Transcript: Dwight Chapin on the 1968 Presidential Campaign
Dwight Chapin served as personal aide to Candidate Richard Nixon on the 1968 Presidential Campaign
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. It is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoudation.org.
How did Richard Nixon make his improbable comeback for the presidency in 1968, 50 years ago? And what was it like to be on the inner workings of the campaign? There wasn’t anyone as closely involved as Dwight Chapin, then candidate Nixon’s personal aide. Chapin went on to serve as President Nixon’s appointment secretary and Deputy Assistant to the President. He’s been at the center of some of the most monumental events during the Nixon presidency, including serving as Acting Director of Protocol during the historic trip to China in 1972. He also oversaw the White House television office and presidential travel. Mr. Chapin, welcome.
Dwight Chapin: Nice to be with you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: You got involved in politics at a very young age. How did you come to first serve Mr. Nixon?
Dwight Chapin: I first served former Vice President, Nixon, when he ran for governor in California. I needed a summer job and my dad arranged for me to go in for an interview at the Nixon headquarters, because dad knew I’d been interested in politics. I went into the headquarters and met with Herb Kalmbach and then he took me down the hallway and I met a young man by the name of Bob Haldeman, who was the campaign manager and he hired me to be a field man. So I ran the field operations for Ventura County, Santa Barbara County and the San Fernando Valley, part of Los Angeles County and basically went around set up headquarters and so forth. In that process, of course, I got the opportunity to meet Mr. Nixon and meet some of the other key players that would be with him, had been with him in the White House and then would be with him in future campaigns like Rosemary Woods, John Ehrlichman and some others.
Jonathan Movroydis: When did you decide that you wanted more? You’d worked on the ‘62 campaign, how did you get involved six years later when the President or when the Vice President decided to run in 1968?
Dwight Chapin: Well, actually, I got involved in 1968, but I was involved in 1964 when the convention was held in San Francisco and Bob Haldeman took me there, and I served as Mr. Nixon’s aide up there in San Francisco for that convention. Then, subsequent to that, I moved to New York, and when I got to New York, I contacted Rosemary Woods in Mr. Nixon’s office and told her I would be willing to volunteer to help out however possible. And what it turned out that I would go in the evenings after work at J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency where I was employed, I would go take the subway down to Wall Street, go to the law firm where Nixon was working and I would answer correspondence. And the person kind of directing me was Mrs. Nixon. So, Mrs. Nixon really got a chance to know me and meanwhile, Mr. Nixon’s around and one thing led to another and they came to the conclusion that I would be an ideal candidate to be his personal aide for the ’68 campaign.
Jonathan Movroydis: This was a time of turmoil in America, the mid 1960s, especially 1968. From your point of view, as a young man in America, could you give us a little bit of your perspective on the times?
Dwight Chapin: Yes, it was a very turbulent time. I mean, people think it’s kind of…things are at wit’s end currently. I mean, 1968 was unbelievable. We had the two assassinations, we had riots, we had Vietnam going. I mean, Americans were concerned. They needed some stability and they wanted direction for the country. And so, it turned out to be just the opportune moment for Mr. Nixon. I mean, he had his experience in Congress, in both the House, and then the Senate. He had been vice president under Eisenhower for eight years. He had also had the advantage of being defeated, and I say advantage because it gave him a chance to think about issues and things, and then run again eight years later. So, he came on to the scene in 1968 as a person that everyone was looking to for some answers, and to give the country direction. So, it was a turbulent time. I viewed it that way, everybody, I think, viewed it that way. And lo and behold, it worked out perfectly for Mr. Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: At the time, did you believe he could win?
Dwight Chapin: I am a very optimistic person. I never believed he wouldn’t win. I always thought he would win. But I thought he was going to win in 1962 when he ran for governor, so that shows you that my judgment is a little prejudiced when it comes to Mr. Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: In his campaign chronicle, “The Making of the President 1968,” Theodore White wrote that three young aides accompanied Mr. Nixon from Manhattan to New Hampshire for the first primary that year. It was Patrick Buchanan, Ray Price, and yourself, Dwight Chapin. White says, “Amateurs all completely inexperienced in presidential politics.” Was this true and how did you all conceive of a formidable campaign operation that won that year?
Dwight Chapin: Well, it was surely true, none of us, Ray, Pat, or myself had ever been in a presidential campaign before. I think it’s interesting to say Nixon wanted to use young people. I mean, he had a lot of people on his staff and in politics at the local and state level that had never been in politics before and he always believed in bringing in new blood. He would tell me that to always have in mind that politics is the art of inclusion. And he would keep around and in various slots, or on committees, or whatever it might be, people that had been with him in prior campaigns. But the name of the game was to add to the numbers and particularly to add the energy that came from having young people around. So yes, we were amateurs, but we were following a plan, and we knew what our assignments were, and we had been tested in the months coming up to the New Hampshire primary.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you give us an idea of the campaign framework? What were the roles of John Mitchell, for example, who is considered very close to the president, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman on the campaign who would go on to become the chief of staff and the chief domestic advisor for the President? How were the roles broken up during the 1968 campaign?
Dwight Chapin: Yes, well, Bob Haldeman became chief of staff and John Ehrlichman was the head of the domestic council later on when we got to the White House. But then during the campaign itself, Nixon made some very critical decisions early on. In 1960, he had tried to hold all the reins of the campaign in his hand and run everything. He realized as he approached 1968 the mistakes that he had made in ’60. And so, he took the campaign and he really delegated, he delegated all the political operation to include the oversight of the financial side of things to John Mitchell. And Mitchell was a very strong man. He knew how to run an organization. He had the political instincts that were necessary, and so he took over all the political. Bob Haldeman ran the candidate, he ran everything that had to do with making sure that Mr. Nixon stayed on track, that he had all of the material that he needed from the speech writers, that the tour operation ran right, the advancement on and on.
Everything that was a part of that, operations that was on the airplane. And as we went around the campaign, Bob was responsible for. And reporting to Bob, was John Ehrlichman, who was the tour manager. Both Haldeman and John Ehrlichman had been advancement back in 1960. And then in 1962, Haldeman had managed that campaign for Nixon out in California. And John Ehrlichman had come to that campaign in 1962 and ran the advancement. So, everybody that was in the operation had the confidence of Mr. Nixon and he, in 1968, really delegated it out.
Jonathan Movroydis: As the President’s personal aide, you had total access to him. Bob Haldeman believed that the most important thing to the President was his time. In 1967, he wrote a memo to Richard Nixon saying that the time has come for political campaigning, its techniques and strategies to move out of the dark ages and into the brave new world of the omnipresent eye. How did the Nixon campaign indeed embrace a new style of campaigning?
Dwight Chapin: That’s very important. Bob’s memorandum really set the tone for the whole ’68 effort. He made the point to Mr. Nixon that Mr. Nixon could go around the country and campaign through rallies and in-person type meetings. Maybe he would reach, during the campaign, upwards of a million people. But on the evening news every night he was reaching…so he could reach several millions of people. And that what really mattered was television. And the name of the game was to take and to do one, sometimes two, but usually one major thing a day that would be the perfect thing for national television. We would do local type activities, so there was an ongoing campaign, but in terms of getting material for television on a certain issue or something, to do one key event a day and to take the slug of time that was left over from not doing events to use that time as what Bob labeled thinking time. And we actually took this concept right on into the white house when Nixon became president and because Nixon loved the idea of having the time to prepare, to think things through, to know how he was going to position himself in terms of the campaign, to rebut, you know, Vice President Humphrey or whatever it might be. He had the time to really think things through. So, Bob’s memo was critical in terms of kind of giving us a map for how to campaign in 1968.
Jonathan Movroydis: And television played a huge role in the campaign as well, it allowed the president to…I assume it allowed candidate Nixon to have the time to, you know, write his speeches, and study, and use the communication of television to really magnify his message. Could you tell us a little bit how television played a role in 1968?
Dwight Chapin: Yes, Teddy White makes a point in his book, “The Making of a President 1968,” that in 1960, Nixon really, after the first debate, he became very leery of television. I mean, he did not do well in that debate mainly because of television and how he looked, at least that was the impression that came across to the American public. In 1968, in January of that year, Nixon happened to be in Philadelphia, and he met a young man for the first time, it happened to be on January 9, which was Nixon’s birthday. He was appearing on the Mike Douglas Show, and the producer was a young man by the name of Roger Ailes. And Roger said to Nixon, “Sir, you have to figure out how you’re going to make television your friend.” And Nixon says, “Tell me more about this.” And Roger described to him what he felt Nixon had to do in terms of his use of television. And Nixon bought into that 100% and he really was a master of television in 1968.
He did telethons, he did, what we called, man in the arena, where he would stand at a stand-up microphone and answer questions either from a panel of local media or a mixed panel of media and citizens. He would give speeches that were televised, where he would use absolutely no notes and people became aware of the depth of his understanding of not only foreign policy, but domestic affairs and so forth. And it was television that carried that message for him and it carried it in a very effective way. Another point is that he decided in 1968 not to debate, so when most people think of presidential usage of television these days, they think in terms of the debates, or in terms of Nixon, they think of debating when he debated Jack Kennedy. But in 1968, he used television by not debating.
Jonathan Movroydis: At the president side, you were with him for several monumental events. I mean, this is a period of time where, you know, there was the assassination of Martin Luther King, there was the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, very tumultuous time as we discussed. Could you discuss a little bit about some of the monumental periods of time with the candidate Nixon?
Dwight Chapin: Surely. One of the things that jumps out in my mind is the Martin Luther King funeral. When Mr. Nixon went down, he went down and met privately with Mrs. King at the family home in Atlanta, and he met with the children. And then we went over to Dr. King Sr.’s home. And I had not known all the history, but going back into the early vice-presidential years and so forth, Mr. Nixon had become very good friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. And when we went over to Martin Luther King Sr.’s home, the house was filled with friends and so forth. We walked through the front door and Mr. Nixon spotted Dr. King’s father over on the other side of the room and went over, and the two men hugged one another. It was this poignant moment of their hugging and Dr. King is kind of patting Mr. Nixon on the back like two old, old friends. And, I don’t know, that just stuck in my mind as something that spoke volumes about Mr. Nixon and about the Kings. So, that’s one episode.
Another poignant moment that I have from that campaign is when Mr. Nixon met with Hubert Humphrey at the very end after the election in Florida. It had been eight years earlier that Nixon had flown down and paid his respects to Jack Kennedy who had just been elected president. And this time the tables were turned and Humphrey was flying down to meet with Nixon. And when he got down there, they were taken up into army barracks. I happened to be the person that took him up there. The Secret Service had made sure no one was in the room and they were standing outside the two doors that led into the room. The men went in and Mr. Nixon had told me, he said, “Come get me in about…let us have about 10 minutes.” So, I went in after 10 minutes and he waved me off and I went back again 10 minutes later and he waved me off.
The third time I went in and the two men were there with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Nixon was kind of patting Hubert’s shoulder with his arm and then Hubert was crying. He was sobbing and he was saying, dick, he said, you know, “We want to do whatever we can to help you and help the country.” And the President Elect, Mr. Nixon, was saying, “Hubert, you know, you and Muriel, go take some time off and I’ll be in touch,” and so forth. But here were these two warriors who had battled each other and here is this moment of solitude where Nixon is comforting Hubert who is just undone, and it was something that I got to witness. I was the only person, the other person in that room. I got to witness this and it had a profound effect on me in terms of what politics can be like and what these two warriors, how they came together at the end.
Jonathan Movroydis: You mentioned warriors, you know, Humphrey had a challenging campaign, the Democratic Party virtually split after their convention in Chicago. Being with President Nixon, was campaigning difficult during such a hostile social and political climate?
Dwight Chapin: Yes, yes. Campaigning is always difficult. And the environment of ’68 made it even more so. And we had President Johnson, I mean, he pulled out of the race because of Vietnam. He was upset with Humphrey who he felt was not toeing the line that the administration wanted, and Humphrey was being pushed to the left and Johnson didn’t like that. Nixon was getting into the fray and backing, he was doing his best at Spain next to Johnson and supporting the president. And all of it was working quite nicely up until around the 1st of October when Humphrey made a key decision to move off on and kind of separated himself from Johnson more so than he had previously done. And I think Johnson had a real problem with accepting what Humphrey did. Nixon called Johnson and said, “You know, I’ve heard what Humphrey’s done, but I want you to know I’m still back in the administration.” And so, Johnson’s kind of trying to figure out what to do, but Nixon was very, very leery of him all the way through the campaign. And then toward the end, Johnson more and more cast his approval towards Humphrey and had the campaign gone on for another two or three weeks, it’s conceivable that Humphrey would have pulled even and passed Nixon in the polls and won the election. But fortunately, the election was held when it was and Nixon won.
Jonathan Movroydis: Backing up for just a moment. You were with the president at the convention in Miami in early August of 1968, when he gives that acceptance speech. Could you describe the scene at the convention in Miami?
Dwight Chapin: People were spellbound. I think it’s important to know that Mr. Nixon, he went to Montauk out on the end of Long Island and spent the week prior to the convention looking at his notes, getting ideas from some of the speech writing talent that he had on staff. But basically, he wrote his own speech and the country had gone through so much. And when Nixon got up there on the podium and said…I can’t remember the exact words, but it was basically, you know, “Have we come this far for all of this?” Meaning, you know, assassinations, riots, all this disruption, the Vietnam War. Have we come this far to have a nation that is this divided? And it had an incredible impact not only in the hall and among all of the delegates, but across the nation that, you know, and of course, the country was tuned in as always is for these acceptance speeches. It was a very, very powerful speech that Nixon gave and any of the people that study presidential speeches, it’s one of the great acceptance speeches of all time.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’d mentioned that there was a very, very close election. Alabama Governor George Wallace is running a strong campaign in the south. Could you describe election night? And you were with the president or the future president, what was his reaction to the whole night and upon victory?
Dwight Chapin: Right. Well, the election night, everybody was kind of on pins and needles. Humphrey had been closing in, but Mr. Nixon, himself, remained incredibly calm. There’s a Quaker tradition and he was a Quaker of peace at the center. And he was practicing that. I think he maintained a very centered, a very calm approach to the whole evening. He spent time with the staff, he went down spent time with the family, but the family had its own sweet Mrs. Nixon and the two daughters. And then Mr. Nixon was in the presidential suite where we had Bob Haldeman, John Mitchell, John Ehrlichman, myself, Larry Higbee, and it was just kept to a very small group because that’s what Mr. Nixon wanted. But he made a lot of phone calls, he had invited people to come into the suite to meet with him and Pat Buchanan, for example, Ray Price, a number of others would pop in and out. But for the most part as the evening wore on and it was a very suspenseful evening. I mean, he never realized or never knew that he won until the next morning, after the sun had come up.
ABC checked him off on and I was watching the television in the main part of the suite. I went into the bedroom immediately and said, “Sir, ABC just declared you the winner. You’re the next president.” And he kind of jumped out of bed. He was propped up in bed, had a briefcase on his lap, he jumps up, hits the floor and he’s in his bathrobe, and he has on a T-shirt and slacks under the bathrobe. But he’s got on a bathrobe, he goes into the main part of the suite and looks at the TV and sees that he’s been declared the winner and he takes off down the hallway to talk with Mrs. Nixon and the girls. And then he comes back to the suite five or 10 minutes later and throws his arms around John Mitchell and says, “John, we’re going to go to Florida and get this government put together.” And John Mitchell said, “Congratulations, Mr. President Elect.” And I’ll never forget that because it was the first time I ever heard anyone referred to a president, as Mr. President Elect.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why do you think historians and people, in general, should study the 1968 election?
Dwight Chapin: Well, I think it’s a classic in terms of the planning that went into it. The strategic thought that went into how are we going to run this campaign? And through highs and lows, all of the trials and tribulations that you’ve mentioned in terms of the temper of the times and the disasters that happened, Nixon stuck to his plan. And the great lesson from the 1968 campaign is to have the ability to absorb the shocks of various things that come along that are unexpected because they always happen while at the same time maintaining the basic plan structure that you have and not wavering from it. And Nixon, he was a master at that.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Dwight Chapin, personal aide, appointment secretary, and deputy assistant to President Nixon. Our topic was the inner workings of the 1968 presidential campaign. Mr. Chapin, thank you so much for joining us.
Dwight Chapin: Thank you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, Stitcher and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing out.