President Nixon delivers his first inaugural address on January 20, 1969.
By Chris Barber
Richard Nixon made another telling appearance on one of television’s most compelling dramas of the last ten years.
Mad Men, a television series set in the 1960s that centers its dramatic storyline among ad agency executives and their lives, made its period debut in 1960 when Vice President Nixon lost one of the closest presidential races in the nation’s history. The new and last season of the 1960s epoch pits its cast at Richard Nixon’s pinnacle moment–at the apex of his grand political comeback and ascendence to the presidency in 1969.
In the first episode of the new season, in a scene that lasts all but 30 seconds, creator Matthew Weiner establishes the historical period with President Nixon’s inaugural address and aptly brings his viewers into the societal climate as America teeters toward the end of a tumultuous decade. The cast of Mad Men, who are nonetheless players set in a time of changing social mores, appear to just be hanging on as they adjust to unforeseeable change. Their challenges are premised on their profession as creative advertisers, yet President Nixon’s message unforgivingly personifies their fledgling mentality, as well as the collective mentality of the entire nation.
Staging President Nixon’s inaugural address as the metaphorical backbone of Mad Men’s Season 7 premier reveals the allure of his message.
What was Richard Nixon thinking when writing his inaugural address and what made it relevant to the Mad Men psyche? The answer can be found in his speech notes.
In his typed notes, RN draws inspiration from previous addresses, namely those most memorable in American lore. Alluding to the era for which he would become president, RN writes that “the most memorable inaugs have come at turning points.” 1969 certainly presented itself to be just that–RN would not balk at this opportunity.
Adding to the urgency of simplicity, RN shies from using specific anecdotes, such as inviting the Russians into a race for the moon. Instead, he encourages eloquence, simplicity, and the factor of let’s-get-on-with-it. After all, RN believes that “in terms of this speech, it will be remembered not for how it was said, but for how it reads.”
Though the urgency of the time period guided much of RN’s speech preparation, he still wanted Americans to catch a larger slice of history, to help them see that the time now would be a pivotal juncture within the entire scope of their nation’s history as it was approaching its bicentennial anniversary.
To achieve this aim, RN would have to excite change. But how would he inspire change without telling the public that they needed to master it—that they were no good and needed to be told to improve? The key would be to curry a collective optimism, for which he addresses in his notes:
Whole idea of the power to destroy, the power to create…the country wants hope, to be told they’re pretty damn good, that it is a great nation, that this is a period of great hope, a great time to be alive. Not the politics of joy — but, this can be the great age for America, and for the world — it won’t be great for America unless it’s great for the world, and here in America it won’t be great for some of us unless it’s great for all of us.
To be sure, America had achieved economic greatness. It had become the best fed and the best housed, yet it was the “richest and unhappiest civilization in history, the most lawless.”
For RN, America would have to regain its greatness not through materialism, but through spirit. He addressed this theme in his notes, citing “a little turn away from the purely materialistic, from the notion that more and more money can solve the problems.” It is here that inspired the portion of the speech for which Mad Men built this particular scene.
In the first episode, an exiled Donald Draper, shunned from the company he helped found due to unforeseen defeats, is seated in the living room he once shared with his wife, tuned into President Nixon’s inauguration. Queue the audience’s realization that it is now 1969 in the Mad Men world–January 20 to be exact — the day Richard Nixon was sworn in as President of the United States. As Draper shines his shoes, we are drawn to the President’s words as he addresses the nation:
We find ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but failing into raucous discord on earth.
We are caught in war, wanting peace. We are torn by division, wanting unity. We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment. We see tasks that need doing, waiting for hands to do them.
For a moment, as the camera focuses in on Don while he pauses, he reflects on his life in these words. And for a moment, America sees itself.