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The Nixon “Dream"

Deja vu, anyone? That’s what I was thinking as I watched Governor Mitt Romney’s well-written and well-delivered acceptance speech. My first remembrance of things past occurred early in the address when he said:

“We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better.”

Then, praising his father, Governor George Romney, he said:

“My dad never made it through college and apprenticed as a lath and plaster carpenter.”

Hmmm, where had I heard something remarkably similar before? Ah yes, it was forty-four years ago, at another Republican convention, also in Florida. The speaker recalled his memories of family love and the possibilities of the American Dream:

“I see another child tonight,” he said, “ He hears the train go by in the night and he dreams of faraway places where he’d like to go. It seems like an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life. A father who had to go to work before he finished sixth grade sacrificed everything he had so his sons could go to college . . .”

The author helped Richard Nixon craft his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami.

The body of Richard Nixon’s remarks in 1968, about Democratic misrule, misjudgment, and mistakes, was excellently done, but not a rhetorical breakthrough. Then, in his peroration, he added a device that, insofar as I am aware, no other nominee of either party had ever come up with. He spoke of his own youthful dreams and his family’s sacrifices. He made it personal. In one bold masterstroke (almost totally unnoticed by contemporary reports and subsequent histories) he transformed the rhetorically platitudinous “American Dream” from an obligatory rhetorical device to an intimate, deeply touching personal story. It was the high point of his speech, integrating his own life into the great truth of the American Dream. We have become so used to this device by now, we forget that the acceptance speeches of Nixon and Kennedy (1960), Goldwater and Johnson (1964), and Hubert Humphrey (1968) are totally without personal references or family memories of any kind. I leave it to scholars to uncover previous use of this device, but I am not aware of any. Nixon, once again, is the one.

Jimmy Carter, in his 1976 acceptance speech showed that he had learned the Nixon lesson:

“Years ago,” he said, “ as a farm boy sitting outdoors with my family on the ground in the middle of the night, gathered close around a battery radio connected to the automobile battery and listening to the Democratic conventions in far-off cities, I was a long way from the selection process . . . ”

Michael Dukakis, in 1988, demonstrated the growing appeal of Nixon‘s use of personal history:

“We're going to win,” said Dukakis, “ because we are the party that believes in the American dream. . . [a] dream that brought my father to this country 76 years ago; that brought my mother and her family here one year later--poor, unable to speak English; but with a burning desire to succeed in their new land of opportunity. And tonight, in the presence of that marvelous woman who is my mother and who, came here 75 years ago; with the memory in my heart of the young man, who arrived at Ellis Island with only $25 in his pocket . . . ”

And now Governor Romney has paid his own tribute to Richard Nixon’s creation. (Romney used variations of “child” twenty times in his speech; Nixon used it only six times in 1968). Romney’s critics wanted the acceptance speech to “humanize” him (dreadful word), so that he would be seen as a warm, regular guy. Well, his speech showed that although Mitt Romney is warm and friendly, he is most definitely not a regular guy. He is in fact an extraordinary guy. And if his critics think he is not “human” enough because he practices as well as preaches the cardinal virtues of a good man’s life, so be it. In 1968, Richard Nixon showed he was of and for the people. In his speech, Mitt Romney, the son of man who did not attend college, and who worked with his hands, demonstrated that there are many ways a presidential nominee can be one of us, so long as he is one for us.

Click here to order Gavin's book, Speechwright, his memoirs about his career as a speechwriter in the House, Senate, and for Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

William F. Gavin was a member of President Nixon's original speech writing staff, and author of Speechwright: An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric.