Though social media algorithms don’t always give an accurate gauge of the political climate, I can say for certain that a lot of people got bent out of shape last week. Melania Trump. Wow.
That said, it’s entirely possible more hardcore Democrats than Republicans actually heard Melania’s speech in real time. According to more than one news source, several websites have reported that gay pornography consumption was up 150% in Cleveland. In addition, male escorts in the city reported as much as a fivefold increase services rendered (and cashed earned), thanks to a high concentration of middle aged white men dotted around various downtown hotels. I can’t help but wonder: who the hell was Melania giving a speech to when apparently half the convention spent more time ejaculating in their hotel rooms than they did on the convention floor?
I digress. This blog post is supposed to about something deeper and perhaps more relevant to its title. The point I really meant to get at is that people pay a lot of attention to the speeches given by candidates’ wives at party conventions.
This is really a very American phenomenon. There are very few countries where the wives of elected leaders have such a high standing.
Ok, so there are some exceptions, but I should probably discount dictators’ wives (even if Imelda Marcos’s shoes were fab).
While Michelle Obama gave a speech at my Oberlin commencement ceremony, the only foreign equivalent may be someone like Cherie Blair. Her distinguished career as an academic and lawyer is certainly undeniable. But then again, her track record for public appearances, speeches, and even the impact of her charity work arguably pales in comparison with our current President’s wife, or even past Presidents’ wives. There’s a certain inherent stature that comes with being the United States President’s wife, and as result the wives of Presidents seem to develop their own political personae. For certain, fashion becomes noticed first (after all, the patriarchy looks great in pink): Jackie Onassis was impeccably dressed, Barbra wore Blue and apparently Michelle’s clothes radiate inclusivity.
But over the last 50 years, the wives of Presidents have been traditionally active and seen as political entities in their own right within the Oval Office. But in looking back over the centuries, it’s relatively new. Frances Cleveland made a splash for Grover, and Eleanor Roosevelt gave a last minute, unofficial speech at the 1940 DNC, but these were were relatively large exceptions. Where did the tradition of the public exhibition of wives as politicians start? I had a sneaking suspicion about this. You guessed it. Something, somewhere Nixony (in case you haven’t noticed, his presidency fascinates me).
In 1972, Pat Nixon was the first ever First Lady or candidate’s wife to be presented formally at any national party convention in US history. She was to address the crowd in Miami, but as you’ll see below, she really didn’t say much…
(no really, watch the whole video)
The crowd went completely apeshit. She couldn’t get a word out. Then again, she didn’t have to say anything – her mere presence was enough to send people into raucous applause and praise. Imagine if she had been given more than a 10 minute platform – what kind of impact would her speech have had? How much attention would have been paid? Though nobody’s written a scholarly book on the topic of what it is to be a President’s wife politically (after all, a summary of Presidential wives would be an inherent summary of all the Presidencies lumped together), Pat’s RNC appearance is commonly regarded as the turning point in politics when it was realized that the wife of US Presidential candidate could be an important political tool, distraction, diffusion, whatever you want.
Note: I know this post is probably open season for feminists, but I’ll just make it clear that my observations are not about women themselves, but the politicization of structure of the marriage of a democratically elected figure (though the fact that I have to write this means I should probably do something about the way I phrase things… oh well!).
But why 1972? Why Pat? This is kind of before the heyday of women’s liberation, especially in the GOP. Kissinger sent her on several trips around the world and as a result she earned a good but of media cred. But she wasn’t the standard do-gooder, Seven Sisters graduate we became accustomed to in the late 1980s into the 1990s. She didn’t put her neck out for any form of legislation like Hilary Clinton, nor did she give a commencement speech like Barbara Bush’s at Wellesley (rated among the top 100 speeches of the twentieth century – Melania, if you’re out there, take note). Pat’s great achievement as First Lady was providing the White House with 600 or so pieces of art and furniture. She was not a complicated or arguably politically engaged woman.
This is not to put Pat down, but to note the status granted her was perhaps disproportionate to her qualifications we now normally associate with politics at this level. Even Laura, despite her bad taste in men, was a champion of education initiatives in her home state of Texas, and pushed hard for reform at the national level. College, legislative aspirations, longterm devotion to “causes” – they apparently give us confidence that there’s another mind inside the President’s head (because two heads are better than one, right?).
Bur the thing is, despite her appearance in 1972, Pat wasn’t exceptional in the larger American political arena. There had been a real power-wife in the 1960s, giving rise to the notion of a power couple in office. Her name was Lurleen Wallace.
Though George Wallace was victorious 1962 Alabama gubernatorial election, he did not stand for reelection in 1966… well, not technically. Gubernatorial self-succession is banned by the Alabama constitution, so instead of running for office in 1966, his wife did. There was virtually no precedent for a conjugal stand-in candidacy, save the exception of one Miriam ‘Ma’ Ferguson elected in place of her husband in Texas gubernatorial elections of 1924 and 1932. But times were pretty different, and the political stakes in Alabama were much higher considering the temperature of state politics following federal injunctions by the LBJ administration to desegregate and enforce the Voting Rights Act. For the Wallaces, it was also a time of uncertainty within the family nucleus. Lurleen was diagnosed with cancer in late 1965, later undergoing a hysterectomy in January 1966. Between this and her lack political experience, it was not only vital to brand the Wallace clan as a family unit to push George’s prospects, but as a way to divert attention away from rumors of her illness.
Without fail, the the Opry cast which had campaigned for George through thick and thin in 1958 (when he lost) and 1962 (when he won) turned out to campaign. George had spent a great deal of time cultivating close relationships with members of the Grand Ole Opry not only to gain their support, but to convince them to show the gentler face of his politics. Known for extreme anger and severity in speech and rhetoric, Wallace and his campaign crew started to turn his rallies into revival gatherings. Bands would play to stir up the crowd, then gospel songs would be sung as Lurleen would come out on stage to promote her husband, speaking on explicit themes of Christianity and saccharine god-fearing-liness. The political climate couldn’t tolerate the anger and vociferousness associated with lynchings and cross burnings – the media had to have something else to work with.
In both 1962 and 1966, Wallace initially called upon Minnie Pearl (Sarah Cannon), George Morgan and four other members of the Grand Ole Opry directly for one reason – they were teetotalers, embodying the traditional temperance associated with evangelical Southern Protestantism. When Minnie Pearl returned to campaign for Wallace in 1962, she played a more prominent role in the campaigns, speaking explicitly on the issue of segregation and her own personal political support for Wallace. This was no longer about entertaining the crowd, she was actually campaigning as if she were voting for the man. In 1958, Minnie Pearl rarely addressed political issues in her comedy skits and rally introductions, but spoke instead of Wallace’s “charm” and “handsomeness,” playing up her Opry caricature as an unintellectual, working class woman. On the campaign trail in 1962, one could say that she campaigned less as Minnie Pearl (her stage persona), and more as Sarah Cannon, the well spoken, finishing school aristocrat from wealthy Franklin, TN. Indeed, she increasingly shed her anti-intellectual working-class folksy persona, and promoted Wallace in a more articulate manner. On April 3, she even delivered a speech Wallace’s behalf in April when he had contracted laryngitis.
In 1962, Wallace’s employment of these musicians firmly established his political alliance with the Grand Ole Opry, utilizing its members for a second time in a large-scale campaign. But unlike 1958, these artists were not paid – they volunteered their services as an act of political endorsement. Country music stars were no longer tangential performers, but integral elements to the campaign. It’s interesting to note that the political trend which Wallace rode also reflected a larger cultural shift within the country music industry itself. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Grand Ole Opry increasingly shed itself of the New Dealy, quasi-populist “folksy” aesthetic; straw hats and overalls were exchanged for starched cotton shirts, neckties and pricy leather shoes as standard dress on the Opry stage; there was less singing about regional identity and labor and more about urban life and commercial consumerism (read: cars and money), mirroring the recent economic growth of the South. With the expansion of Nashville’s record industry 1950s and the national TV broadcasting of the Opry on ABC, the “Nashville Sound” was born, a homogeneous hybrid between ‘hillbilly’ and bluegrass. Rockabilly artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash soon fell out of favor on the Opry stage for their music as well as their “performative morality” (proverbial dick-wagging). It also wasn’t long before cowboys and folkies musicians such as Willie Nelson were barred from performing at the Ryman Auditorium for looking too “hippie.”
By 1966, these trends had been firmly set in place and were used explicitly to brand George and Lurleen as a joint gubernatorial ticket in Alabama. This included the production an official campaign souvenir album Wallace: Governors George and Lurleen, released a month before the election was actually won. Other recordings were sponsored, including a gospel album produced by the Alabama Rebels, entitled “Good Ole Wallace Government.”
But in this election, communicating family values wasn’t enough – high school students in desegregating schools were coming of age and gaining their eligibility to vote. Indeed almost all contemporary sources remark on the unprecedented participation of young voters in the 1966 campaigns – it still remains the highest voter turnout ever in Alabama’s history. While federal inspectors were on the ground in the Black Belt to ensure that African Americans were able to vote, Wallace supporters were out mobilizing young whites to do the same. At the front of push was none other than George Wallace Jr., leading his band, the Governor Five, in performances around the state (and simultaneously promoting his own aspirations in both the music industry and politics). Tambourine in hand, the campaign trail not only saw his parents’ victory but his first Nashville single, Papa was Guv’nor (‘Til Mama Moved In). Other bands travelled with the Governor Five, including Sam Smith and the Alabamians (the official campaign band), and a band called the Wallace Workers who eventually went on to open acts for George Morgan and other Opry stars later in the campaign.
But when it came to presenting Lurleen on stage, the previous tactic of pushing the old-timey revival mood was taken even further. In interviewing George Jr. in 2013, he told me that gospel music “fit in naturally with the campaign’s message” and recalled the importance of religious music to his mother growing up. That same year, I got a chance to look through George and Lurleen’s phonograph collection, which contained over one hundred recordings of gospel music. Lurleen always picked the songs to precede her speeches once the campaign band had finished up their renditions of “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I’m Movin’ On.” Mirroring her increasing physical fragility, she often chose her favorite hymn, O for a Closer Walk With Thee. Just as the 1964 rallies in the Midwest were pretty carefully orchestrated, George Jr. revealed that the 1966 rallies were staged and timed according to the musical selections chosen to rally supporters. Just before the hymns were performed to introduce Lurleen’s speech, a rendition of “Dixie” was performed to whip the crowd up with the familiar Confederate anthem, accompanied with enthusiastic shouts of the campaign slogan, “Stand up for Alabama.” Music was not just a tool used to entertain, but to emotionally polarize rallies, as if the whiplash between sensibilities was mirroring the lightning strikes rendered by the federal government on Jim Crow’s home turf.
While the Opry stars were key in getting the crowds, they were even more closely connected to the Wallaces on a personal level than they had been in previous campaigns. New stars such as Billy Walker and the Wilburn Brothers turned out for several rallies. George Morgan, famous for his 1961 rerelease of “Candy Kisses,” returned to sing for Lurleen as personal favor to her husband. Throughout the 1960s, Morgan became very close to the Wallace family, and took George Jr. under his wing, producing first album in the early 1967.
According to George Jr., 1966 was a turning point in that his father no longer had to solicit support from the big name musicians. Quite to the contrary, the musicians often bypassed campaign management and contacted George and Lurleen directly about offering their services. During this time, Hank Thompson became especially close to the Wallace family through the 1966 campaign, traveling as part of the family entourage and staying in the Wallace home in Montgomery. Hank Locklin also formed an intensely close personal relationship with the Wallaces. Following Lurleen’s death in May 1968, Locklin appeared at the back door of the Wallace residence (normally reserved for the family for purposes of security) and sang with George Jr. to console the George. Billy Grammer, became very close to George Jr. in particular, being one of the men who, according to George Jr., “really helped launch my career.” At one point in 1966, Wallace pulled Grammer aside and instructed him “look after my boy,” should any ill befall the family. It’s almost touching. Almost.
It’s almost touching until you remember that these musicians were campaigning to repeal desegregation and reverse the expansion of an electorate. When I wrote my dissertation, I had to be relatively “objective” about the matter. Now that I’m on a blog, I can say what I like (even if I don’t have George Jr.’s permission to use his interviews here. Oops.). This is the birth of a pretty scary precedent of endorsement. Members of the largest and most lucrative music industry in the free world are going out and campaigning to keep “white god-fearing citizens safe.” To keep “negroes out of bed with your daughters.” To keep “criminals and vagrants out of your schools.” To keep “law and order.”
I’m sorry, but this shit is gross.
But such was the musicians’ devotion to George and Lurleen’s cause that they received and invitation from none other than Roy Acuff (host of the Grand Ole Opry) for an appearance to celebrate Lurleen’s victory. George Wallace Jr. recalled the standing ovation the couple received upon walking on stage. According to Wallace Jr., the reception in June 1966 made a rather significant impression upon his father’s decision to maintain his aspirations for federal office and the close connection between his father’s campaigns and the country music industry.
While the 1966 appearance was a boost for George Wallace, it also marked significant change for the Grand Ole Opry and the entire country music industry. The Opry and WSM radio had never been used as explicitly political platforms since broadcasting nationally in 1959. When running for Governor of Tennessee in 1948, Opry “King “Roy Acuff himself never used his position on the Opry to promote his political ambitions on WSM radio. Similarly, while country musicians had also been active in the 1948 presidential election, campaigning for Henry Wallace, Historian Bill Malone notes the extent to which country music and commercial culture were increasingly depoliticized in the 1950s and 1960s away from associations with working class culture and the popular front. Gone were the days of pro-New Deal initiatives by the cast of the National Barn Dance, Sarah Cannon’s work with the Public Works Administration, and Henry Wallace’s use of Appalachian folk musicians. However, contra Malone, the increasing activity by artists, record producers and promoters in the Wallace campaigns from 1962 to 1966 points rather to a gradual repoliticization of the country music industry away from class, and implicitly towards race.
Overall, Lurleen’s campaign was the big game changer. Her presence tempered George’s hard edges, yes, but it also made them stronger by keeping them in the governor’s office. While she was able to get more votes than Wallace could have done on his own, she also proved that that important, seemingly permanent laws could be gotten around. What better platform to cry for states’ rights than to say “fuck you” to your own state constitution? Just like Pat Nixon, Wallace and Lurleen didn’t have to say anything, make a speech – their presence together sent the crowd on fire.
Ok, I know I keep going on about it, but Nixon’s impromptu Nashville appearance was no coincidence, just as Pat’s 1972 RNC debut was no accident.
In 1972, the Pentagon Papers had been leaked. By August, people had started already sniffing their way towards the White House in search of the Watergate Five’s directives. Pat was a diversion, a clear cut ploy to present a Nixon’s kinder side, some feared his controlling nature was going overboard.
But Pat’s presence wasn’t the only reason he won by a landslide in 1972, but it was part of something bigger. If not related directly to the Southern strategy, it was a least a result of the extent to which George Wallace’s campaign tactics had started to change the game for campaigning. If you look at the RNC convention in Miami, Nixon’s aides made sure to get Pat Boone to sing the National Anthem before he went back to Alabama to resume his normal routine of campaigning for Wallace. Roy Acuff recorded campaign songs for Nixon and campaigned for him around the South and on the stage of the Opry. Decisions such as these had been building up for a while; In 1970, President Nixon declared October to be National Country Music Month, and invited Tex Ritter to a White House reception, at which the President was presented with a token of thanks from the Country Music Association. At a gala dinner, Tex Ritter presented an album as “our way of saying thank you for the recognition you, more than any other president, has given to country music’—country music being, in Ritter’s particular definition, “the voice of your ‘Silent Majority.’” Showing his gratitude, Ritter imparted, “May I be so bold now…to take your words and elaborate—to sort of try and prove them, and with the music of the people illustrate all you have said…[in] the speeches you have made.” Ritter proceeded to introduce each of the fifteen songs, by linking them with excerpts from Nixon’s speeches, asserting that their sentiments line up at every point, climaxing with Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” perhaps the most explicit song about racial backlash in the United States – a notable exception from the norms of “less political” songs.
Throughout his Presidency, Nixon continued to invite Southern artists to perform at the White House. Such was the media’s interest in Johnny Cash’s appearance at the White House that speculations as to Cash’s politics arose when he refused to sing Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” at Nixon’s request (as it turns out, he simply didn’t know the song). One of the more ridiculous incidents involing a Southern artist was in December 1970, when Elvis Presley wrote to Nixon asking to be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In Presley’s letter (written on an complimentary notepad from American Airlines), Presley presented his credentials and “in-depth of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques.”
In true Dick fashion, Nixon granted Presley his request, who in return presented Nixon with a series of autographed photographs and a commemorative WWII Colt 45 pistol.
But in searching through the Nixon papers (now digitized!) and listening the tapes by his aides. One line sticks out very clearly. When he was speaking about his campaign song, he made it very explicit “that it should be one with country music performers.”
Again, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of seeing the country music industry everywhere, but if the Southern Strategy was the lynchpin that kept Nixon in the Oval Office, what about the lynchpin of the Southern Strategy? Was it gender? Race? Country music? Was it linked together? Can it separated? I’m going to keep looking, but when it came to trying to reach out to the Southern voters – that is, the key voters – country musicians and tactics as closely related to George Wallace were utilized to get the vote out.
According to George Jr., when Lurleen steadily grew more ill in 1966, Wallace’s Opry appearance supposedly “saved” his aspirations for national politics. As weird as it sounds, I can’t but think that come 1974 and the Watergate indictment, Nixon may have been looking to the Opry for some sense of salvation too.
To read other posts in this series, Nixon, Wallace and Country Music, feel the click the links below.
Part I – Nashville 1974
Part II – Montgomery, 1958
Part III – Milwaukee, 1964