It was an Election year. Richard Nixon was running against Hubert Humphrey, the former Vice President under Johnson. The year had already been marked by the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was the first election after the landmark passing of the Voting Rights act of 1965. Nixon as we all know would win in a landslide, having turned what used to be a solid Democratic south into the “Silent Majority”. It upended traditional political bases, and sent the Democrats running for cover.
It in many parts of the country (though not as many as the Democrats would have liked) divided people faced with a feeling of disenfranchisement, and those with strong party loyalties. All in all it was a bad time, like much of the 1960’s (except for music of course). Anyway Dad was a Union man all the way, having worked in the clothing industry his whole life, and usually went with the party line which traditionally was of course Democratic. But he was always a little unsure of blind loyalty to a union, and was an independent sort of guy anyway, so that year, he like many others started to support Nixon. Mom was still a die-hard Democrat; supporting both the charismatic Mayor of New York John V. Lindsey, and of course JFK. So suffice to say, there weren’t many political discussions around the dining table at night. Dad respected Mom’s views and she did his, while maybe not understanding his decision to re-consider the strange and moody Nixon.
So the point of all this is one day Dad comes home with tickets to the Nixon rally being held at Madison Square Garden that night, probably thinking Mom would go with him (Don would be tasked with taking care of me). But that simply wasn’t going to happen. After a muffled discussion in the kitchen, Dad came into our room and asked me if I wanted to accompany him to the Garden that night. What did I know? It was an opportunity to do something with my Dad, and though I had even at that young age decided I like the Kennedys and didn’t like whomever didn’t like them, I didn’t really know too much about Nixon (except he looked really bad in those debates with JFK- even I could see that at my ripe old age of twelve).
So off we went, taking the subway to 34th street and entering the old Madison Square Garden. I remember security was very heavy (thought probably would be laughable by today’s standards). I really don’t remember much of what Nixon said but do remember all the red white and blue signs proclaiming “Nixon’s the One!” The One what? I remember thinking? Our seats were pretty high up, and I remember at one point, an African-American man stood up about three rows behind us, unfolded a cardboard sign and starting chanting “Tricky Dick…Tricky Dick”!. It was the first time I ever heard the phrase but I remember smiling at it…really quite well done I thought. The people around him and the security guards however took a different view and he was quickly escorted out. It is a tribute to the time, that unlike today, he was not physically molested by the crowd or security simply asked to leave by the guards and booed by the people around him. That is the right way to do it, but that’s a whole other discussion.
I remember asking Dad what the man meant by his screams, and Dad, being Dad again put it very simply.
“He doesn’t agree with what Nixon is saying”.
God how I miss that clarity. Clarity and civility. Lesson there.
The thing I remember most was at the end of the rally, thousands of red, white and blue balloons were released from nets on the ceiling and they cascaded down over Nixon and his already long-suffering wife. But Nixon beamed; standing on tip toes, smiling that fake smile with both arms extended , his fingers forming the soon to be classic V for victory sign.
It was an interesting night, and now especially I am glad I was there, only because I witnessed a bit of political drama. Dad and I didn’t speak about the event on the way home, instead having a usual discussion about school and Mom and just life in general. I can’t say I thought he was impressed, though I think he liked the balloons too.
It was the beginning I think of a love of politics, presidential contests and elections in general for me. A few years later, I would watch every day as Congressional hearings were being held on the Watergate affair, a name totally unknown in 1968 outside of those who lived in DC and knew it as a fancy office building.
I have seen and actually met a few other candidates that would go on to be President, but that was my first glimpse of a man who would be the so-called leader of the free world. And indeed he did some amazing things and then he did some not so amazing but very disappointing and criminal things. And through it all when there was a political discussion in our house, there was never any animosity, just measured talk, after all everyone wanted what was best for the country didn’t they? Even when history was made and an American President resigned his office, they still respected each other’s views.
More lessons there.
And that is my great take-away. Not so much the actual event, but how people acted when confronted with differing ideas. At least in our household, they did it with respect.
How I wish that lesson could be re-taught today. I could use re-learning it myself.