President Franklin Roosevelt spoke repeatedly, just after Pearl Harbor and later during World War II, of a dangerous minority opposed to the conflict. Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois spoke in 1967 of a “silent center.” In the spring of 1969, the prominent campaign chronicler Theodore H. White spoke of America’s “mute masses,” saying that the challenge for President Richard M. Nixon was to “interpret what the silent think, and govern the country against the grain of what its more important thinkers think.”

And so in that context, Nixon’s Silent Majority speech, delivered from the Oval Office exactly 50 years ago, is less a fresh departure from American tradition than an address squarely in the American tradition.

Either way, Nixon’s Nov. 3, 1969, address was an important marker in American political history, giving powerful voice to a sentiment that long has been part of the main currents of our national life, even as it identified divisions in the public — and then widened them. It came at a time of grave disquiet about the Vietnam War, and equally grave disquiet about the young men and women who were protesting the conflict by marching in the streets.

But Nixon’s audience were those at home, quietly supporting his Vietnam policies, quietly horrified by the disunity in the country, quietly disapproving of the loud public anti-war protest.

”This,” said former GOP Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma, a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation and onetime chair of the American Conservative Union, “was an important moment, a recognition that there were loads of people not marching in the streets.”

So in that moment, with military conflict abroad and political and cultural conflict at home, Nixon decided to deliver a nationally televised address intended to rally support for his dual track in the war — negotiating with the North Vietnamese while transferring much of the fighting to the South Vietnamese — while summoning support from an invisible, but potentially formidable, group of Americans at home.

Much of what the president said in his 32-minute remarks is forgotten today, lost in a mist of memories about firefights, Vietnamization and withdrawal schedules — and in any case is a matter of vague history for the two-thirds of Americans born after the Nixon speech was delivered. But one sentence endures:

And so tonight — to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans — I ask for your support.

Nixon’s Silent Majority speech conveyed a message that on the surface beseeched the country for unity but had the effect of dividing the country even further. Both, of course, were part of the Nixon strategy.

”It was a defining moment,” the presidential speechwriter Patrick J. Buchanan told me in a recent conversation. “It was a moment when the Beltway media and the Congress were all against him, and yet he stood up and defended his position. It was the strongest moment of his presidency.”

It was also a purely distilled Nixon moment. The speech was drafted not by Buchanan nor by Ray Price, who wrote both of Nixon’s inaugural addresses and his 1974 resignation speech. Nixon went into near-seclusion to draft this speech; the 60 handwritten pages of his notes and multiple drafts, now in the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, California, make for fascinating insights into the workings of the president’s mind. He added the notion of a silent majority only in the margin of one of the pages of his yellow legal pad.

”The president had an instinct this message would resonate, and he felt strongly that in the great ‘fly-over country’ there was a mass of people -- Nixon people who later became Reagan supporters — and they just didn’t agree with the demonstrators,” said Dwight Chapin, a Nixon campaign aide who became a White House assistant responsible for the president’s scheduling. “These were two different cultures — and Nixon knew it. One thing about Nixon: He knew his culture.”

The speech won enormous support; the White House switchboard lit up, and Nixon’s poll ratings soared. When the broadcast ended, Nixon asked his team how many wires they had received. But Western Union, which was the source of telegrams, was closed for the day. Chapin called the president of the company and persuaded him to open the operation that evening. The result: a pile of expressions of support that filled a table in the Oval Office and produced one of the enduring photographs of the Nixon years.

It also produced divisions that have not healed — and a presidential technique that has not disappeared.

”It’s an old chestnut in American political rhetoric — invoking a series of values at a moment when those values seem frayed,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire historian.

That may be what prompted President Donald J. Trump to assert, in his inaugural address, that the “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”

Indeed, many of Trump’s critics believe there is a direct line between Nixon’s Silent Majority speech and the Trump political portfolio.

”This rhetoric was meant to create divisions,” said Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts. “Nixon’s greatest student was Donald Trump, who today is just channeling Richard Nixon. By saying there was greater wisdom in his quiet supporters than in his loud opponents, Nixon played to his own insecurities. But those who were not silent counted as much as those who were silent.”

The Silent Majority speech was the opening salvo in a war against American elites, a conflict that endures to this day. Ten days later, Vice President Spiro T. Agnew picked up the call with his own jeremiad against the press and elites, decrying what he called a “little group of men who not only enjoy a right of instant rebuttal to every presidential address but, more importantly, wield a free hand in selecting, presenting and interpreting the great issues in our nation.”

Every president since has shared that sentiment, none more so than the current chief executive.

In his presidential memoir, Nixon would write that his speech had “thrown down a gauntlet to Congress, the bureaucracy, the media and the Washington establishment and challenged them to engage in that epic battle.” That battle continues today.

— David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

(12) comments

Justice81

Racists made up a huge segment of the Silent Majority, and Still Do. Donald Trump, while he may not personally be a racist...is the same as a racist, because, Racism is the BEDROCK OF HIS AND CONSERVATIVES Support.

SnowGypsy

Give it up! Unemployment for blacks and Hispanics is lower than ever since President Trump was elected. That racist garbage got started over enforcement of our immigration laws, and unless one lives under a rock, and I know some do, they know that we have people breaking our immigration laws who are every race on earth, and ethnicity. What added to the defeat of Hillary Clinton was her racist attitude expressed in both word and her support of actions that incarcerated blacks at an increased rate due to the 3 strikes rule. Remember her comment on "super predators"? Blacks lost a lot of ground during the reign of President Obama, but of course, being raised by white grandparents, he really was out of touch with the majority of black Americans. Go back to President Johnson for yet another lesson on racism. I am astounded at how many people don't even know what racism is yet practice it.

SeanRanklin

Criticize illegals: check ; Criticize Clinton: check ; Criticize Obama: check

Justice81

Criticize Melania, CHECK!

Justice81

Donald Trump does only ONE thing: PROMOTES HIMSELF! That's all he ever does!

Aim_High

Dopey Donald soft on ILLEGAL Aliens! NO WALL BUILT! Maybe has big mental Problems to Boot! #DopeyDonaldSAD

SnowGypsy

Then, by your comment, I'm guessing the Dems still don't have a viable candidate for the election next year. Last I heard McFeelThemUp Biden was done. Maybe a revival of Hillary Clinton. At least with her, you have name recognition! Funny! Now, you know Kansas thrives on cheap illegal labor, so if you think Trump is soft, you'd have to love it!

Justice81

Donald Trump is a deranged Mad Man! He is the Typical Spoiled Brat who NEVER had to do any chores at home. Never had to Sweep the Floors, Never had to MAKE his bed, Never had to pick up his dirty clothes from the floor. Never had to shine his shoes. Never had to wash dishes. Never had to take out the trash. Never had to clean the garage. Never had to make himself a sandwich. (I do assume Trump

"cleaned" himself in the bathroom, but, well, you never know!) Never went to Sunday School, Rare ever has gone to Church. Trump has always gotten everything handed to him.

Justice81

Your comment is garbage!

Justice81

Trump is lying about black employments. There is NEVER even one word of Truth that comes out of Trump's mouth, or his Administratioin! Unemployment is at least double, likely triple any reports from Lying, Crooked Trump. And, you stupidly believe every word Traitor Trump says. LOCK HIM UP, LOCK TRUMP UP! LOCK TRUMP UP. CROOKED, LYING TRUMP.

Kansasforever

Agree. This is the vest economy, low unemployment and stock market earnings I have ever witnessed. Does show that when government gets out of the way the country can prosper!

Aim_High

Dopey Donald married an ILLEGAL Alien with a FAKE GENIUS VISA! Then CHAIN migrated his inlaws over!

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