Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent candidate in the 1972 presidential election, was well ahead in the polls when - inexplicably it seemed - his reelection organization began to indulge in unethical and criminal behavior that would eventually lead to the president’s resignation in 1974. Among other things, Nixon’s cronies placed spies in rivals’ headquarters to steal campaign documents, put wiretaps on opponents’ telephones, and broke into the Democratic party’s headquarters in the Watergate Hotel.
Richard M. Nixon, the incumbent candidate in the 1972 presidential
election, was well ahead in the polls when - inexplicably it seemed -
his reelection organization began to indulge in unethical and criminal
behavior that would eventually lead to the president’s resignation in
1974. Among other things, Nixon’s cronies placed spies in rivals’
headquarters to steal campaign documents, put wiretaps on opponents’
telephones, and broke into the Democratic party’s headquarters in the
But these actions were not inexplicable. Nixon’s campaign was the
apotheosis of a new type of political campaigning spawned by two PR
pioneers in California during the 1930s.
The story begins in 1933, when Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter formed a
partnership, Campaigns, Inc., the first political PR agency in the
United States (the couple married in 1938). It was a full-service firm
that managed campaigns from beginning to end, rather than simply
offering publicity assistance.
The couple’s campaigns were based on simple premises: more Americans
like corn than caviar; the best campaign is an attack; invent an enemy
and warn voters against him; issues must be few and clear; and confront
the voters with an emotional decision.
Creating a common enemy
Nixon biographer Roger Morris calls Whitaker and Baxter the ’California
equivalent of a powerful political machine,’ because they replaced the
smoke-filled room with ’media politics’ - simple messages aimed directly
at voters through the mass media.
The 1934 California governor’s race typified their work. Campaigns, Inc.
worked only for Republicans, but it declined to work for Frank Merriam,
the GOP candidate. Greg Mitchell, whose book The Campaign of the Century
analyzes the race, says that Clem Whitaker ’thought Merriam was an
But Whitaker and Baxter didn’t want to see the election of Upton
Sinclair, either; they opposed his ’End Poverty in California’ (EPIC)
platform, so they agreed to work for the California League Against
Sinclairism (CLAS), a Republican front group.
Whitaker and Baxter spent three days reading everything Sinclair had
ever written, pulling out controversial quotes such as one that
suggested that every religion was ’a mighty fortress of graft.’
Sinclair’s words came back to haunt him. Whitaker and Baxter hired an
artist to prepare cartoons, a visual illustration of what they called
the ’blot of Sinclairism.’ For instance, a picture of a bride and groom
was defiled with an ink blot and a quote equating marriage with
Such cartoons quickly became fodder for newspapers. The PR agents
learned that by placing ads in small weekly papers, they could easily
convince copy-starved editors to run cartoons as well as editorials.
A typical packet of materials sent to newspapers included a story about
the recent influx of the unemployed (presumably to take advantage of the
welfare benefits EPIC would bring), an editorial revealing Sinclair as a
free-love advocate and a statement by a top Democrat declaring that
Sinclair suffered from hallucinations.
The result of this smear campaign was that Merriam, a candidate no one
really liked, beat Sinclair, even though 24 other EPIC candidates won
seats in the state assembly.
Watching and learning was a young Los Angeles attorney, Murray
He was one of the first to advocate a bipartisan strategy for
He opened his own political PR firm during the 1940s and began working
for local Republican groups, using many of Whitaker and Baxter’s
Chotiner was hired by 12th District Republicans to advise Nixon on his
first race, for Congress in 1946. Just back from World War II service in
the Navy, Nixon had decided to try his hand at state politics.
Nixon’s opponent, Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, was a formidable
foe. He had been elected five times with increasing majorities, was
named the ’best Congressman west of the Mississippi’ by the Washington
press corps, and, as a member of the House Un-American Activities
Committee, had sponsored the Voorhis Act, an anti-communism law which
required the registration of foreign agents.
Chotiner’s approach to political campaigns both resonated with Nixon and
prodded him forward. Nixon’s campaign, consisting mostly of leaflets,
posters and coffee klatches, had stalled, and Chotiner urged him to put
more ’meat’ into it. When an informant gave Chotiner a copy of a
National Citizen’s Political Action Committee memorandum showing that
the labor group intended to endorse Nixon’s opponent, the Republicans
were energized by the idea that they could claim there were ties between
Voorhis and a Communist organization.
Of course, Nixon’s attacks failed to explain that the PAC was not the
same as the Congress of Industrial Organizations PAC, which did have
Communist members; moreover, the endorsement was never actually
Nixon expanded on the attack during a debate by insinuating that Voorhis
was a Communist sympathizer. Voorhis was so stunned by Nixon’s gall that
he was unable to respond effectively. ’It was essential always to be on
the attack,’ Chotiner later said. And Nixon agreed. Nixon employees made
anonymous phone calls to voters, saying that Voorhis was a Communist and
then quickly hanging up.
In a stunning upset, Nixon won the election, 65,586 votes to 49,994.
The creep emerges
Chotiner took increasingly active roles in Nixon’s campaigns, including
his presidential bids in 1960, 1968 and 1972. In fact, Pat Nixon was
openly jealous of her husband’s relationship with Chotiner; their
daughter, Julie, later reported that Nixon decided Chotiner’s advice was
more important than his wife’s objections, so the PR man became ’a
Nixon’s actions in 1972 are perfectly understandable in the context of
Whitaker and Baxter’s media politics. He formed a separate organization,
the Committee to Re-elect the President (with its infamous acronym
CREEP), rather than relying solely on the Republican party, thus paying
heed to Whitaker and Baxter’s strategy to divide campaign from
Chotiner’s approach of ’running scared’ fueled Nixon’s insecurities and
drove him to dirty tricks, even when polls showed he was well ahead of
the opposition. The stakes were higher, so the risks he took were
bigger, the tricks dirtier. He went from anonymous phone calls in 1946
to spying and break-ins in 1972. But the philosophy was the same: create
an enemy, attack, always behave as if you are behind in the polls.
Whitaker and Baxter would have disapproved of both the criminal nature
and the stupidity of Nixon’s 1972 campaign tactics. But the fact remains
that in creating media politics, they had also tutored Murray Chotiner
and Richard Nixon.