and the Transformation of American Politics (2017)
Nixon wasn’t worried about Wallace in northeastern states, since not only could Wallace not win those states, but Nixon probably wouldn’t either. To Nixon, the key battleground states included Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Texas, and California . . . the West looked very strong for Nixon. Nixon was told by his advisors that it was possible that he could win 40 states (Nixon carried 32 states in 1968, and 49 in 1972). The voting bloc of Republican conservatives was growing, and had started to take form in 1968, but it wouldn’t be until 1980 that voting bloc became a political force when they lined up in support of Ronald Reagan.
A rumored quote that had been spread by the media that had Nixon stating that he had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was not refuted or challenged by Nixon, and that false quote became the signature slogan of his campaign. Nixon basically criticized LBJ and Humphrey and kept his alternative policies vague, which was enough for millions of Americans to believe that he did indeed have a “secret plan”. Through the end of September 1968, Nixon experienced smooth-sailing in his campaign with the exception of worrying about Wallace.
Humphrey had selected Senator Edmund Muskie (ME) as his running mate, which was a common sense and safe choice. Nixon went with the nationally unknown governor of Maryland, Spiro Agnew, not wanting to make a choice that would cost him votes in what he assumed would be a very close election. Wallace wanted to run alone, but many states required a VP candidate, so on 3 October 1968, Wallace announced that his running mate would be former Air Force Major General Curtis LeMay. Under President Eisenhower, LeMay was the commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). LeMay was a “Hawk”, and his most famous quote before he was tabbed as Wallace’s running mate was that the best thing to do with North Vietnam was to “bomb them back into the Stone Age”, LeMay totally ignored Wallace and his advisors in terms of how to respond to questions regarding the Vietnam War and nuclear missiles, and was told to stay on message. But LeMay kept going on-and-on about how about how nuclear missiles weren’t really that bad and that they really should be used. LeMay wound up bombing Wallace’s campaign back to the Stone Age and the momentum of the campaign vaporized. LeMay had become a national laughingstock, and Wallace paid the political price.
However, 45 minutes before Humphrey made that phone call, Nixon had called LBJ, informing him of much of Humphrey’s upcoming speech on Vietnam (significant portions of the speech had been leaked). LBJ not only told Nixon that Humphrey was on his own, but he also gave Nixon advice on how to attack Humphrey: the bombing halt would cost American lives.
In his speech, Humphrey stated that if he was elected, he would stop the bombing in order to pursue negotiations, but if North Vietnam balked, he would resume bombing. By 10 October 1968, the Humphrey campaign had $1 million, which paled in comparison to Nixon, but it showed that Humphrey had struck a chord. Not only did the anti-war protesters become less bothersome to Humphrey, he rose in the polls. Muskie’s job was to focus on the past shenanigans of “Tricky Dick” Nixon, and soon Agnew became the focus of Democratic attacks. Momentum for Humphrey also increased when Frank Sinatra started to campaign for the Vice-President, and when the campaign worked hard to get the labor vote, since many had defected to Wallace, but were now unsure about voting for him.
Humphrey gained enough leverage to challenge Nixon to a debate. Nixon, of course, wanted to keep Wallace away from any debate so he wouldn’t regain momentum and cost Nixon votes. So the simplest solution was to avoid the situation: the Campaign of 1968 did not feature a debate between the candidates. But it soon became apparent to Nixon that his most immediate problem was his Vice-Presidential running mate, Spiro Agnew. Pat Buchanan (who would become one of Nixon’s speechwriters) was traveling with Agnew, and he didn’t have many positives to report. Buchanan’s observations to Nixon basically stated that Agnew was living up to the Humphrey/Muskie attack ads, saying such nonsensical things as “if you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all”. The Nixon campaign decided to keep Agnew on a very short leash and to minimize his appearances. Now Nixon focused on his biggest problem, which was that any positive developments in the negotiations in Paris would kill his chances of being elected President. A typical candidate would have viewed the situation as beyond his control . . . but Nixon did not see the situation in that way at all.
LBJ proceeded slowly, in that he wanted to find out if South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu was amenable to participating in the peace talks. Thieu readily agreed to take part, and then LBJ told North Vietnam that he would resume bombing if they reneged on South Vietnamese participation . . . LBJ was told that his message had been received. LBJ, in his customary phone calls to Presidential candidates as the outgoing President, mentioned none of these things to Humphrey, Nixon, or Wallace. It never crossed LBJ’s mind that the South Vietnamese government would betray his trust. LBJ’s advisors told him there was in essence no downside to proceeding with the negotiations, but LBJ remained slow-moving and cautious, which was consistent with his two greatest fears: failure and humiliation.