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The 'law and order’ campaign that won Richard Nixon the White House 50 years ago

Trump has invoked the same phrase as he campaigns for Republicans

Former president Richard M. Nixon talked about violence and chaos in America during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1968. (Video: Richard Nixon Foundation)

At 12:30 a.m. on election night in 1968, GOP presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon watched the televised returns in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Though the networks had declared him a winner in 24 states, he and Hubert Humphrey were neck and neck with 182 electoral college votes each. And one big city, Chicago, in one big undeclared state, Illinois — typically a Democratic stronghold — might help put Nixon over the edge.

“I became irritated with [Mayor Richard J.] Daley’s stubbornness in not releasing the count in Cook County,” Nixon recalled in his book, “RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.” “I called [Nixon campaign operative] Bryce Harlow and told him to get Larry O’Brien, Humphrey’s campaign manager, on the phone. ‘Bryce, it’s on the line. Don’t fool around. Tell O’Brien to tell Hubert to quit playing games. We’ve won Illinois, so let’s get this thing over with.’ Harlow reached O’Brien’s suite, but either he was not there or would not take the call.”

Democratic stronghold or not, Nixon had reason to trust his gut instinct about the Windy City. Chicagoans had suffered through race riots in April after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. And in August, 10,000 antiwar activists came to the Democratic Convention and were met in full force by 23,000 members of the Chicago police and the National Guard.

'A party that had lost its mind': The disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention

Network newsmen Mike Wallace, Dan Rather and Edwin Newman were assaulted by Chicago cops on the floor of the convention, and Daley was blamed for the violent response. However, to many Americans watching the events play out on television, the city had become synonymous with disobedience — both civil and uncivil — and general disorder. Many Chicagoans displayed banners in their windows declaring “We Love You Mayor Daley” — an indication that for some in the city, enough was enough.

On Sept. 4, just one week after the convention, Nixon paraded through Chicago, greeted by a throng of 400,000 supporters. Nixon, a relentless anti-Communist in the 1950s, a losing presidential candidate in 1960 and a man whom Lyndon B. Johnson had recently dismissed as a “chronic campaigner,” had reemerged as a law-and-order candidate — part of a calculated strategy in response to the insurgent third-party candidacy of George Wallace.

In a tumultuous year marked by the assassinations of King and Sen. Robert Kennedy, urban race riots and college antiwar demonstrations, Nixon had coined the term “silent majority” to describe his target voters — those who were not out in the streets.

Donald Trump invoked the phrase “silent majority” during his presidential run and, lately, has seized on another Nixon favorite: “law and order.” “This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” Trump declared last month.

At a 1968 television forum after the Chicago parade, Nixon was asked by a lone black panelist for his definition of the phrase “law and order.”

Nixon, perhaps striving to distinguish himself from the segregationist Wallace, answered, “I have often said that you cannot have order unless you have justice, because if you stifle dissent, if you just stifle progress, you’re going to have an explosion and you’re going to have disorder.

"On the other hand, you can’t have progress without order, because when you have disorder, and revolution, you destroy all of the progress you have.”

Law-and-order rhetoric has a long history in U.S. politics.

Julia Azari, a Marquette University professor of political science, said the phrase is “often a way to talk about race without talking about race. But its 1960s meaning also meant all people who were challenging the social order. As we’ve moved away from the era when politicians were making obvious racial appeals, the appeals have become more coded. The question becomes whose order, for whom does the law work. You saw a lot of that same rhetoric with ‘silent majority’ — though Nixon wanted to separate himself from Wallace’s populism, it was a backlash against the status quo, especially the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.”

“Tactics of fear or appeals to restore the old social order — those are usually successful,” she added.

The phrase “law and order” was used as the title of a 1919 speech given by Calvin Coolidge in response to a police strike in Boston. Coolidge, then governor of Massachusetts, had called in the National Guard to quell a weekend of lawlessness when the department attempted to unionize. The Boston papers characterized the cops as Bolsheviks who set out to destroy civil society.

“There are strident voices, urging resistance to law in the name of freedom,” Coolidge said. “They are not seeking freedom for themselves, they have it. They are seeking to enslave others. Their works are evil. They know it. They must be resisted.”

The future president added harshly, “Laws are not manufactured. They are not imposed. They are rules of action existing from everlasting to everlasting. He who resists them, resists himself. He commits suicide. … To obey is life. To disobey is death.”

Azari cautioned that the 1968 presidential race was not only about the silent majority and Nixon’s law-and-order message. “There was some pushback against the Great Society and civil rights but also the Vietnam War,” she said. “It was a referendum on 8 years of a Democrat presidency and a very close race.”

Nixon won seven states that he had not carried in 1960, when he was defeated by John F. Kennedy: Delaware, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina. But he lost by substantial margins to Humphrey in New York City, Philadelphia and Detroit, and with them, the electoral blocks of New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan. And he had a long night ahead of him.

At 4:53 a.m. totals came in from Ohio. He carried the state. Then California, where he began his career with election to the House in 1946, declared him a victor at 8:14 a.m. But still no one would say that he had won.

“I sat alone with Pat, and she told me it had been a terribly difficult night for her. The speculation by commentators about Illinois had driven her to tears,” he wrote. “When I told her it was all over, she asked emotionally, ‘But Dick, are we sure of Illinois? Are we completely sure?’

“I answered very firmly, ‘Absolutely. The votes are in, and there is no way it can be turned around at this point.’ Then I held her and she burst into tears of joy and relief.”

The networks declared Illinois at 12:03 p.m., and Humphrey called to concede. Nixon and his family walked down to the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, where they were met by thunderous applause from his supporters.

When he took the podium, he could not conceal his glee:

“Having lost a close one eight years ago and having won a close won this year, I can say this — winning’s a lot more fun.”

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