Before there were Tea Partiers or soccer moms, there was another grass-roots political force at large in our nation.
And my grandfather was part of it, even though he never hoisted a sign or attended a rally.
He might have been somewhat better educated than others in his group. He might have brought home a little more in his pay packet than some of them. And his mailing address happened to be a couple hundred miles east of many of theirs.
But in the larger scheme of things, he fit right in with millions of other Americans who skewed slightly older in the fall of 1968; did not regularly participate in political affairs outside Election Day; took a conservative political tack; and were concerned about the nation’s social and cultural upheaval.
On Tuesday, Nov. 5, 1968, my grandfather joined 31,783,782 other Americans in voting for a man who galvanized that voting bloc like no other.
And almost exactly a year later, Richard Nixon would reward his faithful by christening them with one of the great political identities in American history. In a speech on his Vietnam policy, Nixon would call for the support of “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans.”
“For almost 200 years, the policy of this nation has been made under our Constitution by those leaders in the Congress and the White House elected by all of the people. If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society.”
– Richard Nixon, Nov. 3, 1969
No membership card or voter registration ever tracked the formal membership of Nixon’s Silent Majority.
But in a single evocative phrase, Nixon at once offered haven (you need not speak; we’ll speak for you) and reassurance (we are the majority; we will win out) to a massive slab of the American electorate. They had already responded to him in 1968, and they would respond in overwhelming numbers four autumns later.
Of course, Nixon’s catchphrase made no concession to the presence of dissent in the American DNA. One suspects that the silent majority of colonists in 1775-76 favored the English, and the U.S. only broke away because of the gall and vision of those relative few who marched in the streets. (Paul Revere and John Adams were in nobody’s silent majority. Maybe that explains why Massachusetts cocked a snook at Nixon in ’72.)
Still, while Nixon’s label may have been founded on shaky historical ground, it resonated in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
I scanned in this picture from my grandfather’s collection a year or two ago. And for some reason, as soon as I saw it, I thought of Nixon’s Silent Majority.
Just as the John McCain campaign in 2008 co-opted Plumber Joe (or whatever that guy was called), I could easily imagine the Nixon campaign co-opting a fiftysomething man in a plain brown suit, standing proudly on the neat back steps of a home he worked to buy, as the face of their own distinct vision of America.
How do I know my grandfather was a Nixon supporter? In 15 years of calendar entries, my grandpa only wrote the names of two candidates on his calendar on Election Day. Nixon was one of them. I’m interpreting that as a pretty solid endorsement. (Who was the other? Come back tomorrow to find out.)
I spent some time in the writing of this post trying to imagine what life among the Silent Majority felt like on Nov. 5, 1968.
I never lived in a world in which Richard Nixon was anything other than a disgraced leader, and perhaps even something of a joke.
The front page of the Stamford Advocate on the day I was born carried a wire story about Nixon’s family members urging him not to resign — more than a year before he finally did.
And when I went to college in the early ’90s, I met a young woman who grew up in the New Jersey suburb where Nixon made his final home. She said gangs of kids used to gather as close as they could get to his house, yell “Watergate!”, and then disappear into the surrounding streets — leaving the old man, perhaps, to wonder what he had done to deserve such calumny.
But on that Tuesday in November — before any foreshadowing of Watergate, and the Enemies List, and the drawn-out death fight of 1974 — it must have seemed to the nascent Silent Majority that the political tide had finally come around to meet them.
As with all new Presidential administrations, the future was bright. Anything was possible.
And Nixon was the one.
PS: This may be among the greatest presidential pictures ever taken; I would give several internal organs for an unedited transcript of this conversation. And no, it’s not Nixon and Elvis.