If Party Conventions Seem More Like Infomercials, Blame Nixon

The entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. introducing President Richard Nixon during the 1972 Republican convention in Miami Beach. The backdrop of young people was intended to remind viewers that Nixon had prodded Congress to stop the military draft and lower the voting age to 18.

With only this scene to go on, someone might have concluded that President Richard Nixon was the idol of young voters and African-Americans, which was just the intention of his handlers.

It was the night of Tuesday, Aug. 22, 1972. Strolling about the stage at the outdoor Miami Marine Stadium, Sammy Davis Jr., was warbling his own slightly hipper version of the president’s newly unveiled campaign anthem (“Now more than ever, baby, Nixon now!”).

After a long dry spell, Davis had just returned almost to the top of the charts with his anodyne song “The Candy Man” (which he detested) and, despite his history as a Kennedy Democrat, this Rat Pack alumnus had come out for Nixon. Behind Davis were young people with Afros and wearing bell-bottoms, there to remind TV viewers that it was Nixon who had prodded Congress to stop the military draft and lower the voting age to 18.

Republican delegates in Miami Beach had just nominated Nixon for a second term. Striding into view, Nixon pulled out a camera, awkwardly pretending to photograph Davis as he sang. “I don’t think the youth vote is in anybody’s pocket,” Nixon told the crowd. Then, noting Davis’s Democratic lineage, the president insisted that no one could “buy” Davis’s support with a White House invitation, adding, “You are going to buy him by doing something for America!” Davis startled the president by hugging him.

This month, operatives for Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton have said they will try to mold each of their conventions into something of an infomercial for each of their candidates. For most of American history, this would have been impossible, because usually nominees were not anointed until the delegates met, often after many ballots. But in modern times, with nominations so often locked up in advance, campaigns would be foolish not to try to turn those days of exposure into a major marketing opportunity.

The first to do this with serious forethought was Nixon’s now infamous Committee to Re-elect the President, in 1972. During the convention’s planning, the committee was led by Nixon’s former attorney general, John Mitchell, and featured marketing recruits like the 37-year-old Jeb Stuart Magruder, once of Jewel Food Stores.

Also on the team was H. R. Haldeman, the White House chief of staff. Haldeman had formerly worked at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in Los Angeles, where he was known for his deft touch with customers deemed “horror clients,” like Walt Disney. After the Miami youth rally, Haldeman wrote in his diary that Nixon had “handled it perfectly” and “I think we scored maybe the major coup of the week.”

In public, Nixon professed to care only about substance, but in private, he often micromanaged his future appearances. Before the Wednesday evening acceptance speech, Haldeman told his journal that Nixon “wants to do his makeup in the trailer” and didn’t want his family mingling onstage with that of Vice President Spiro Agnew, whom he disdained. In a June conversation that he taped, Nixon had warned his chief of staff that his wife, Pat, and their daughters should not take a helicopter to the convention hall because “it destroys their hair.”

The 1972 Republican convention was the first to make major use of the first lady, whom the president that week lauded as “the best campaigner in the Nixon family.” Introduced by the actor Jimmy Stewart and California’s governor, Ronald Reagan (wearing a white suit), Mrs. Nixon took the rostrum (which had been created by the set designer for the television show “The Dating Game”) and charmingly used her slender arms to swing an enormous wooden gavel. She pronounced her long audience ovation (complete with mass-produced signs saying, “We love Pat”) “the most wonderful welcome I’ve ever had” and reproached “those who say that we don’t have young people” supporting her husband.

Nixon’s campaign was the first to give prominence to biographical films, which have since become a mainstay of conventions. “Nixon the Man,” produced by the documentarian David Wolper, was narrated by the basso-voiced Richard Basehart, star of the TV science fiction show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” In the film, Basehart professed to reveal “the private man, at work and in his relaxed moments … a man of compassion, courage and conscience,” who urged the nation to “walk without fear.” With his mid-Atlantic accent, Basehart closed portentously, “And America will hear him!” Other films that week showcased Mrs. Nixon and Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower.

Nixon’s well-scrubbed, carefully staged convention was a contrast to that of Senator George McGovern of South Dakota, held the previous month in the same Miami Beach hall — as different as Up With People was from Led Zeppelin. From the Republican stage, Governor Reagan joked that there had been “smoke-filled rooms” at McGovern’s convention, but that “the smoke smelled a little funny.”

Reality was not entirely excluded from this scene. As shown in the 1989 film based on Ron Kovic’s memoir “Born on the Fourth of July,” starring Tom Cruise, the Vietnam veteran made his way into the hall with comrades to remind delegates, in protest, that the Southeast Asian conflict was still raging.

Over all, though, James Reston of The New York Times marveled that week — with a sense of surprise that would be unimaginable nowadays — that Republicans had “controlled this gathering here like a TV show” and called Nixon’s convention “a model of how to use modern political and advertising techniques to win an election.”

But behind the facade were some of the makings of the Watergate scandal, including the Nixon campaign’s secret Operation Gemstone, which envisioned kidnapping, wiretapping, and using prostitutes and additional plots to discredit the Democratic opposition and keep “radicals” and other Nixon critics from disrupting the proceedings. The convention’s financing also caught the eye of federal prosecutors, who later found evidence of secret slush funds, money laundering and quid pro quos.

By the time Nixon left Miami Beach, although he was headed for a landslide, his best days as president were already behind him. During that conversation of June 1972 in which he worried about the impact of helicopters on his wife’s hair, he also ordered Haldeman to obstruct an investigation of that week’s break-in at the Democrats’ Watergate headquarters. Ultimately his recording of this exchange became known as the “smoking gun” tape.

Almost two years after that night with Sammy Davis, that recording helped force Richard Nixon to resign his presidency and send Haldeman and Mitchell to prison.

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