By Sinead Hunt
This week I had the distinct pleasure of visiting a New York City landmark that has been on my list for quite some time: the New York Historical Society. Typically, tickets for students can be quite pricey ($12 with student ID). However, on Friday nights from 6 to 8 p.m., the Historical Society runs a promotion where visitors can enter for a “suggested donation.” Thus, with only a crinkled dollar bill to spare, I was able to gain admittance into this amazing New York resource.
My favorite exhibit of the night was definitely, “Campaigning for the Presidency, 1960-1972: Selections from the Museum of Democracy.” This collection of political memorabilia allows visitors to experience firsthand the highly contentious presidential campaigns of
the 1960’s. All in all, I found the items in the collection to be highly entertaining. From Richard Nixon’s many poorly-worded campaign slogans, including, “Click with Dick!” and “My Pick is Dick,” to cigarette packages proudly displaying Nixon’s face, I found myself stifling my laughter as I meandered about the exhibit. Though the collection was, without a doubt, incredibly funny, it was at the same time both informative and captivating. I believe that the political paraphernalia displayed in this collection affords visitors a unique insight into political zeitgeist of the 1960’s.
The first presidential race discussed in this exhibit was the election of 1960. As tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to escalate, American voters were faced with the decision to elect either seasoned vice-president Richard Nixon, or the charming one-term senator, John F. Kennedy. The advent of the televised debate proved decidedly important in the election of 1960. Over seventy-seven million Americans tuned in to watch the presidential debate from the comfort of their own homes. Kennedy excelled during the debate, looking right into the camera in order to provide a sense of intimacy with the viewership. Nixon, however, floundered on camera. He refused to wear stage makeup, and the bright lights of the set made him sweat excessively, so that he came across to voters as extremely nervous. Ultimately, the televised debate highlighted one of Nixon’s greatest weaknesses as a candidate: his complete lack of charisma. As a result, much of the political paraphernalia produced by the Nixon campaign aimed to portray their candidate as personable (hence, the awkwardly phallic campaign slogans).
The second campaign examined in this exhibit was the election of 1964, which was a veritable tete-a-tete between incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Johnson, who had vowed to “build a great society” upon his ascension to the presidency in 1963, ran on a campaign promising greater social programs. Johnson defiantly declared a “war on poverty,” and sought to create a better society for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, culture, or socioeconomic class. Republicans struggled to unite behind candidate Barry Goldwater. In particular, Goldwater’s decision to oppose the 1964 Civil Right’s Act alienated many moderate Republicans. Goldwater’s many off the cuff remarks regarding liberalism, as well as his vehement emphasis on states’ rights, portrayed him as an extremist. In response to Goldwater’s campaign slogan, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right,” the Johnson campaign countered with the incisively witty comeback, “In Your Gut You Know He’s Nuts.” Ultimately, the American people’s perception of LBJ as a moderate candidate proved invaluable in helping him to be elected.
The 1968 presidential race featured, once again, Richard Nixon, as well as LBJ’s vice-president, Hubert Humphrey. Though Nixon had already lost the presidency once, by 1968 the general tone of American politics had been completely transformed. Voters, disenchanted by America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, increasingly resented Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson’s withdrawal from the race offered a way for three contenders: anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy, vice-president Hubert Humphrey and, the one and only Richard Nixon. While Hubert Humphrey ran a campaign that boasted the accomplishments of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, Nixon’s campaign invoked images of burning American cities. In response to the race riots proceeding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic death, Nixon ran on a “law and order” campaign, capitalizing on the racially-motivated fear many Americans secretly harbored (sound familiar to anyone?). Nixon’s criticism of federal civil rights legislation resonated with many White Southerners, and his favorability among the “silent majority” undeniably helped him to secure success in such a close race.
Ultimately, I believe that this exhibit is incredibly important, even now more than ever (incidentally Nixon’s campaign slogan in the 1972 race). The political climate in the United States is a pendulum, constantly oscillating between conservatism and liberalism. Though Nixon initially lost to liberal candidate John F. Kennedy, he was later able to gain two consecutive terms in office. The 1960’s were an incredibly turbulent time in American history. Between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the forced desegregation of public schools, many Americans resented the government for forcing them to comply with social policies they didn’t necessarily believe in. Many Americans secretly harbored racially-motivated fears, which were further exacerbated by the racial riots following the assassination of Dr. King. This “silent majority,” who felt that the government had betrayed them and their interests, and that their opinions were no longer valued, found their champion in Richard Nixon. In this way, the past forestalls the future, as Donald Trump capitalized on many similar sentiments to win the presidency in the 2016 race.
Image Courtesy of Sinead Hunt
Sinead Hunt is a first-year at Barnard and Liaison for Barnard Bite.