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David M. Shribman | Analysis

Echoes of the ‘silent majority,’ 50 years after Richard Nixon’s speech

Right: On Nov. 3, 1969, President Richard Nixon spoke to the nation, using the phrase “the silent majority” to refer to those who supported his ideas and approach. Left: His speech notes.
Right: On Nov. 3, 1969, President Richard Nixon spoke to the nation, using the phrase “the silent majority” to refer to those who supported his ideas and approach. Left: His speech notes.Right: Associated Press/File

It was a moment far in the past — but with ripples that extend to our own time. It reflected the technology of the era and a presidential communications staple that has faded from use — but lives in the political memory of many Americans. It came amid great divisions about the nation’s course — and grave qualms about the president’s character.

Fifty years ago Sunday night, President Richard M. Nixon sat in the Oval Office and delivered a nationally televised speech whose content is almost universally forgotten today, but, like so many major presidential addresses, is remembered for one phrase: “silent majority.’’

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As in: “And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of Americans — I ask for your support.

“I pledged in my campaign for the presidency to end the war in a way that we could win the peace. I have initiated a plan of action which will enable me to keep that pledge.”

Not quite. On Nov. 3, 1969, the Vietnam War had six years — and thousands of deaths — to run.

Nixon’s was an unsubtle appeal to one America — patiently patriotic in a time of growing war-time dissent — over another, and was divisive on purpose, if quietly so. Such things feel so much more common in our day, and are usually much louder, the staple of every presidential rally, of campaign vitriol, and of so very many tweets.

Richard Nixon was of another time. But, without knowing it, he started something.

In a 32-minute speech that itself is a period piece — no president in this era would speak on television for so long, nor read from a typewritten text visible to a global audience — Nixon repeatedly wiped his lip and bit on his tongue but, when the signature phrase appeared in the 29th minute of his remarks, his gimlet eyes peered straight into the camera.

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It was a classic Nixon moment, delivered in classic Nixon style, at once awkward and effective. And the speech proved a major turning point; as a presidential address perhaps the only rivals in the modern era were Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 “we shall overcome’’ speech on voting rights before a joint session of Congress and Ronald Reagan’s 1987 demand in a Berlin speech that Mikhail Gorbachev “tear down this wall.’’ It helped realign our politics, crystalizing a process set in motion in the bitter 1968 election and creating the political map, and case-hardened divisions, that would elect Donald Trump in 2016.

“It’s as if Nixon harvested the crop he planted with this speech,’’ said Richard Norton Smith, the presidential historian and biographer who has been director of the Lincoln, Hoover, Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan presidential libraries. “It was much more than an appeal for support for his war policies. It changed the political weather.’’

For the past half century, American presidents have relied on the support of a silent majority that has been continually remade — in their minds and their political calculations if not in reality — to fit each period and its challenges.

That notion comforted Reagan as he sought to recalibrate the role of government in American life; empowered both George H.W. Bush as he mobilized the United States and a global coalition to embark on the first Gulf War and his son George W. Bush as he fashioned a response to the terrorist attacks of 2001; and fortified Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as they sought to position the country for the great changes and challenges of the new century.

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And a conviction — unspoken but unmistakable, even if the current presidential approval polls do not support the notion — that a silent majority supports him fuels the disruption that Trump has unleashed throughout American society and American government.

Indeed, in his inaugural address, the 45th president vowed that the “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.’’ It was the Silent Majority speech retooled for a new generation.

“Donald Trump,’’ said Democratic Senator Edward J. Markey, “channels that speech every day he is in the White House.’’

* * *

I believe that one of the reasons for the deep division about Vietnam is that many Americans have lost confidence in what their government has told them about our policy.

— Nixon’s Silent Majority speech, Nov. 3, 1969

Lack of confidence in government is a hardy perennial of American life, and presidents from Andrew Jackson to Reagan to Clinton have sought to harness it, though seldom with the effectiveness of Nixon and Trump. And in many cases they conceived of the silent majority as a cadre of Americans who were democracy’s loyal discontents, ready to do battle with the haughty elites.

“People who end up being enmeshed in electoral politics often believe that they know the public attitude and that there is a large amount of people who support them privately that is much bigger than the group of people who support them publicly,’’ said Roger Porter, a Harvard specialist in the presidency who has had presidential appointments from the last nine chief executives. “Presidents are especially vulnerable to this notion.’’

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For Richard Nixon, it was more than a notion; it was instead a devout conviction, based in part on his observation of George Wallace’s truculent presidential campaign of 1968 — fueled by racial animus and discontent with Washington — and his own confidence in his formidable political acumen.

A matchless political strategist, Nixon possessed what the 19th-century Irish called the ability to see the wind, if not the storm that would, in the end, blast his presidency to flinders.

“The ‘old man’ wanted these people for his constituency,’’ said Kenneth L. Khachigian, who worked in the 1968 campaign and later served in the Nixon White House. “All these people weren’t being heard over the cries of the people in the street and the establishment. He needed them to prosecute the war in Vietnam and to conduct his presidency.’’

In Nixon’s era as in ours, presidential remarks often were drafted by professional speechwriters. But the Silent Majority speech was written by Nixon himself, on 60 pages of White House letterhead and the yellow legal pads he used throughout his presidency to organize his thoughts.

Network executives agreed to air the speech because its ostensible purpose was to address the war in Vietnam, and in fact the president did use his remarks to outline his plan to pursue negotiations with North Vietnam even as the American military redoubled its efforts.

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The speech wasn’t billed as a political rallying cry for support from the silent majority. The phrase is scrawled only in the margin of the 17th page of Nixon’s ruminations: clearly an afterthought, though an afterthought with an enormous aftereffect.

Even so, advisers close to Nixon say that the thought encompassed in that powerful phrase was a presidential preoccupation.

“This was huge in his mind,’’ Dwight Chapin, a Nixon campaign aide who became his presidential assistant responsible for scheduling, said in an interview. “He felt the country was with him but the demonstrations were growing. . . . That speech set up the contrast between the demonstrators and the mass of the American people.’’

The silent majority phrase itself has an intriguing provenance. It turns up unobtrusively in John F. Kennedy’s 1956 book, “Profiles in Courage,’’ when the Massachusetts senator wrote of political figures “representing the actual sentiments of the silent majority of their constituents in opposition to the screams of a vocal minority.’’ William Safire, a Nixon speechwriter, found the phrase in the title of a piece in an 1874 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and traced other variations to the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville and the speeches of the liberal Democratic Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois.

Nixon himself, in a speech delivered six months before his election, spoke of “the silent center, millions of people in the middle of the American political spectrum who did not demonstrate, who do not picket or protest loudly,’’ and Patrick J. Buchanan, a Nixon speechwriter who would run for president twice long after Nixon faded from the American scene, said he included the phrase in a memo to Nixon just after the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Nixon underlined the two key words, and recalled them just over a year later, when the war was not going well and protesters had filled the streets of Washington during a massive Oct. 15 march they called the ‘’Moratorium.’’

“We were in the middle of a revolution and I thought we were in danger of losing the presidency, broken like Lyndon Johnson was,’’ Buchanan recalled in a recent conversation. “But he stood up and, with this speech, fought back. He threw the whole establishment back on the defensive.’’

* * *

“Now, let me begin by describing the situation I found when I was inaugurated on January 20.”

Presidents often define their first term as an undoing of the legacy they were left with. Nixon, above all, wanted Americans to be reminded that the Vietnam War wasn’t his fault.

Today, Trump often repeats the tactic, for instance by blaming Obama for creating a sweetheart deal for Iran in the nuclear pact the new president repudiated, or for allowing porous borders, or being soft on North Korea.

If Nixon’s speech reflected historical patterns, then and to come, it is because the author of the speech was a student of politics, unmatched in modern times. He was a thinker and a brooder. And as he stewed over what to say and how to say it, Nixon retreated into a sort of solitary confinement, ordering his lieutenants not to disturb him while he drafted, and then repeatedly redrafted, his remarks.

His notes reflect both passion in his views and paranoia about his opponents. These jottings, some barely legible, with words missing and punctuation marks omitted, are a written form of stream-of-consciousness thinking, Nixon’s inner road to his singular rhetorical moment.

In its fifth draft, for example, the speech argued that American “defeat in South Vietnam would without question promote recklessness in councils of those great powers who have not yet abandoned their goals of world conquest.’’ Using a pen to amend a typewritten draft, Nixon added the words “and humiliation,’’ so the final version spoke of American “defeat and humiliation,” a far more pungent — and Nixonian — formulation.

* * *

“There were some who urged that I end the war at once by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all American forces. From a political standpoint this would have been a popular and easy course to follow.”

One of Nixon’s verbal tics — in formal speeches as well as in his own casual private speech — was asserting that a self-serving or expedient course had been urged on him, but that he had said no. It was a pose, and not always a candid one. In his recorded July 1973 White House musings about obtaining hush money for Watergate figures, for example, he said, “We can do that, but it would be wrong.”

This was a strong theme, too, in the Silent Majority speech, along with the notion that the easy way for him was to continue, or double down on, a policy that Nixon inherited from his predecessor.

Nixon mounted his memorable appeal for public support for his policies in a season of tumult.

“Nixon was trying, after a period of extraordinary upheaval . . . to invoke a consensus that appealed to those who were very alienated by all that was going on,’’ said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire historian. “He tapped into a growing backlash against the disorder that the 1960s had produced.’’

Much the way Trump believes that mainstream news organizations are part of an isolated, hostile “elite,’’ Nixon was also convinced that the leading news organizations and antiwar protesters did not represent mainstream American thinking.

“The ready-reaction of Richard Nixon to the antagonism he felt from the press was always an important factor in the White House,’’ said John Roy Price, a domestic aide to Nixon at the time. “It would erupt from time to time, and the emergence of a phrase like ‘the silent majority’ was like a trigger. It appealed to every instinct he had.”

* * *

“[A]s president of the United States, I would be untrue to my oath of office if I allowed the policy of this nation to be dictated by the minority . . . who try to impose [their views] on the nation by mounting demonstrations in the street.”

As president, Nixon confronted twin challenges — disgust with the war in Vietnam and, separately, disgust with the demonstrators in the streets. This speech was a response to both conditions: to Americans generally, to hasten the end of the war; to his silent majority, to make their cause, and disquiet, congruent with his own.

It was a polarizing formula, and it worked. Reaction to the speech exceeded even the White House’s greatest expectations.

A famous photograph shows Barbara Walters, then a personality on NBC’s “Today Show,” standing with Housing and Urban Development Secretary George W. Romney and Nixon at a table in the Oval Office piled with telegrams and letters supporting the president’s speech. The Gallup Organization poll found that three out of four Americans approved of the speech, and Nixon’s approval rating jumped by 12 percentage points in a month, reaching 68 percent.

That popular appeal would fuel his historically lopsided reelection in 1972; the arrogance that came with that dominant showing would speed his undoing.

Two-thirds of Americans alive today were born after Nixon delivered his Silent Majority address, but all Americans today live with the repercussions of that speech.

“The Silent Majority speech has an extraordinary legacy,’’ said L. Sandy Maisel, a Colby College political scientist. “What was the silent majority has become very loud. . . . The people who formed the silent majority in 1969 represented a majority in the Electoral College in 2016, and they defined their mission as making America great again.’’

Today in our own time of sharply polarized politics, the majority may again be silent — though the new quiet constituency may be composed of moderates, some of them descendants of the very people Nixon enlisted in his war against war protesters.

“The moderates [of both parties] are being shouted down, cowed, and silenced,’’ said former Republican representative Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation and a onetime chair of the American Conservative Union. “They’re finding politics distasteful because the extremes, on both sides, are so loud and so predominant.’’

But the notion of a silent majority may have fresh force. “The question today,’’ said Kathleen Ianello, a Gettysburg College political scientist, “is whether the silent majority is there, and whether they are Republicans.’’

Former governor William F. Weld of Massachusetts, a Republican challenger to Trump’s reelection campaign, believes the answer to both is “yes.’’

“That Nixon speech reminds me of Trump’s notions about the press, and in that regard Trump is a lineal descendant of Nixon,’’ said Weld, who was on the staff of the Judiciary Committee effort weighing the impeachment of Nixon. “There is one difference: I don’t think Nixon tried to engineer a hostile takeover of the United States, and I think Trump is.’’

Pierre Martin, a University of Montreal specialist in American politics, offers another formulation to describe the resonance of Nixon’s notion today: “In your country,” he said, “you have a ‘deaf majority,’ people who refuse to consider anything that opposes their point of view.’’

This may indeed be the ultimate legacy of the Silent Majority speech, a presidential address that in the search for unity produced an enduring sense of division.

Nixon the orator may have hoped for something more. As he said, a half century ago, “Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat.”


David Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a visiting professor at McGill University in Montreal. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.