Last Tuesday, the distant thunder so long on America’s political horizon erupted in a local and national roar. A part of the nation’s body politic often referred to as a silent majority, broke its silence. Beyond mere red state/blue state dynamics, what we’ve witnessed is the coming of age of a force that has stirred only on occasion in the past. The political coalition Ronald Reagan formed and rode to the White House 30 years ago was one example of its latent and potent power, but its origin was more than a decade earlier than that. The political DNA of the Tea Party was resident in a description made more than 40 years ago in defense of another generation of Americans answering history’s call:
“They are not racists or sick; they are not guilty of the crime that plagues the land. They are black and they are white -- they're native born and foreign born -- they're young and they're old. They work in America's factories. They run America's businesses. They serve in government. They provide most of the soldiers who died to keep us free. They give drive to the spirit of America. They give lift to the American Dream. They give steel to the backbone of America. They are good people, they are decent people; they work, and they save, and they pay their taxes, and they care.”
On Monday, November 3, 1969, President Richard M. Nixon sat at his desk in the Oval Office as the clock crawled toward 9:30 p.m. He was reviewing the words he would momentarily share with the American people. There wasn’t a Teleprompter in sight. Nixon instinctively understood that it would be one of the most important addresses of his still young presidency. The speech had been announced nearly three weeks earlier. This allowed time for suspense to build—not to mention time to put it all together. In many ways, the speech would become the high water mark of his first term, if not his entire presidency.
Among the gifts and passions possessed by the 37th President of the United States was a love for the English language. He was a wordsmith—actually quite good at it—in spite of the fact that his White House staff included a stable of excellent speechwriters. It is one of the forgotten ironies of the Nixon White House that his speechwriting staff was actually larger than that of any previous president. He had a good working relationship with all of his talented ghosts, but they knew and respected his writing skills. Not since Woodrow Wilson had a president been so involved in writing his own speeches—nor has it happened since.
About an hour before Nixon was to go on the air that night, a copy of his speech was delivered to William Safire, a member of the speechwriting team. A man with a flair for etymology, Safire noticed that the President was using a phrase from Woodrow Wilson. He had attributed it as written by the 28th President, when in fact it had originated with H. G. Wells (Safire just knew things like that). He raced down the hall to tell Nixon, who (reluctantly) changed the wording. That was pretty much the sum of the input of the speechwriting staff during that major moment in the history of American political rhetoric.
Richard Nixon had spent nearly two weeks crafting his address, working as always with the ever-present yellow legal pads. Toiling at first in the White House (including during the first “Moratorium”—a massive anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington, D.C. on October 15th), he made a note to himself, “Don’t get rattled—don’t waver—don’t react.” A few days later he journeyed to Camp David, already a welcome hermitage, putting in a series of 12-hour days—always alone.
A supporter of the late silver-tongued orator William Jennings Bryan once boasted to a political opponent that the Great Commoner often delivered 19 or 20 speeches a day. “When does he think?” came the reply. Nixon cherished his thinking time. He worked through Halloween night and around 4:00 a.m. crafted a sentence for which this particular speech would ever after be remembered. He likely had no idea at the time that one phrase would be immortalized. It had been part of general political discourse in one form or another for a while. His Vice President had even thrown it around clumsily in recent days.
Political practitioners traffic in verbiage as a matter of course, and great leaders are usually (though obviously not always) great speakers. Delivery styles necessarily vary from platform and stump speeches, to those delivered on radio and television—ranging from hot to cool communication. But in the end, what remains and is inevitably remembered is not how—or via what medium—something is communicated, but rather the words themselves. If style trumps substance in the moment, the order is commonly reversed when viewed over time. And just a few words are remembered; words sometimes thought at first to be inconsequential.
FDR spoke of “fear itself,” and JFK told us to “ask not,” and these words became abstracts of more than a single speech, but windows into zeitgeist. Winston Churchill titled his March 1946 address at diminutive Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, “The Sinews of Peace.” However, it is highly unlikely that this title rings a bell with anyone today. The phrase “Iron Curtain,” however, surely does.
The speech President Nixon shared with the nation on that night 41 years ago was about Vietnam—the mother of all inherited messes. He went through the history of the conflict and even dropped in a fascinating tidbit about a secret letter he had routed to Ho Chi Minh. Likely Nixon thought that this detail would be the long remembered part—how he creatively reached out to “Uncle” Ho. He had even received a reply from the North Vietnamese leader, though it was not at all receptive or conciliatory. At any rate, Ho Chi Minh had of late died on September 3rd—so much for that back channel.
The President most likely considered the highlight of the speech to be his articulation of the Nixon Doctrine, a plan that called for the “Vietnamization” of the chronic conflict. It was the capstone of his emerging policy, the fruit of his vision, and the speech’s sine qua non.
But Richard Nixon’s 1969 chat with America is remembered all these years later—with Vietnam a distant, though persistently painful memory—for a phrase he used as he came toward the end of his remarks.
“And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans—I ask for your support.”
And ever since it has been known as the silent majority speech. The issues and policies have historically taken a back seat to that simple appeal, one that clearly resonated with millions watching and listening. It worked. Overnight, an instant Gallup Poll showed a 77% approval rating for the speech. Within a few days, another Gallup Poll indicated that Nixon’s overall presidential approval rating had spiked from 52% to 68%. A record-setting 50,000 telegrams and 30,000 letters of support were sent to the White House. No matter that all three networks panned his speech and did their best to explain it away, referring to the President as “polarizing,” it was a clear victory for Richard Nixon.
And the next day, for the first time in a generation, Republican governors were elected in Virginia and New Jersey—the President having campaigned for both.
Sometime later, while discussing the success of the November 3rd speech with William Safire, Nixon suggested that if he had known the words silent majority would become the enduring moniker for the address, he would have capitalized the words. In fact, history has done this for Mr. Nixon.
In a very real sense, the conservative victors a few days ago are heirs of those listening to President Nixon that night in 1969. Of course, now that silent majority has found its voice—and it has spoken loud and clear.