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“We Believe In Dick”: A History Of Conventions, 1968
by Brian Josepher

Richard Nixon placed a glass on the counter. He filled the glass three-quarters full with his favorite scotch whiskey. Nixon drank Famous Grouse. He then, as his tradition dictated, added a scoop’s worth of ice cubes to his drink. Nixon liked to crunch into frigidity. Nixon liked the hard edges in his mouth. Nixon liked the breakage and shattering effect.

He did not pour a drink for his guest. He did not particularly like his guest. Politics was a game of needing, not liking, and no man knew that more than Dick Nixon.

Nixon’s guest did not like his host. Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, was the consummate glad-hander. The man oozed sincerity insincerely. The man oozed warmth with frigidity.

Nelson Rockefeller, being Nelson Rockefeller, wanted to be president without running for president. He wanted the Republican Party to beg him to run. He wanted the electorate to elect him in a landslide. He didn’t want to be vetted. He didn’t want to travel. He didn’t want the sweat of the campaign. He didn’t mind paying for advertising, and throwing money around in general. He didn’t mind gossiping with the press. The man was used to entitlement, not political pugilism.

Richard Nixon was the ultimate political pugilist. He could spar all night and go another twelve rounds the next morning. While Rockefeller slept in, awoke in satin sheets, had his nails done by the hired help and nibbled on toast and marmalade (with yet another woman in his bed), Dick Nixon pushed his way through crowds, shook hands, forced a smile over his obsequiously tanned face. Dick Nixon wanted your vote and would ask for it from morning to night. Nelson Rockefeller wanted your vote but wanted it presented on a silver platter.

Nelson Rockefeller’s second wife had a nickname: Happy. Imagine Dick Nixon with a wife with that nickname.

Pat Nixon attended the meeting between her husband and Nelson Rockefeller. Like her husband, Pat Nixon held a glass of scotch whiskey. Unlike her husband, she drank Chivas. Unlike her husband, she drank her whiskey neat. Pat Nixon would become arguably the neatest (as in tidy) woman ever to live in the White House. Pat Nixon cleaned her own toilets. The hired help, she believed, didn’t do the job right. The hired help didn’t understand how to wield a toilet bowl cleaner with the precise muscle. Pat Nixon wielded a Rubbermaid with utter craft, cunning and strength.

While she wielded a Rubbermaid, Pat Nixon also smoked cigarettes. There have been many first ladies who smoked cigarettes. None smoked as many as Pat. According to the fourth person present at the meeting of Nixon and Rockefeller, Joseph Brine, Pat Nixon smoked “throughout the meeting. One after the other. With gulps of whiskey in between.” Brine then echoed an overriding sentiment, “Pat Nixon did not have an easy life.”

Joseph Brine served as Pat Nixon’s personal assistant throughout her husband’s presidential years. In 1968, he was a young college graduate. He served by Pat Nixon’s side until her death in June 1993. A year later, following the death of Richard Nixon, he offered his version of life with the Nixons. His remembrance of the Nixon/Rockefeller meeting can be found in the Oral History of Joseph Brine at the Nixon Presidential Library.

According to Brine, the Nixon/Rockefeller meeting took place at the top of the Miami Beach Convention Center. “There was a series of offices up in the rafters,” Brine recalled. “There was a great deal of noise coming from the crowd below. Dick Nixon had a hard time hearing during the meeting. That I specifically remember. Also, he was sweating like crazy. Perspiration dripped down his forehead.”

Earlier that evening, while the heat and humidity of Miami in August reached the dripping sweat range, Republican delegates crowded into the Miami Beach Convention Center. There had been a slight sense of surprise in the air. The frontrunner, Richard Nixon, was not a lock for the nominee. Although Nixon controlled the “Eisenhower Republicans,” or the moderates – the “forgotten Americans,” as Nixon claimed, “the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators, the dynamos of the American dream” – the Republican Party was split in three. Nelson Rockefeller controlled the liberal side of the Republican Party, aptly called the Rockefeller Republicans. (Imagine a side of the Republican Party that pushed for an outstanding university system, a network of hospitals, housing projects, mental health facilities, water treatment plants, parks, highways. Yes, that side of the Republican Party existed pre-Reagan/George W. Bush. That side of the Republican Party also bankrupted the State of New York.) On the far right, the “Goldwater conservatives” lined up behind the governor of California, a 57-year-old actor named Ronald Reagan.

In the weeks before the Republican Convention of 1968 Ronald Reagan’s popularity exploded. Southerners, leaving the Democratic Party in droves, turned to the Reagan camp. He represented what they most wanted: “an earlier era,” in the words of Herbert Parmet, the best biographer of Nixon, where “the state functioned – if it did at all – as a protector of national security and traditional values.” The Goldwaterites-turned-Reaganites “had few reservations about drawing enemies in bold relief: the eastern Republican liberal establishment; the liberal media; the wishy-washy, compromising conservatism of the national Republican Party.”

To the Goldwaterites-turned-Reaganites, Richard Nixon was the embodiment of compromising conservatism. In the late spring of 1968, according to Parmet’s Richard Nixon and his America, a pollster found that “the biggest interest growing almost like a prairie fire is in Ronald Reagan. Not one thing about his being an actor, or being a Right-Winger. Just that he seems to have done a fine job as Governor of California, that he is not a ‘nut,’ and most of all, that he is tremendously appealing. I am amazed at the depth and breath of deep, serious interest in Reagan.”

In order to squelch the prairie fire, Dick Nixon turned to the great segregationist and unreconstructed power broker, Strom Thurmond. In a meeting between Nixon and the senator from South Carolina two months before the convention, Thurmond handed Nixon a small piece of paper containing three lists. For Thurmond’s endorsement, he wanted to be able to name the vice president. On the acceptable list, he named Ronald Reagan, John Tower of Texas, George Bush, Howard Baker of Tennessee. On the unacceptable list, he named two New Yorkers, the liberal side of the party. Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller. A “no objections” list contained a few names, including the governor of Maryland. His name was Spiro Agnew.

Governor Agnew was actually a protégé of Nelson Rockefeller. He pushed for a progressive path on social causes. He positioned himself against segregation. He supported President Johnson’s Fair Housing Act contained in the Civil Right Act of 1968. Through Governor Agnew’s pressure, the Maryland legislature rescinded an anti-miscegenation law.

None of this mattered to Strom Thurmond. The man who built a career on miscegenation laws, even while he was breaking them, wanted a vice president from the South. Spiro Agnew, from a border state, fit the objective.

To the three lists presented by Senator Thurmond, Nixon responded by pouring Famous Grouse into two glasses. He added ice. The two men clinked glasses. Nixon crunched into frigidity.

That meeting took place in Atlanta on the last day of May. Nearly ten weeks later, on Monday August 5, Nixon won the Republican nomination by the slimmest of margins, winning 51 percent of the 1,333 votes.

Later that evening, in an office above the floor of the Miami Beach Convention Center, Nixon met with the man who Nixon needed in the general election. To win the Republican nomination, he’d turned to Thurmond. To win the national election, and the “liberal” establishment of the Northeast, he sought out the governor of New York.

Richard Nixon began to pace. The pacing exacerbated his perspiring. He held his glass of whisky up to his forehead. The ice in the glass began to melt.

Down below on the convention floor delegates shouted his name: “We believe in Dick… We believe in Dick…”

Governor Rockefeller sat in an armchair. He wore black-rimmed eyeglasses. He oozed composure. He wasn’t sweating. He wasn’t pacing. According to his autobiography, he expected an invitation from Nixon. He didn’t necessarily want the vice presidency but he saw the title as a “springboard to the White House, following in the footsteps of Adams, Jefferson, Truman, Johnson and, of course, Richard M. Nixon.”

Down below on the convention floor delegates shouted his name: “We believe in Dick… We believe in Dick…”

“Governor,” Nixon said, barely audible over the fray down below, “I’ve asked you here for one reason. I know tonight’s results were disappointing [Rockefeller won 277 votes in the nominating process, or 21 percent]. But I want your support in the general election and as such I’m prepared to offer you…”

Nixon hesitated. That hesitation led to all sorts of historical wonderings. “What was on his mind at the moment?” biographer Herbert Parmet asked rhetorically. “Nixon needed the Republican center to win the election. Rockefeller did not represent that constituency. At the same time, Rockefeller was the ‘big play.’ He was the big name, the attention grabber. Was Nixon fighting himself over his vice presidential choice? We all know how it turns out. The question is, how close was Nixon to going in another direction? How close was Nixon to offering the position to Rockefeller? Judging from the hesitation, perhaps closer than history portrays.”

Eyewitness Joseph Brine expressed a different reason for Nixon’s hesitation. “The noise down below on the convention floor was distracting. Nixon hesitated because he couldn’t hear himself think.”

“We believe in Dick,” the delegates shouted down below. “We believe in Dick.”

“Governor,” Nixon reconfigured his sentence, “you can name the vice president. I have one requirement. You cannot name yourself.”

What Nelson Rockefeller felt at that moment remains a mystery. He never recorded his immediate reaction in his memoirs. He never told his good friend Henry Kissinger. History shows that the governor remained stoic. “His countenance didn’t change,” Joseph Brine recalled. “He looked Lake Placid calm, unlike the Grand Central combustion of the Nixons.”

While Rockefeller thought over the offer, Dick Nixon paced. He paced back to the counter. He dropped more ice cubes in his whiskey glance. He held the glass up to his forehead.

Meanwhile, Pat Nixon sat on the floral-patterned sofa and gulped Chivas. Then she inhaled a Marlboro. According to Joseph Brine, “She finished both the whiskey and the cigarette in one big greedy breath.”

Pat Nixon held out her glass for another round. Her husband was too busy pacing the room to notice.

Nelson Rockefeller spoke a name. Richard Nixon, perhaps due to the noise coming from the delegates below, perhaps due to the ferocity of his pacing, did not hear the governor. “What?” Nixon said.

“We believe in Dick,” the delegates shouted down below. “We believe in Dick.”

Nelson Rockefeller again spoke a name. Perhaps to trifle with Nixon, he spoke the name in a near whisper.

“What?” Nixon said again.

“We believe in Dick,” the delegates shouted down below. “We believe in Dick.”

“Ted,” Nelson Rockefeller said again.

Dick Nixon looked at the governor. “His look conveyed total ignorance,” according to Joseph Brine. “Who was Ted? Nixon must have searched his mind, going down the list of possible vice presidents. There was a George on the list. There was a Ronald. There were a couple of Johns. There wasn’t a Ted. Kennedy was clearly out. Still, Nixon, being Nixon, he couldn’t admit his ignorance. So he did what he always did in those circumstances. He looked at his right-hand man.”

In this case his right-hand man was a woman. Pat Nixon, with her empty whiskey glass held out for seconds, asked the question on her husband’s mind. “Who is Ted?”

Rockefeller smiled. “His only smile of the evening,” according to Joseph Brine. “Spiro Agnew,” Rockefeller said. “His family and friends call him Ted. His middle name is Theodore.”

Nixon responded by taking the empty whiskey glass from his wife’s hand. He paced over to the counter. He filled two glasses. One with Chivas. The other with Famous Grouse. He added ice to the Famous Grouse. He then crunched into frigidity.

Published: Aug 7,2008 12:31
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