August 31, 2015

1968. An Insider's Take on the Presidential Election

"The Networks Have Had Their Day"
The 1968 elections: "Nixon addresses supporters after winning his party's nomination again in 1968. He went on to defeat the Democratic nominee, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey" (source)
ABC News Internal Memo (Confidential)

To: Elmer Lower / cc: John Lynch

From: Bill Downs, ABC Washington

9 October 1968

Relative to the confidential dinner conversation with our mutual friend, here is the paraphrase of his remarks as I noted them down from memory last Saturday night. I leave it up to you and John Lynch as to how widely you want the following to be distributed.

Friend X indicated that from now on out the campaign will get much rougher from the Democratic side. "We have the goods on Agnew possibly involving misfeasance or malfeasance in office and will break the story this week." (Thus far there's been no sign of it.)

However, X admitted that he is extremely depressed by the overall political situation. "It used to be a rule of thumb that in any election there would be about 20% of the electorate that would be extremist . . . nuts, Communists, Birchers, racists and such. This rule is not valid in this claim." X said that the Gallup and Harris polls showing a strong swing to the right across the country do not go far enough.

"Our mail from more than 100,000 people showed that 70% of the people reacting to the Chicago Convention supported Mayor Daley and his position on law and order and the whole police bit." If somehow there had been a Daly-Wallace or a Wallace-Daley ticket, X said, he believed it would sweep the country.

Those who think that the choice of General LeMay will hurt Wallace because of the General's "strangelove" rantings about the nuclear bomb are mistaken. X thinks the selection of LeMay as Wallace's running mate will increase the strength of the third party movement.

X thinks that the accelerated and harder hitting campaign now emerging with HHH & Muskie directly and personally attacking the Nixon-Agnew and Wallace-LeMay tickets will help the Democratic campaign. He said it's better that HHH go down fighting the new extremism in the US than not to attack it at all.

X was personally angry and bitter at the Nixon tactics. "We can't pin the bastard down . . . he's talking claptrap and evading the issues . . . and in many ways this makes Nixon more racist and dangerous than Wallace . . ." When asked about Agnew, X indignantly dismissed the Md. governor as a fool, adding, "I'd rather see LeMay as a vice president than Agnew."

X said that if Nixon wins, "as now appears to be likely," it may be that the vote will split among the three candidates as 35% to the winner, and 30% and 25% to the losers (he didn't specify who would be the low man.) "But whoever wins under those conditions will have no mandate from the people. I think that the Democrats will retain control of the Congress—the House by a very narrow margin. But the next Congress will be extremely conservative . . . Given the unsolved problems facing the country, with more than half of the country voting against him . . . I don't know what will happen to the nation . . ." X concluded the thought with the comment: "Sometimes I think there's madness here . . ."

X said that HHH now appears to be more sure of himself and the Democratic campaign has picked up momentum. But Humphrey himself is puzzled and bemused by the national attitude and temper of the people. He quoted Hubert as saying, "the only people who smile at me anywhere I go are the Negroes . . ." X again repeated that he would "rather see the Democratic go down singing than having the party fade away on questionable issues . . ."

As for himself personally, X said he was willing to go down with the ship if necessary. Referring to the big job offered to him, X said he stayed in politics at "considerable personal sacrifice . . . but I could not keep out of this election . . . it's too important . . . I'm dedicated to the party position win or lose . . ."

X expressed concern and bitterness about the way the news media more or less dismissed or downgraded the HHH foreign policy speech broadcast from Salt Lake City. Although the pundits and commentators mostly could see no radical shift in Hubert's position, X said it was an important move away from the White House. "And a lot of formerly doubtful Democrats read it that way . . ." X said the Utah speech reaction was startling with "thousands of letters still coming in." Said up to that time "there has been some $150,000 in voluntary contributions included in that mail, including one $10,000 check . . . and we're still opening letters. It's the most encouraging development of the campaign . . ." (Bill Lawrence did a TV story on this.)

When the conversation touched on the news media coverage of the campaign, X made no secret of his dissatisfaction and disappointment. Started out by questioning why ABC refused to clear time for HHH when NBC and CBS had done so. (I don't know the details of this or if it's true.) Then X made a long and bitter attack on the broadcast media and charged all with blatant editorializing.

"Your man Frank Reynolds has suddenly become a major target of Congressional criticism," X said. "I've been dealing with the Hill for years and know every man up there and I've never heard such attacks on the networks . . . and it's general. Reps. Harley Staggers and John Moss particularly are most vocal and bitter about Reynolds . . ." When asked why, X did not get specific but indicated somehow that Frank had become the symbol of their anger. X said the main complaint is that there's "no objectivity left on the networks . . . everyone is editorializing and no one labels it as such."

He dismissed Huntley-Brinkley as "so partisan that everyone's gotten used to it and expects it." X said he was shocked when Cronkite "lost his cool" in Chicago. "The Cronkite incident, along with Reynolds, is convincing Congress that 'the networks have had their day.'"

X expressed the opinion that attempts to pass some kind of legislation to license or otherwise inhibit the broadcast networks by the next Congress now appears inevitable. And he concluded: "If there is to be government control of the networks, Reynolds may be the catalyst to bring it about."

I want to emphasize that the sections of the above in quotation marks are as close to verbatim as I could make them. Also to emphasize that X himself was making no personal attack on Frank or ABC. "For the most part," he said, "ABC has given us a fair shake . . ." He was merely passing along the information, I sensed, knowing that I would pass it along to you. What his motives for doing this were, I have no idea.

And for gawd's sake, don't interpret this in any way as a throat-cutting excursion against Frank. I don't think X meant it that way . . . and I most assuredly do not. In fact, in my judgment ABC News with Reynolds has never looked better.

- Bill