nixon." There's a nice Norman Rockwell portrait of him, but also a famous photo of a shifty-eyed, scary Dick Nixon, too. The article concludes: "And so, candidate Nixon of 1968: Hawk abroad, flexible innovator at home, a loser on the comeback trail, the old pro in the familiar, dusty road of a national campaign, a man who has learned to exploit the likelihood that he'll never win a beauty prize, the loner, the hustler, the riddle."
Contrast this with this great find: The Nixon 1968 Yearbook, a wonderful, big, glossy campaign book, published the Nixon/Agnew Committee just after the nominating convention in Miami Beach in early August. On the cover: The classic "tanned, rested, and ready" photo. There are photo spreads of Nixon's baby and boyhood pictures, photos of RN's career as a member of the House of Representatives, photos and stories of his forgettable eight years as Veep. There are whole "chapters" with titles like "And This is His Partner: Pat Nixon," and "Powerful Running Mate: Ted Agnew." My favorite photos are the "candids" of his family life-- in the "Family Album" section selected by Julie and Trisha Nixon-- there's even a shot of a bare-chested (yes!) Nixon on the beach with his kids. Stark contrast to the famous photos published during Nixon's presidency of him walking "casually" -- at the suggestion of his media advisors-- on a beach,
wearing a suit and dress shoes.
The Yearbook is a very effective bit of campaign propaganda-- brilliant in its own way as were his TV commercials. You immerse yourself in it and believe in Richard Nixon as 1968 America's greatest hope -- just for a second.