In the spring of 1972, long before his three campaigns for the White House, Pat Buchanan was the 33-year-old special assistant in the Nixon White House who had coined the term “silent majority” in the 1968 campaign and now was pondering how his boss could reach that part of the American electorate and secure re-election.
As the Democratic primaries progressed, several things became evident to Buchanan. One was that the kind of “Kennedyesque charisma” that so thrilled liberal-leaning journalists of the time now had extremely limited appeal to the American electorate; the candidate who most self-consciously evoked the Kennedy mystique, John Lindsay, was knocked out of contention early. The other was that the Democratic Party, despite the best efforts of its old guard to prevent it, was, on a national level, positioning itself as an acolyte of the New Left, as exemplified by George McGovern’s skillfully choreographed rise from also-ran to contender to nominee.
This led Buchanan to formulate a proposal as to how President Nixon should position himself as the GOP candidate: as the spokesman for “square America” versus the “radical America” embodied in the McGovern insurgency. This was a good idea in many ways: by that point in the bell-bottom decade, a lot of Americans had longer hair and more flamboyant clothes than had been the case four years earlier. But this did not mean that bearing a passing resemblance to Hippius americanus, circa 1967, meant thinking like that specimen.
Indeed, many Americans were already looking back with longing to the days before the tumult of the 1960s. In February 1972, a pilot filmed the previous year, set in the late Eisenhower era, aired on the ABC series Love, American Style. The same month, the 1950s-set musical Grease proved a surprise hit on Broadway. That in turn led to George Lucas nailing down the backing to film American Graffiti and to the pilot getting the greenlight to become the series Happy Days.
These developments were in the near future, but Buchanan could sense that America, after years of tension, was looking for stability. And what evoked a sense of stability better than the America of the 1950s? This, in turn, provided the basis for structuring the themes of the 1972 Nixon campaign. Over three years, the Nixon White House had been involved in its share of controversy, but the President had also put into place important and far-reaching initiatives in sectors of public policy from the environment to public health to the empowerment of women and minorities. There was also the fact that, after the radical economic moves of 1971, the nation had headed out of recession and was enjoying its most prosperous period since the mid-1960s. Finally, there was the epochal opening to China and detente with the USSR – foreign-policy triumphs that could only be undertaken by an assured and experienced Chief Executive.
It was plain to Buchanan that emphasizing the stability that had been won over RN’s first term, and contrasting it with the unpredictable and potentially chaotic nature of a McGovern presidency, offered the best way to persuade voters to pull the lever for Nixon that November. Therefore the TV and radio commercials that were aired after Nixon’s renomination, and the overall tone of the campaign, emphasized this, with the result that the President won forty-nine states and an overwhelming percentage of the popular vote, Nixon’s formal public demeanor served to emphasize that he was the President of all Americans, and reinforced his image as the man who could be relied on to get the country through four more challenging years. This had great appeal who were alienated by the radicalism that overtook the Democratic convention that summer.
Forty years later, former Massachusetts governor, and now presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney faces a somewhat different situation. He is the challenger; a liberal with ideological roots in the 1960s is the incumbent President. But Romney has a quality that may help him this fall, as discussed by David Paul Kuhn in the Real Clear Politics site this week: he evokes the America of a halcyon era to a greater degree than President Obama does.
In 2008, the Democratic nominee’s preference for dark suits and white shirts was sometimes the subject of comment; journalists would occasionally remark that, with his ready grin and cheerful personality, he invoked the sitcom dad as personified by Robert Young or Hugh Beaumont – that is to say, that persona which Ronald Reagan also embodied as the host of General Electric Theater in the airwaves of Ike’s time. This helped win him election.
But today, after three years of alternating the rhetoric of consensus with policies that have increasingly divided American voters, the President has alienated a substantial part of the electorate. This is what gives Governor Romney his chance.
Kuhn begins with an account of Pat Buchanan’s square-vs-radical formulation, then continues:
Pundits tend to describe Mitt Romney’s vanilla disposition as a liability. The Washington Post recently asked, “Why does Mitt Romney seem so stiff?” But there’s a more practical question: How much does it matter?
Romney exudes 1950s man. Ronald Reagan did too. Even Reagan’s pompadour recalled the “good old days.” Romney’s perpetually coiffed hair may as well. In 1996, a Knight-Ridder poll found that Americans — including a plurality of men, women, liberals and conservatives — saw the 1950s as the best decade to live and raise children in. Romney’s disposition could evoke this rose-colored memory. He’s more Ward Cleaver than Don Draper.
In the America of 1980, of course, Happy Days was just starting to slip in the ratings after years as America’s most popular show, and two years earlier Grease had become the highest-grossing movie musical of all time. The country was in the mood for a measure of serenity after the 1970s had served, in too many ways, to continue the tumult of the middle and late 1960s, and it saw in the cheerful ex-governor of California a chance to recapture, in at least some way, the virtues of the 1950s.
This mood was still strong, as the 1996 poll shows, even in the Clinton years – indeed, that President’s greatest advantage in office was that the economic prosperity of his time reminded Americans of the prosperity of an age past. And it may be gaining ground again, as the recent flurry of TV series set in the early 1960s (a time closer in temper to the years before than those after) may serve to show.
In this respect, Romney’s cultural coordinates, which were recognizably formed in a United States that chuckled at Gomer Pyle, sang along with the Beach Boys in their “Surfin’ USA” days, and enjoyed a steak-and-baked potato dinner – and voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – may resonate with Americans to a more substantial degree than our President’s partiality to the 1970s, which he sometimes expresses in song, as in his recent rendition of a few bars of “Let’s Stay Together.”
Romney cannot compensate by simply mimicking Nixon’s 1972 strategy. There is no contemporary cultural frame that resonates like “acid, abortion and amnesty.” Instead, he can run on competence vs. incompetence. It de-personalizes the attack. Independents do not share conservatives’ disdain for Obama. Thus, Romney must bear-hug. His best tactic is to portray Obama as a good man but not the best man for the job, or up to the job. And Romney seems to understand that. “I think he’s a nice person, I just don’t think we can afford him any longer,” Romney said in a recent speech.
In a lot of ways, Romney’s “square” demeanor works for him. Even his Mormon faith, viewed by some as a liability, can work to his advantage: one reason for the expansion in Latter-Day-Saints membership is that its houses of worship often seem aesthetically rooted in the comforting images of the Eisenhower era. The more that he can present himself as a figure of continuity with the past, while offering stability with the future, the more he can evoke the kind of appeal Reagan had – and even his so-called “square” demeanor, as RN demonstrated in 1972, can be an advantage.
Robert Nedelkoff is a writer with the Richard Nixon Foundation.