Rhetoric of a Political Comeback: Nixon’s 1968 Nomination Acceptance Speech

The following essay was written as my senior thesis. Completed April 27, 2018.

I. Introduction

I see a day when our nation is at peace and the world is at peace and everyone on earth—those who hope, those who aspire, those who crave liberty—will look to America as the shining example of hopes realized and dreams achieved. My fellow Americans, this is the cause I ask you to vote for. This is the cause I ask you to work for. This is the cause I ask you to commit to—not just for victory in November but beyond that to a new Administration.[1]

These are the words that Richard Nixon used to summarize his speech on August 8, 1968 in Miami, when he formally accepted the nomination to be the Republican candidate in that year’s presidential election. The speech was a pivotal moment in Nixon’s campaign, as it unified the Republican Party around a common theme of respect: respect for America internationally, respect for American rule of law domestically, and self-respect for the American citizen. In addition to unifying the Party, Nixon also gave millions of Americans across the country who were watching his televised speech an opportunity to see himself in a more intimate light. These two elements—the unifying theme of respect and the heart of his speech—allowed Nixon to give a persuasive speech that would bring him to victory on election day in the coming November.

The analysis of Nixon’s speech can be divided into two main parts: the preparation leading up to the delivery of his speech and the content of his speech itself. The preparation of his speech involves factors beyond the immediate stages of its drafting. It began with Nixon’s personal and political background that shaped him as a public speaker, and was then influenced by the particular circumstances of the 1968 election, including the Republican and Democratic primaries as well as the presence of a major third-party candidate. Nixon began the drafting process for his speech weeks before it was delivered and while he was the primary source of its content, his team of speechwriters also influenced him. The content of his speech was an assortment of talking points that centered around three main themes of respect, which were each highlighted in distinct sections of the speech. The conclusion of his speech was the most significant part of his speech, as he used it to share his journey from humble beginnings to a presidential candidate. Altogether, his speech proved successful in its goal: Nixon was able to unify the Republican Party and rally them to victory at the polls in November.

II. Preparation

Vital to the success of any speech is a great deal of preparation, and Nixon’s address accepting the nomination is no exception. Prior to any practical preparation of the speech came an understanding of the use of rhetoric in political persuasion. Having experienced several political campaigns before, Nixon had a firm understanding of the importance of rhetoric as a tool to persuade voters to support him over the other candidates. Moreover, the rhetoric of his speeches indicates that he had a strong grasp on the roots of rhetoric found in Aristotle, who laid the foundation for all rhetorical theory in his treatise on the subject. Equally important to his understanding of rhetoric as an important tool of persuasion, Nixon had many experiences in his life that contributed to his development as a public speaker. Tendencies springing out of both his personality and his experiences growing up shaped him into the rhetorician that he was in 1968. Finally, in the immediate preparation for the acceptance speech, Nixon and his speechwriting team put in a great deal of effort. Work on the drafts for a speech began several weeks before the convention, with the earliest drafts dating to mid-July. Historical records indicate that his team of speechwriters assisted him as he put together and revised his speech into what it would become weeks later. Since several drafts of the speech still exist, one can revisit the molding process of the speech by analyzing the primary differences between the drafts.

Nixon’s Formative Years

Nixon’s rhetorical style was likely informed by his personality and characteristics that were shaped in his youth. Friends and family of Nixon described him as shy and introverted in his youth. This aspect of his personality did not change much throughout his life, as those close to him during his presidency still noted the solitary inclinations of his character.[2] However, his introversion did not deter Nixon from seeking out the spotlight of public speaking. In fact, he sought after the attention. Early in his education, when he was only in the seventh grade, his competitive personality drew him into the world of speech and debate. His teachers assigned him positions to argue, and he was quick to conduct a careful investigation of the topic to discover the most compelling arguments in favor of his assigned stance. Such planning and preparation allowed him to become successful in forensics, frequently coming in first place during debates and at tournaments. Nixon continued honing his speaking and debating abilities as he progressed through high school and college.[3]

Throughout his studies of rhetoric in his education, Nixon undoubtedly became familiar with the principles that Aristotle laid out in his aptly named treatise, Rhetoric. In this text, the Greek philosopher laid out the fundamental ideas concerning the art of persuasion. Commonly referred to today, Aristotle established the ideas of a speaker’s ethos, pathos, and logos—that is, his credibility, use of emotions, and reasoning. Nixon learned the importance of these rhetorical elements and employed their use in his public speaking. His use of credibility and logic is widely evident throughout his speeches, as they were typically well structured with a strong use of traditional indicators of main points and transitions, such as repetitive words or phrases.[4]

While he typically favored effectiveness over eloquence, he also knew the importance of using emotion to persuade audiences. He employed this technique in his famous “Checkers speech” in 1952, when he defended his vice-presidential candidacy as Eisenhower’s running mate against accusations that he had accepted illegal campaign donations. In this televised address to the nation, he mentioned that his family received a dog as a gift named Checkers by his six-year-old daughter. He said that “regardless what they say about [the dog], we’re gonna keep it.”[5] Nixon did not mention the dog for the purpose of credibility or logic, but to relate to audiences emotionally. His defense worked, too, as he and Eisenhower won the election and he remained Vice President for the next eight years, before seeking the presidency himself.

Nixon’s formation as a public speaker was not limited to successful engagements with audiences. In the 1960 Presidential election against John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon became notorious for his inability to successfully debate the energetic Democrat. On television, this became even more to his disadvantage, as the contrasting impressions of the two candidates were more vividly left in the minds of American voters.[6] His failures in 1960 were rooted in part of his personality. Although he had much debate experience, he was not a quick thinker; he had always preferred to be cautious and needed much forethought and planning to be effective in his oral persuasion. However, once he had taken the cautionary steps of preparation, he was an excellent speaker.[7] As a result, in 1968 Nixon did not make the same mistakes that he had made during his previous bid. In that year, he had no televised debates with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. Throughout the campaign, Nixon only had nineteen appearances on television, and these were all in controlled contexts where he had question and answer sessions with citizens, had the audience support of local Republican clubs, and did not allow the participation of outside reporters.[8] Controlling the environment was a wise strategy, as he could cater his presentations to the strength of preparation—undoubtedly one of the benefits of his acceptance speech, which would be his first, nationally televised speech of the campaign and could be recycled for promotional material.

The 1968 Election

Throughout the Republican primary elections of 1968, Nixon was generally regarded as the frontrunner. He faced opposition from the more moderate candidates, Governor George Romney of Michigan and Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, as well as the more conservative candidate, Governor Ronald Reagan of California. Out of the thirteen states that held a Republican primary election, Nixon won nine. After winning nine out of the thirteen state primary elections that were held during the year, Nixon went into the Republican National Convention in Miami with the strongest advantage.

The primary elections were much more turbulent for the Democratic Party in 1968. At the beginning of the year, it was presumed that Lyndon Johnson, the incumbent Democratic president, would seek reelection. However, he faced growing criticism within his own party, and soon opposing candidates entered the race. Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota announced his candidacy, soon followed by Senator Robert Kennedy from New York. Shortly after a poor performance in the New Hampshire primary, President Johnson decided to withdraw from the election. However, in late April, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race and became the Party’s most likely choice. In early June, following a narrow victory against McCarthy in the California primary, Kennedy was assassinated. Eventually in late August, at the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Hubert Humphrey secured the delegates needed for the nomination.

Unlike most elections in the United States, the election of 1968 was not between two candidates; it was between three: Nixon, Humphrey, and a candidate of the American Independent Party, Governor George Wallace of Alabama. Wallace’s popularity in the South opened the door for a unique moment in American politics—a door that increased the importance of Nixon’s rhetoric. The legitimacy of a third party candidate led to a decrease in an identifiable difference between the two main parties; Wallace himself emphasized this idea frequently in his campaign, saying, “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties.”[9] While Wallace likely made that claim for the purpose of distinguishing himself from his opponents more than attempting to reveal an accurate portrayal of reality, his accusations have some merit. Since he was perceived as a more extreme candidate, the polarization of the Democrats and Republicans arguably decreased.

As a result of a prominent third party candidate, Nixon’s success depended on distinguishing himself rhetorically from his Democratic and Independent opponents. The strategy of his campaign has been described as a “non-campaign” where slight appeals were made to voters leaning toward Wallace and a position of neutrality was taken toward every other voter.[10] Out of this strategy arose a natural need for Nixon to win the election on a basis other than policy; he would need to win simply by being more persuasive to the American public. In part, this led to Nixon’s broad appeal to the American public. While he avoided identifying with specific groups, he did attempt to identify with broad ones: the youth, the elderly, the American worker, and, “the silent center, the millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who do not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly.”[11] This broad appeal in a radio address aptly entitled “A New Alignment for American Unity” attempted to realign the political landscape in Nixon’s favor by appealing to as many voters as possible, and it certainly included rhetoric that informed his acceptance speech.

The Drafting Process

Important to the preparation process of the speech were Nixon’s three key speechwriters: Raymond Price, William Safire, and Patrick Buchanan. Each speechwriter was chosen for Nixon’s team because they offered a different advantage to the team. Particularly interesting in the records contained at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library is that the first typed draft of the speech was labeled with Price’s name. Out of the three speechwriters, Price was considered the most “liberal,” “introverted,” and “relatively dovish.”[12] As Nixon was compiling research to determine the most important issues to the general public so that he could highlight them in his speech, Price might have helped make his speech more moderate so that it would appeal to wider audiences. This would also serve to help unify the Party, as Nixon’s main opponents in the primary, with the exception of Reagan, were more to Nixon’s political left. Thus, moderating the speech would make the audiences at the convention more appreciative of it.

Some evidence contradicts the possibility that Price, or any of the other speechwriters, even saw drafts of Nixon’s speech; it is quite possible that, aside from advice on direction, he wrote the entire speech and each version himself. In a 2007 interview, Raymond Price stated, “[Nixon] did the [1968] acceptance himself, entirely out in Montauk. We didn’t see it until he gave it.”[13] However, he further added, “I think he did the same thing in ’72. I don’t recall for sure, but I think he did.”[14] The uncertainty of his memory casts some doubt on the level of involvement that he, or the other speechwriters, might have had in the drafting process. Moreover, it is incredibly likely that Price in particular had some influence on the drafting of the speech, as Safire recorded an account that Price went to Montauk with Nixon.[15] Nevertheless, it is still possible that Price could have been with Nixon but not have seen the actual speech. Moreover, his testimony suggests that Nixon likely did have a great degree of independence in writing the acceptance speech. After all, Safire did testify that, “Nixon could write his own speech [. . . .] He was right in there in the beginning saying this is what I want to say and this is how I want to say it.”[16] Thus, while the extent of Price’s involvement in the drafting is unknown, it is fairly certain that the acceptance speech was first, foremost, and finally Nixon’s handiwork.

The earliest drafts of Nixon’s acceptance speech exist in the form of handwritten notes on his iconic yellow legal pads. However, in these notes, handwriting is difficult to discern with the exception of words that correspond to parts of his speech that were also included in the final speech or in three other typed drafts. Assumedly, these notes were written prior to the earliest typed draft, which was dated to July 19, 1968. However, there is a possibility that these notes were written in the intermittent period between the first and second draft, dated August 4, 1968.[17] A third typed draft was given the date of August 5.

Unsurprisingly, the most significant differences in the three drafts exist between the first draft and the latter two drafts. The initial draft lacked any clear organization, but it established the vocabulary that Nixon would eventually use in his final version. The majority of its content focused on reestablishing the rule of law domestically instead of improving respect for America abroad and advocating for the self-determination of American citizens. This is fascinating, as many of the criticisms about Nixon’s acceptance speech revolve around his rhetoric used to emphasize law and order. It is possible that Nixon realized the potential criticisms and decided to shift his focus to something else, but it is more probable that he desired to reach a broader audience by crafting a vision for the presidency that was more balanced between international and domestic concerns. Regardless, the second draft remedied the lack of structure of the first by organizing the content around three main themes of respect. But perhaps the most significant difference does not pertain to the three main subjects that Nixon discussed throughout his speech, but rather pertains to the emotional ending of Nixon’s speech: the first of the three drafts lacked the personal, emotional ending that would eventually be included.

It might have been after the first draft was written that one account of Nixon acting oddly emotional occurred. Dwight Chapin, who worked closely on Nixon’s campaign in 1968, recalled that Nixon broke out in tears on a ride in a small private jet from Wisconsin to Florida. According to Chapin, this event took place sometime in the weeks before the Republican Convention while Nixon and Price were discussing the acceptance speech drafts. Chapin said, “[H]e started talking about his mother and dad and his brother and the brother he had lost to tuberculosis and so forth[;] it was really bringing up stuff in him.”[18] At some point while he was drafting the speech, his own past, with all of the trials it contained, became a part of the content.

Chapin’s recollections complement a claim from a lower-level speechwriter for Nixon’s campaign, William Gavin, who said that following his speech, Nixon took him aside personally, thanked him for his contributions, saying, “You could tell I used your themes.”[19] Nixon was referring to the themes of emotion. Prior to the nomination, Nixon had asked him to join his campaign tour, saying, “You’ll be on my plane with Buchanan and Price and Safire. The Tricia. You write with heart. There aren’t many people who can write with heart.”[20] Gavin’s record, combined with Chapin’s, suggest that Nixon’s inclusion of his personal journey in the speech was not only deliberate but also authentically emotional. He may have taken the direction of Gavin to emphasize heart, but it was his own heart that he emphasized.

III. Presentation

The success of Nixon’s acceptance speech in Miami was dependent on his delivery of the content that he had spent several weeks honing that would motivate voters to support him. It should be noted that Nixon made some minor, last minute adjustments to his speech that gave him more credibility to the audience. However, the majority of the speech that he delivered had not changed since the third draft. The content of his speech followed a logical structure that allowed him to speak on a vast range of issues. Following his introductory statements, he drew the audience in by painting a picture of what the current state of America and the world looked like. From this point, he drove listeners to consider what the state of America and the world should look like and he began explaining his vision for the future. The first of the successive sections focused on strengthening the respect of America internationally. Next, he transitioned into the theme of restoring the respect of law and order at home. Finally, he explored what it might look like to restore respect for individuals and allow them to become successful on their own. To conclude his speech, he tied in his final idea with his own life experiences, poetically describing his journey from humble beginnings to a world-known politician.\

Changes from Last Known Draft

On the day of the presentation, there were a few minor changes from what was written in the last draft. The most notable alteration is the inclusion of a recognition of Eisenhower’s struggling health near the very beginning of the speech. In addition to being a friendly gesture to the former president, it also served to remind audiences of his credibility—Nixon was the former vice president who served under perhaps the most popular president of his time. With just a simple nod to Eisenhower, audiences would have easily made the mental connection between the two leaders. Moreover, the inclusion of this gesture also served to help unite the party, distinguishing it from the disorganized Democratic Party. Under Eisenhower, strong leadership unified the Republican Party; Nixon was implying that the same would be seen under his leadership. It also served the purpose of unity by reminding Republicans of something they held in common—appreciation for the former leader’s achievements.

International Respect

Throughout his speech, Nixon made frequent references to the importance of restoring respect for the United States of America at the international level. From his perspective, under the previous eight years of Democratic executives, America had lost the esteem it had gained in the eyes of the world with Eisenhower as her figurehead. To him, the election of 1968 meant “not only the future of America but the future of peace and freedom in the world for the last third of the Twentieth Century.”[21] He believed that an answer to the failures of the previous administrations was “a complete reappraisal of America’s policies in every section of the world.”[22] Following this claim, Nixon began a section of his speech focused on the matter of international relations, advocating the policies of bringing an honorable end to the war in Vietnam, promoting a “new internationalism,” an “era of negotiation” with Communist nations, and taking a tough stance against the aggressive actions of North Korea. Together, he hoped that these positions would restore international respect for the United States.[23]

Nixon’s speaking abilities were not perfect, but when he made mistakes, he was able to maintain his composure so that audiences would not so easily detect his errors. One such mistake came near the end of this section of the speech, where he told the crowd, “As we commit to new policies for America tonight, let me make one further pledge.”[24] Yet what he said next was not a part of the speech in the last known draft, nor was it precisely a pledge. After glancing down at his paper, he continued with a new phrase before glancing down again, likely realizing the pledge he accidentally omitted: “We shall restore respect for the United States of America around the world.”[25] Despite his mishap, he continued without hesitation speaking about how the United States had lost respect in the world since Eisenhower’s presidency.

Nixon concluded this section of his speech that emphasized gaining respect internationally by referencing an ongoing crisis that had captivated the attention of Americans since January: the seizure of the USS Pueblo by North Korea. The subject was not a new one for his campaign, nor would it go away any time soon. In October, he would give a radio address on international concerns, noting how ten months of captivity for an American ship and crew “is an incredible humiliation of the United States.”[26] Both in the radio address and in his acceptance speech, Nixon accentuated that North Korea was a “fourth-rate military power.” It would have been embarrassing enough if the ship had been captured by a strong nation such as Russia or China, but to be captured by a weaker country like North Korea was seen as an utter disgrace. Nixon did not believe that President Johnson had responded properly, and that the United States needed to take a tougher stance against our opponent. He concluded his point to the audience enthusiastically, saying, “[I]t is time for new leadership to restore respect for the United States of America.”[27] The audience erupted in one of the longest applauses of the evening.

Respect for the Rule of Law

Following his commentary on restoring respect for the United States internationally, Nixon transitioned seamlessly into a commentary of restoring respect for the rule of law: “If we are to restore prestige and respect for America abroad, the place to begin is at home in the United States of America.”[28] At this statement, the audience applauded once again. In Nixon’s descriptions of chaos and disorder, he was describing the United States as it was: the summer of 1967 was filled with over a hundred riots across the country, and riots following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968 left hundreds dead alongside piles of rubble in several cities across the states, particularly brutal in Chicago, Baltimore, and the District of Columbia. Nixon’s audience in 1968 knew that the world—and especially the United States—was chaotic and disordered, filled with unnecessary violence and bloodshed. They wanted to see order restored.

There has been some criticism to Nixon’s speech, which emphasized the idea of law and order, arguing that its language was racially coded to appeal to racists. Such critics argue that crime had not been an issue in Nixon’s 1960 campaign, implying that crime was not a problem until “racial disorder was defined as a crime problem.”[29] Such implications that rhetoric of “law and order” was directly linked to race appear to be based on an illusory correlation. Racial tensions did not suddenly appear during the 1960s, nor did Nixon suddenly decide to deliberately use racially coded language. The Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, signed into law by a Republican administration with Nixon as vice president, preceded the election of 1960. The key difference between 1960 and 1968 was that in 1960, there had not been any major riots in America; by the election in 1968, there had been dozens.

As a whole, the nation may not have been experiencing crime rates increasing any more rapidly than in the previous eight years. However, what the nation actually experiences and what the nation sees are not necessarily the same. Just as there was a general support for the “war on terrorism” after the attacks on 9/11, there was a general support during the late 1960s for a “war on crime.” As the same critic of Nixon’s speech observed, even Humphrey and the Democratic Party supported a tougher stance on crime during the election year.[30] Americans were reacting to the trauma they witnessed in cities across the nation, not to issues of race. Consequently, “law and order” was not code for fighting the civil rights movement. If the phrase were code for anything, it would have been code for reestablishing respect for the authority of American leadership both internationally and domestically.

Nixon was not against change, but he wanted the change to be civil. He claimed that 1968 was “an age of revolution in America and in the world,” but this was not a revolution he outright denounced; he sympathized with it. He also recognized that if the revolution of the day were to achieve progress, it would need to follow the example of the “world’s greatest continuing revolution, the American Revolution,” by maintaining order.[31] This idea of order in the American Revolution hearkens back to the Declaration of Independence, where the Founders set an example of order: they did not revolt for “light and transient causes,” and they voiced their grievances in the most well-mannered ways as to them seemed “most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”[32] The civility of the American Revolution was the civility that Nixon expressly wanted to see in the current revolution, saying, “[L]et us have order in America [. . .] the order which guarantees the right to dissent and provides the basis for civil change.”[33] Nixon wanted to see progress, but more importantly, he wanted to see progress without miles of city blocks being burnt to the ground from riots.

A large part of this section of his speech was dedicated to a pledge for a new Attorney General who would be dedicated to ending the wave of violence. Nixon said that this Attorney General would “launch a war against organized crime,” “be an active belligerent against the loan sharks and the numbers racketeers that rob the urban poor,” and “open a new front against the filth peddlers and the narcotics peddlers who are corrupting the lives of children.”[34] Again, Nixon was not exaggerating fears in order to scare people into supporting him; he was describing what he and others saw happening in the country and what he would offer to address the problems: an Attorney General who would be a strong advocate against “the merchants of crime and corruption in American society.”[35]

Promoting Self-Respect

In addition to championing a renewal of American respect internationally and a respect for the rule of law at home, Nixon also wanted to encourage a more personal type of respect: self-respect. His speech was filled with ideas of the American Dream: that everyone in the United States should have the equal opportunity to pursue happiness and become successful through hard work. Furthermore, Nixon believed that self-respect was the necessary product of recognizing the dignity innate in every human. However, Nixon did not believe that such self-respect came from the government—a sharp distinction from his Democratic opponents who advocated continuing the aims of Johnson’s Great Society. Instead, he thought that self-respect would be the byproduct of greater involvement in private enterprise and an independence from the burgeoning welfare state. He highlighted this point in two key sections in his speech: the first immediately following the section on the rule of law, and the second near the end of the speech, where he poetically imagined what a child of the day might grow up to face.

Similar to earlier in his speech, Nixon transitioned seamlessly into his new topic of self-respect, saying, “If we are to have respect for law in America, we must have laws that deserve respect.”[36] The implication of this assertion was that the laws and programs passed under Johnson’s administration—particularly those of the Great Society—were not worthy of respect. He asserted that under Johnson, America was “deluged by government programs for the unemployed; programs for the cities; programs for the poor,” which only led to “an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land.”[37] The great problem of welfare programs was not that they provided “for all those who cannot help themselves,” but that it made those who were unnecessarily dependent on governmental assistance for their livelihood.[38] Instead of having “more millions on welfare rolls,” Nixon wanted the government to help see “more millions on payrolls.”[39]

Nixon’s Heart

While the content and structure of his speech reveal a strong emphasis on respect, the most important part of the speech to Nixon personally appears to be its use of pathos. He made a bold move by emotionally describing his journey from childhood to where he stood as he gave the speech, a presidential nominee with millions of supporters. This description begins with an anonymous child who “hears the train go by at night” and “dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go,” and continues describing the child’s journey until it is revealed that “tonight he stands before you—nominated for the President of the United States of America.”[40] With the ending of the story, Nixon received his largest applause of the evening. It was this poetic part of the speech that meant the most to Nixon, both in the preparation and presentation of it.

Rhetorically, the ending of Nixon’s speech was exceptional. While the first two thirds of the speech had been spoken with more energy and received more frequent applauses, the last third of his speech was arguably most important. Nixon strategically peaked with his energetic emotion around two thirds of the way, and then brought the audience in a little closer by speaking to them calmly. Through this method, Nixon effectively opened up the audience by getting them energized and then let them feel like they were getting to know him on a more personal level—he shifted his tone from speaking like a passionate leader to speaking like a friend. This tactic allowed him to build more trust with his audience. They were not simply listening to someone who was telling them the importance of creating a society where individuals could find success without the help of government; they were listening to an individual who had accomplished just that. As a result, he energized his audience and then established a personal, emotional connection with them that brought an inspirational conclusion to his acceptance speech—enough to inspire the Republican Party to victory in November.

Nixon’s endearment to the emotional ending of his speech is supported by multiple historical accounts. As referenced earlier, Dwight Chapin mentioned in an interview that Nixon appeared strangely emotional around the time that he was working on the acceptance speech, even crying about his family. Also, William Gavin said that shortly following his speech, Nixon personally greeted him, thanked him for some suggestions about telling his journey, and emphasized how important the “heart” was for his speech. In addition to these accounts, William Safire also chronicled his experience with Nixon’s reaction to the speech following its delivery. “Politics is poetry,” Nixon said, “Not prose, no matter how good. Mood. Emotion. Oh, you can’t do it often, but once in a while, at a historic moment, you need the poetry.”[41] He was aware that his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination was an important historical moment.

Nixon capitalized on this moment in history to share a story that would mean something to his audience because it meant something to him. In his memoir, Nixon does not speak in detail about the convention in Miami or its influence on the outcome of the election. He does not mention his interactions with Chapin or Gavin before his speech, nor does he mention his interactions with his speechwriters following the delivery. Rather, his brief recollections of the event are only a few pages long. However, in those few pages, he cites one particular passage of the speech: his journey. He writes of the journey, “It was intentionally dramatic, and it was completely true.”[42] For all his talk about restoring international respect for the nation, respect for the rule of law, and respect for the individual’s capacity for success, he seems to care much more about his own struggle for success; he seems to care more about the heart of the speech. He had come from humble beginnings, rose to heights of achievement, and then confronted bitter defeats. Yet when he delivered his speech, he was making a comeback to the pinnacle of success. Nixon realized the profoundness of what was happening on the night of August 8 and he conveyed this realization to his audience sincerely.

IV. Conclusion

Richard Nixon’s success in the 1968 presidential election resulted from his broad appeal to the silent American majority and his ability to unify them around a common theme: respect—respect for America on the international stage, respect for the rule of law, and respect for the self-determination of the American citizen. Instrumental to this unification was his address accepting the presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida. His broad appeal to different audiences, his emphasis on the theme of respect during this speech, and the positive reaction of the audience to his use of that theme suggest that it was a key factor in the election of Nixon to the presidency in 1968. The preparation and presentation of his speech worked together harmoniously so that the public was persuaded by his rhetoric. In their eyes, he successfully distinguished himself from the other candidates.

Nixon’s acceptance speech was given in the best circumstances and helped him win enough votes in the Electoral College to secure the presidency. Not only was the speech nationally televised, but it was also given under conditions that Nixon could easily prepare for and control. It was not a debate, so Nixon would not need to worry about responding to sudden surprises. Moreover, by coming into the convention as the strongest candidate in the primaries allowed Nixon to have more certainty in his preparations; he was able to spend more time considering how to unify the Republican Party than how to win against his opponents. These circumstances combined with the content of his speech allowed him to persuade his audiences—both the audience in the same physical room who roared in applause and the audience of the nation who were impressed by his delivery. A poll conducted in the following October of that year, just before the election, indicated that Nixon’s acceptance speech at the convention was well received by voters, with 49 percent agreeing that his acceptance speech had been “one of the best in a long time,” compared to only 32 percent of voters saying the same of Humphrey’s acceptance speech in Chicago.[43] The positive reception of Nixon’s speech undoubtedly led to his victory in the general election, when he narrowly defeated Humphrey in the popular vote, but won 301 electoral votes compared to Humphrey’s 191 and Wallace’s 46.

1968 was a year filled with violent wars, racial tensions, and chaotic protests. Yet amidst the tumultuous time, Richard Nixon made one of the most impressive political comebacks. He may have lost major elections in 1960 and 1962, but the election of 1968 presented a new opportunity. Perhaps it was of the day of his nomination that Nixon remembered six years later when he said,

The greatness comes not when things go always good for you, but the greatness comes when you are really tested, when you take some knocks, some disappointments, when sadness comes, because only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.[44]

With his previous campaign failures, he had known the pain of a deep valley, but as he gave his acceptance speech, he knew he was climbing toward the highest mountain. In the moment he delivered his speech, he embodied the ideas of respect that he was proclaiming. Just as he was making a comeback politically, America could make a comeback internationally and domestically. His example of achieving success could inspire others to persevere in their pursuit of happiness.


[1] Richard Nixon, “Address Accepting the Presidential Nomination at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida,” August 8, 1968, The American Presidency Project by Gerhard Peters and John T. Wooley. Available online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25968.

[2] Hal W. Bochin, Richard Nixon: Rhetorical Strategist, (Westport Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1990), 85.

[3] Ibid., 85, 4.

[4] Bochin, 90.

[5] Nixon, “The Checkers Speech,” September 23, 1952, The American Presidency Project by Gerhard Peters and John T. Wooley. Available online at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=24485.

[6] Richard J. Burke, “Politics as Rhetoric,” Ethics 93 no. 1 (Oct. 1982), 53.

[7] Bruce Mazlish, “Toward a Psychohistorical Inquiry: The ‘Real’ Richard Nixon,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 1 no. 1 (Fall 1970), 67.

[8] Bochin, 88.

[9] George Wallace quoted in “The Perception of Ideological Difference” by Donald Granberg and Thad A. Brown, The Western Political Quarterly 45 no. 3 (Sep. 1992), 730.

[10] The Ripon Society, The Lessons of Victory: A full report and analysis of Election ’68, and what it means for the future (New York: The Dial Press, 1969), 7.

[11] Richard Nixon, “Remarks on the CBS Radio Network: ‘A New Alignment for American Unity,’” May 16, 1968. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency .ucsb .edu/ws/?pid=123876.

[12] Bochin, 90.

[13] Raymond Price, Interview with Timothy Naftali, April 4, 2007, 32. Available at https://www.nixon library.gov/virtuallibrary/documents/histories/price-2007-04-04.pdf.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William Safire, Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate Whitehouse (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975), 52.

[16] Safire, Interview with Timothy Naftali, March 27, 2008, 4. Available at https://www.nixonlibrary.gov/ virtuallibrary/documents/histories/safire-2008-03-27.pdf.

[17] Richard Nixon, “Acceptance Speeches,” Richard Nixon Presidential Library Archives, PPS 208, Box 91.

[18] Dwight Chapin, Interview with Timothy Naftali, April 2, 2008. Available at https://www.nixonlibrary .gov/virtuallibrary/documents/histories/chapin-2007-04-02.pdf.

[19] William Gavin, “Source Material: His Heart’s Abundance: Notes of a Nixon Speechwriter,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 31 no. 2 (June 2001), 360.

[20] Gavin, 361.

[21] Nixon, Acceptance Speech.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Nixon, Acceptance Speech Draft 3 (August 5, 1968), 10.

[26] Richard Nixon, “Remarks on the CBS Radio Network: ‘The Security Gap,’” October 24, 1968. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project (available at http://www.presidency.ucsb. edu/ws/?pid=123927).

[27] Nixon, Acceptance Speech.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Vesla M. Weaver, “Frontlash: Race and the Development of Punitive Crime Policy,” Studies in American Political Development 21 (Fall 2007), 263.

[30] Ibid., 259.

[31] Nixon, Acceptance Speech.

[32] Declaration of Independence.

[33] Nixon, Acceptance Speech.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Nixon, Acceptance Speech.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Nixon, Acceptance Speech.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Nixon in Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House by William Safire (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 2005), 56.

[42] Nixon, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978), 315.

[43] Craig R. Smith, “Richard Nixon’s 1968 acceptance speech as a model of dual audience adaptation,” Today’s Speech (Fall 1971), 15.

[44] Nixon, “Final Remarks to the White House Staff,” August 9, 1784.


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