Presidents, Politics and War


Sources: The front pages of the November 5, 6, and 7, 1968 of the New York Times, as well as the November 2 and 5, 1968 front pages from the San Antonio Express in 1968.

By Ross Griffith

The ‘60s were a turbulent time in our nation’s history. The Vietnam War defined the decade, as can be seen by scouring the headlines of newspapers of the day. Thus, following the U.S presidential election of 1968 becomes a tricky process of wading through war-talk to find information on the very close race between Richard M. Nixon and Hubert Humphrey. Once discovered, the information proves to be pretty interesting, if not a little revealing as James Mcrory of the San Antonio Express related in a Page 1 story on November 1, 1968:

“The Nixon entourage will arrive on three planes – the Tricia, the Julie, and the David – at International Airport at 5 p.m. No formal airport ceremonies are planned, other than greetings by local party officials and a motorcade to the Menger Hotel, where Nixon will rest before the speech and spend the night before leaving about 10 a.m. Saturday for an airport rally at Austin.” Despite the still-recent Kennedy assassination, it seems there was very little left to the imagination as to where a hopeful future-president might reside.


Coverage of Nixon’s eventual rise to the presidency is subject to the editorial gatekeeping process, depending on the newspaper covering the election. The New York Times, for instance, dedicates equal time to both Humphrey and Nixon, while focusing primarily on the prospect of peace talks in Paris regarding the Vietnam War, which the candidates reference constantly. Robert B. Simple relayed Nixon’s stance in a news article on Nov. 5, 1968: “In his final appeal to the nation, Richard Nixon declared today that the election of ‘new men’ with ‘fresh ideas’ was necessary if the nation was to avert what he called a ‘diplomatic disaster’ at the Paris talks on Vietnam.”

In the days leading up to the election, The NY Times avoids overt political bias by referring to the two candidates evenly. The focus of news coverage was primarily on the closeness of the race, as Tom Wicker pointed out on the front page of the Nov. 6, 1968 edition: “It remained possible for Mr. Humphrey to score an upset, and there was also a strong possibility that neither would win the 270 electoral votes required for election.”


Despite the paper’s relatively fair coverage, however, the Times’ R.W. Apple Jr. does paint a bleak picture of Humphrey after his inevitable loss. Page 1 of the Nov. 7 edition of the paper carries a story, “A Loser Concedes and Tries to Smile.” Apple had this to say: “The Vice President – a hearty, sentimental man, given to laughter and to tears – tried to smile as he stood on the stage in the Leamington Hotel’s ballroom this morning and listened to his faithful followers shout, ‘We Want Humphrey!’ But what he brought forth was more a grimace than a grin. ‘Thank you very much,’ he said in a quavering voice. ‘It’s nice to know.’”


Listed as “Official photograph” by the Library of Congress; photographer unknown


The 1968 election looks like a completely different affair, however, when examining the coverage provided by the San Antonio Express. Bias for the Republican candidate pervades, as Nixon’s name appears in most headlines regarding the race. What few references to Humphrey there are often give him a sort of sinister vibe, as James Mcrory’s colorful Nov. 5, 1968 front page article exemplifies: “Hubert H. Humphrey, a former pharmacist, prescribed a massive dose of Democratic votes in Bexar County Tuesday, and the prescription proved bad medicine for Richard M. Nixon.”

The SA Express gives many accounts of political bravado from the Nixon camp, as evidenced in Page 1 coverage of a speech in the Nov. 2, 1968 edition: “Applause shook the rafters, loaded with balloons bunched like grapes, when Nixon declared that he is for ‘a strong defense posture while my opponent is against it.’” It’s certainly interesting to note how little politics change, as that vague quote used against an opponent would almost certainly bring the same level of “rafter-shaking” applause if deployed today by a similar candidate.


Despite the bias and all the congratulatory headlines that appeared after the votes were counted and Nixon had secured his place in the White House, it’s back to business as usual immediately for both papers.

Following the election, The Times and the Express quickly shift to the Paris Peace Accord, though they have a new angle now as some reporters and opinion columnists contemplate how Nixon will handle the affairs. Tragically, Nixon’s refusal to remove South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu from power would result in the talks stalling for years after the election, and wound up having little practical effect on the conflict after an agreement was reached five years later, in 1973.

On the Nov. 7, 1968, edition of the NY Times, Hendrick Smith points out the reality of the new situation: “Allied diplomats close to the talks suggested that the Republican victory would probably bring eventual changes in the American negotiating team, encourage delays by the South Vietnamese Government, and induce a wait-and-see attitude by all sides until Mr. Nixon’s own approach to the talks became clearer. The uncertainty about the future relationship between the outgoing Johnson Administration and Mr. Nixon is considered the primary complicating factor.”


Photo courtesy of Oliver F. Atkins, National Archives and Records Administration, 1968


Sadly, the nation continued to lose countless lives in a foreign jungle as the new president — years before his eventual rise to infamy — slowly transitioned from a model campaigner to the leader of the free world.

Ross Griffith is a senior Mass Communications major with Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.


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