WHCA and the 1968 Presidential Election (1968)




This is an unprecedented period of time. The United States presidential election of 1968 was a wrenching national experience, conducted against a backdrop that included the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and subsequent race riots across the nation, the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, widespread demonstrations against the Vietnam War across American university and college campuses, and violent confrontations between police and anti-war protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

On November 5, 1968, the Republican nominee, former Vice President Richard Nixon won the election over the Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon ran on a campaign that promised to restore "law and order". Some consider the election of 1968 a realigning election that permanently disrupted the New Deal Coalition that had dominated presidential politics for 36 years. It was also the last election in which two opposing candidates were vice-presidents.

The election also featured a strong third party effort by former Alabama Governor George Wallace. Because Wallace's campaign promoted segregation, he proved to be a formidable candidate in the South; no third-party candidate has won an entire state's electoral votes since.

On March 31, 1968, following the New Hampshire primary and, Senator Robert F. Kennedy's entry into the election as of March 16 1968, the President Lyndon B. Johnson announced to the nation in a televised speech that he was suspending all bombing of North Vietnam in favor of peace talks. Johnson concluded his speech and startled the nation by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President." Not discussed publicly at the time was Johnson's concern he might not survive another term—Johnson's health was poor, and he had suffered a serious heart attack in 1955 while serving in the U.S. Senate.

Shortly after midnight on June 5 1968 Robert F. Kennedy was shot; he died twenty-six hours later.  Kennedy had just given his victory speech in a crowded ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles; he and his aides then entered a kitchen pantry on their way to a banquet room to meet with reporters. In the narrow pantry Kennedy and five others were shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian militant who disliked Kennedy because of his support for the nation of Israel. None of the five other gunshot victims suffered mortal wounds, but Kennedy's gunshot wound was in the head, and despite having surgery the wound proved to be fatal.

 Robert Kennedy in CA just prior to being shot at the Ambassador Hotel.
Robert Kennedy in CA just after he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel.                          
Kennedy had several bodyguards with him, including football star Roosevelt "Rosy" Grier, as he addressed a crowd gathered to support his bid for the White House. But there were no Secret Service agents present because before 1968, their services weren't afforded to presidential candidates.

The U.S. Secret Service came into existence nearly 150 years ago, but the agency as its known today was essentially created June 5, 1968 — the night Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

That policy changed after Kennedy's assassination. In 1968 with the assassination of a major presidential candidate, the Secret Service began to protect all of the major presidential candidates.

After Kennedy's death on June 6, the Secret Service was hurriedly called upon to protect the men who were still running for president in 1968. And then, of course the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) would be called upon to support the Secret Service details assigned to all of the candidates. The situation was exacerbated because there was no criterion for choosing who else would receive Secret Service protection. WHCA was then assigned to provide communications for the Secret Service Protection Details! 

WHCA’s role in the support of the Secret Service

WHCA immediately assembled multiple equipment packages that could be immediately deployed anywhere in the US. Utilizing one or two men teams the candidates schedules were confirmed and teams of people were dispatched to meet up with the Secret Service advance agents.

Each equipment package contained an FM base station usually on Baker and Charlie frequencies for the Secret Service Command Post (CP) and hand held units to be used for the motorcade and speech site. Many times the CP was located in the same hotel that the candidate was staying. Telephone lines were ordered and installed in the CP for routine communication. There would also be an EOD (Bomb Squad) member assigned from a local military installation to sweep the hotel, motorcade route and speech sites for any explosive devices. There were many threats called in but nothing was ever found.

The communications teams would take down the FM radios when the event concluded, collected all of the equipment and would be assigned a new location and the next event. Nobody was assigned to a particular candidate but would work with all of them.

On August 5 1968 the Republican National Convention took place in Miami Beach FL, and even though there were demonstrators, there were no violent incidents. I was at Fort Bliss Texas on a WHCA recruiting trip when Richard Nixon surprised everyone by choosing Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate.

WHCA would provide communications support to the USSS assigned to the various protection details working with the major candidates and their staff.

1968 Republican convention in Miami
1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago
We were all involved with the insanity of the 1968 Presidential election, the Vietnam War protests at the Democrat National Convention in Chicago which was by far the craziest time during the whole election. The convention opened on August 28th at the old Amphitheater which has since been demolished. All support people stayed at the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Ave. overlooking Grant Park, this is where all of the Chicago riots of 1968 took place, but what was it like setting up Communications for this event? I understand that the unions were on strike and employees of C&P Telephone accompanied WHCA to help install the POTUS board and interface with AT&T. We had to assume that President Johnson would make an appearance at the end of the convention, but he never attended. After several days of political turmoil, Hubert Humphrey and Edmond Muskie were nominated by the Democrats. The WHCA communications team then packed up everything and left Chicago without any incidents involving the demonstrators or police.   

The Chicago Police prepare for demonstrations
Police clash with antiwar protesters in Grant Park
And finally the stage was set for the 1968 Presidential election itself. My involvement began on Sep. 21, 1968 when I was sent to Atlanta, GA to support George Wallace at a campaign rally. This was a pretty standard stop. I installed an FM radio base in the Secret Service CP at the hotel where we were staying and provided some mobile radios for the motorcade. After several hours of activity and upon conclusion of his speech, I collected all of my equipment, and headed for the airport to return home.

After a couple of weeks at home on October 4, I was sent first to Newark NJ to another rally supporting George Wallace. This turned out to be an in and out visit with an arrival at the airport and a short motorcade to the rally site. After the rally we returned to the airport but before the Governor departed, he personally thanked every police officer that was involved with the motorcade.

Gov. George Wallace at a rally in Atlanta GA
Gov. George Wallace at a rally in Newark NJ (1968) 
I left shortly after Gov. Wallace departed and headed to Raleigh NC where I was assigned to support Spiro Agnew at a rally scheduled on the 8th of October. Upon arrival in Raleigh I met with the SS advance agent. I then surveyed the rally site for FM radio coverage, the rally site was only two blocks from my hotel and where the CP would be installed. Governor Agnew would motorcade from the airport to the speech site, then after his speech, the motorcade returned to the airport for his departure.
                                  
Spiro Agnew speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh NC.
Spiro Agnew speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh NC.
I found myself in northern California with two weeks left before election night. I was sent to California on Oct 24th to support VP Humphrey who was making campaign speeches in San Francisco and San Jose. Both of these stops were uneventful I would set up and tear down the rally sites and after I was finished there, I was sent to Los Angeles to set up communications to cover another speech by the VP at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was now Oct. 27th and things were starting to heat up now that the election was only ten days away. I set up the CP in the Beverly Hilton Hotel where the event was to be held and where I was staying.

VP Hubert Humphrey campaigns  in Los Angeles CA 
VP Hubert Humphrey campaigns in San Francisco and San Jose, CA
In the meantime Richard Nixon was scheduled for a campaign stop in Long Beach CA for a rally on Oct. 30th. The Long Beach site was out of range for FM radio coverage so radio base stations were installed at the Long Beach airport and installed remote circuits back to the CP that was installed in the Century Plaza Hotel. After the speech Nixon would spend the night at the Century Plaza. The next day Nixon made a trip to the NBC Studios in Burbank to appear on Laugh In and utter those immortal words “Sock it to me!” Since Nixon resided in southern California he was coming home to vote.

Richard  Nixon at a campaign rally in Long Beach CA
Richard Nixon on Laugh In with Dan Rowan and Dick Martin
I received a call from the USSS agent in charge of the protection detail assigned to Gen LeMay to let me know that there was a speech on Nov 3rd in Anaheim. I met with the advance agent at Gen Le May’s residence in Bel Air to discuss the details of the arrival, the subsequent speech and the motorcade to Bel Air. The CP would be set up in the Holiday Inn in Anaheim, just a short distance from the speech site and within walking distance to Disneyland.
Gov. Wallace and Gen. LeMay in California
 Gen. LeMay’s home in Bel Air
On election eve both Democrat and Republican parties had rallies, Nixon’s was at the Century Plaza Hotel and Humphries was down the street at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I had equipment scattered everywhere and it wasn’t until two days later before I had collected it and could head for home.

The election on November 5, 1968 proved to be extremely close, and it was not until the following morning that the television news networks were able to call Nixon the winner. The key states proved to be California, Ohio, and Illinois, all of which Nixon won by three percentage points or less. Had Humphrey carried all three of these states, he would have won the election. Had Humphrey carried any two of them (or just California), George Wallace would have succeeded in his aim of preventing an electoral college majority for any candidate, and the decision would have been given to the House of Representatives. Nixon won the popular vote with a plurality of 512,000 votes, or a victory margin of about one percentage point. In the Electoral College Nixon's victory was larger, as he carried 32 states with 301 electoral votes, to Humphrey's 13 states and 191 electoral votes and Wallace's five states and 46 electoral votes.

Besides supporting the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates it was also a huge task to support President Johnson and his staff for the rest of 1968.
Richard Nixon at a campaign rally in California just prior to the election
For five months members of WHCA leaped frogged across all fifty states supporting the candidates and it finally came to an end shortly after the November election. With Richard Nixon the new president, WHCA had new challenges at San Clemente and Key Biscayne where he purchased residences and permanent communications had to be installed for the security personnel assigned at these locations.

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