The PBS documentary, "Nixon's the One: How Tricky Dick Stole the Sixties (and Changed America Forever)," is airing this week. An accompanying feature, based on the documentary, ran in the March/April 2010 issue of Boca Raton, written by Gaspar Gonzalez.
For a sneak peek at the documentary (with a voice-over by Dick Cavett), visit nixonstheone.org.
Below is an excerpt from the feature in Boca Raton by Gonzalez.
The Convention Twist
Miami Beach was a carnivalesque backdrop for the first Republican convention held south of the Mason-Dixon line in more than a hundred years. To Norman Mailer, who covered the proceedings, the area hotels were like "white refrigerators six and eight and twelve stories high, twenty stories high, shaped like sugar cubes and ice-cube trays on edge, like mosques and palaces."
Richard Nixon and his entourage checked into the Hilton Plaza. His main challenger for the nomination, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, was a few miles up the street, at the Americana. Nixon and Rockefeller had been rivals since the early 1960s, when Nixon had relocated to Manhattan following his loss to Pat Brown. Fearing that Nixon might build a political following in New York, Rockefeller had frozen him out of Republican state politics. Now, Nixon had a chance to return the cold-shoulder treatment - and snatch the biggest prize of all from Rockefeller.
Nixon had done the math before landing in Miami. Once the convention got under way, he knew he could outrun Rockefeller to the 667 delegate votes needed to bag the nomination. What he hadn't counted on was the emergence of a second challenger. But that's exactly what happened on Monday, Aug. 5, the start of convention week. "Ronald Reagan makes a last minute entrance into the presidential race," recounts Perlstein, "and he's basically [seen as] the rock star of the 1968 convention."
The 57-year-old former movie actor was enjoying a meteoric rise in politics. Elected governor of California two years earlier - the same office that had eluded Nixon in 1962 - Reagan had burnished his image as a no-nonsense conservative by cracking down on hippies, Vietnam War protesters, and student radicals at Berkeley. Now, he was looking to take an even bigger step up the political ladder. "The Reagan people of California came to Florida to try and create a 'Reagan for President' program in '68," says Kirk, "and it created turmoil."
Nixon's plans appeared to be going up in smoke. "There's this prairie fire [at the convention] that, basically, all these hard-fought delegates that Richard Nixon has been lining up since 1966 were going to break for Ronald Reagan," explains Rick Perlstein, author of the best-selling Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.
Nixon himself was among the first to perceive the endgame that Rockefeller and Reagan were pursuing. "It was not long before a new catchword began making the rounds in Miami Beach: erosion," Nixon remembered years later. "Both Rockefeller and Reagan had an interest in convincing delegates that I had not yet sewn up the nomination, and they joined forces to attempt to show that my strength was eroding." Nixon's opponents hoped to deadlock the nomination and throw the vote to the convention floor.
The Insurance Policy
The eleventh-hour campaigning took on a frantic tone, as Rockefeller and Reagan loyalists made late-night visits to delegates staying in those "white refrigerators" up and down the beach, hoping to pry votes loose from Nixon. Of particular concern to Nixon was Reagan's wooing of Southern delegates. The pro-segregation voters of the South had always deemed Nixon, seen as a moderate on racial issues, somewhat suspect. Southern Republicans wanted to hold the line on civil rights, and no one was sure Nixon could be counted on.
Needing the South to secure the nomination, Nixon went to the one man whose blessing could provide him with the insurance he needed. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was a former Democrat who had switched parties over integration. Next to Alabama governor George Wallace, he was perhaps America's most outspoken segregationist. Nixon sought out Thurmond at the convention and cut a deal that would put to rest doubts about Nixon's loyalties.
"He basically promised that Strom Thurmond would have veto power over not only who his vice-presidential pick was going to be, but who his Supreme Court justices were going to be," says Perlstein. In a back-room deal that would change American politics for decades, the Party of Lincoln was effectively handed over to the very people who, had they been around, would have opposed the Emancipation Proclamation.
With intrigue swirling around the convention floor and the TV cameras trained on him, Thurmond, dressed in a gray suit and resplendent blue tie - a nice touch for the first convention broadcast in colorâ€”took to the podium Aug. 7 and bellowed his support for his new ally.
"I expect to cast my vote for that world statesman and that great American, Richard M. Nixon - and South Carolina's votes will go with me!" It was all the signal the Southern states needed. One by one, they fell in behind Nixon. Alabama gave him 14 delegate votes; Mississippi, 20; Georgia, 21. Florida, the state that had become his home away from home, gave him a whopping 32. In the end, he outpaced Rockefeller and Reagan easily.
For Nixon, it was the culmination of a long uphill climb. The next night, it was his turn to stand at the podium. Thrusting his hands in the air, flashing that awkward "V-for-Victory" sign that had become his trademark, he basked in the glow of the moment and in the roar of "We want Nixon!"
Some would later claim he had sold his soul for the nomination, but to Tricky Dick, winning was all that mattered. The general election was less than three months away. His soon-to-be-infamous Southern strategy, forged in Miami Beach, would carry him into the White House.