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From The White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration) on Wikimedia Commons

The Detective Story that Broke Politics

Luke A. Nichter—

For me, December 7th is not “a date which will live in infamy,” as Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1941. It is a date—December 7th, 2017—in which I realized I was not just researching the 1968 presidential election but something closer to a detective story. Of all the former officials I talked to while researching the book from the four major sides—Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, and George Wallace—it was my meeting on that day with former Vice President Walter Mondale that led to the book that resulted.

Looking back at that period now, I was wrong about two things. I assumed that the 50th anniversary of the year 1968 would result in a number of new books full of fresh insight, especially in the Trump erasince the culture wars of the late 1960s offer some of the most valuable insights and lessons about those of our more recent era. With only a few minor exceptions, there was no commemorationperhaps because we were more focused on our own era. Many in the national media emphasized that the country’s divisions were greater in the twenty-teens than they were during the 1960s. It was a missed opportunity for history to be some sort of guide.

Secondly, I assumed on that particular trip to Minneapolis, for research and interviews to deepen my knowledge of the Humphrey side of the campaign, that Walter Mondale would be the least important person I would talk to. Yes, he was a big name. But he also had his own political career. How interested in the ’68 election could he possibly be? I assumed he would be more interested in talking about the Carter administration or his own run for the presidency in ’84. This is often the case when I talk to a major figure about a less notable period of their career. However, it was Humphrey’s longtime press secretary, Norman Sherman, who put me up to it and made the introduction. I owe him for it.

Historians are not good at conducting interviews. I’m certainly not. Part of it is the word “interview.” It sounds official. I’d rather just have a conversation. Interviews are not part of our academic training. We’re supposed to look at records left behind by people, usually after they die, and assemble the evidence like puzzle pieces. Except sometimes we have only the vaguest idea what the finished puzzle is supposed to look like, and we rarely find all the missing pieces—especially when researching controversial and complicated subjects. Documents don’t often have much to say about relationships or personal networks, which is why talking to people is so important. At the same time, talking to people can be misleading. A historian can’t utilize people the same way they utilize archival material.

Vice President Mondale was very enjoyable to talk to—an interesting person, always smiling, fascinated by other people, eager to help, and didn’t take himself too seriously. I was seven years old when he ran for President in 1984, but I do not think his personality really came through in what I have seen of the coverage of the campaign. If a lack of deeply researched history about the 1968 presidential election motivated me to write this book, I suppose no one has gotten to 1984 yet. Perhaps it was my own Midwest roots, but the casual conversations and homecooked meals I had with the Humphrey side were some of the most unexpected and interesting experiences of working on this book. I could relate to cold, dark, flat, sparsely populated, industrial parts of the country.

I proceeded to my appointment at 10:30 a.m. that Friday at his law firm, Dorsey & Whitney, at 50 South Sixth Street in downtown Minneapolis. His Executive Assistant, Lynda Petersen, was out that day, but another assistant, Jan Thompson, showed me right in to an empty conference room. There was a long conference table, and I found a seat to the right of the end closest to the door. I saw no other people in the office. It was absolutely quiet, too quiet, as if everyone had gotten an early start on the holidays. I remember thinking to myself how unusual it was that 40 years after the Carter administration, both the former President and Vice President were each going relatively strong. I can’t imagine the same can ever have been said of any other period in U.S. history.

Within a few minutes I saw a figure of a person through the frosted glass slowly making his (or her) way down the long hallway—meandering, shuffling, and I saw when he entered the room he was leaning on a cane. He gave me a big smile and made me feel important—as if our meeting was the most important thing he had to do that day. What I did not expect was that this nearly 90-year-old came ready for battle. Not against me, but to really debate the subject. I think he was more prepared than I was to discuss 1968, as if he was right back in it. Mondale discussed ‘68 a little in his memoir, The Good Fight: A Liberal in Politics. In fact, I brought a copy for him to sign, and now that he is gone it is a cherished keepsake. But what he said during our conversation went way beyond anything I’ve seen him write or say to anyone else. It would not have been an obvious subject to ask him about, so perhaps no one ever really did.

Walter Mondale (L) with author, Luke A. Nichter (R).

I’ve never heard anyone so forcefully describe all the ways LBJ undermined his own Vice President. Scholars have been slow to catch on. While earlier writers admitted it did not seem as though LBJ very enthusiastically supported Humphrey’s campaign in 1968, it was not until Arnie Offner’s biography, Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country, which was published the year following my meeting with Mondale that a more accurate portrayal of the Johnson-Humphrey relationshipor lack of—existed in the literature. Mondale emphasized that he had discussed the 1968 presidential election with Humphrey on many occasions. He not only co-chaired his campaign in ’68, and had his old seat in the Senate, but said he became close to Humphrey in the 1970s. Mondale told me how important Humphrey’s advice was when deciding to run with Carter in 1976, and later serve as his Vice President—in the hope of having a better working relationship with him than Humphrey did with Johnson, just before Humphrey tragically succumbed in his battle with cancer.

As I was listening to Mondale, I realized he was striking down a major part of our understanding of the 1968 campaignand unfortunately, he did not offer anything in its place. For 50 years we’ve been taught that of course LBJ preferred the Democratic ticket in 1968. Of course everyone despised Nixon, the “chronic campaigner”[1] as LBJ referred to him in 1966. Of course Nixon and George Wallace made a cynical race-based “Southern Strategy” a major facet of their campaigns, and when that wasn’t enough to put Nixon over the top of course he stole the election with the help of Anna Chennault, a scandal known as the Chennault Affair, a story that was told as recently as March 2017 in a new biography of Nixon by John Aloysius Farrell, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Rick Perlstein’s thesis in Nixonland, that in 1968 a dysfunctional America sought an equally dysfunctional President, was cited by seemingly every scholar.

But now Walter Mondale was telling me that an important part of this story was not true. But exactly how much was not true? So much of the story seemed to be interrelated. And would eliminating the part that was not true require a scalpel, or a sledgehammer? Before leaving the meeting with Mondale, I wanted to be clear. “Did President Johnson want Vice President Humphrey to win?” I asked. “Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” he said. He was emphatic. I didn’t know what to say next, so I simply took the next logical step. “But did Johnson want Nixon to win?” I didn’t plan to ask it. It just came out. He looked me in the eyes. His chin rose slightly, his eyes narrowed, and his shoulders sunk slightly at the same time. Then he gazed across the conference room, before returning his focus on me. “Maybe,” he exhaled. “Maybe.”

I left Mondale’s law firm feeling as though he had given me an assignment, a quest of sorts. Within a matter of months, I would discover Rev. Billy Graham’s newly opened diary, or “VIP Notebooks” as Graham called them. These diaries convinced me that outgoing President Lyndon Johnson ultimately came to prefer former Vice President Richard Nixon. As I describe it in the book, Johnson’s gradual shift was not necessarily because he liked Nixon, which is unknown to me and perhaps even irrelevant, but because Johnson came to believe having Nixon as his successor would be better for his own legacy. It was a valuable lesson to me that despite politics, party labels, and political commitments, an awful lot that happens in Washington is actually motivated by personal selfish reasons. What you see in the book is the rest of the detective story.

[1] The New York Times. 1966. Johnson Derides Nixon’s Criticism of Manila Stand,” November 5, 1966. https://www.nytimes.com/1966/11/05/archives/johnson-derides-nixons-criticism-of-manila-stand-says-republican.html.

Luke A. Nichter is professor of history and James H. Cavanaugh Endowed Chair in Presidential Studies at Chapman University. He is the author of The Last Brahmin: Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and the Making of the Cold War. He lives in Orange, CA, and Bowling Green, OH.

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