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Off the Rails: Mad Men and American Liberalism in 1968

Nixon: Now More Than Ever

With all of this in the air in 1968, is it any wonder that the American people responded to Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, his themes of law and order and the promise of a return to the era of President Eisenhower? Of course, to get elected, Nixon would have to first master the medium that had vanquished him to political Siberia eight years earlier: television. He relied upon an unlikely source, who would transform first his presidential campaign, and then both politics and television news: Roger Ailes, then toiling away as young producer for the syndicated Mike Douglas daytime talk show, broadcast out of Philadelphia. In his 1993 biography of Rush Limbaugh, journalist Paul D. Colford described the chance meeting between Nixon and Ailes:

The affable Douglas would have Edward Teller and dancing bears on the same show, the common denominator being that both the renowned physicist and the circus act happened to be in Philadelphia at the same time. As Ailes himself told the story in a 1992 interview, “One day, my associate ran in and said, ‘We have Richard Nixon, the former vice president, coming in the front door and we have Little Egypt the belly dancer with a snake in the greenroom. What do we do?’ And I said, ‘Put one of them in my office.’ And I forgot about it, and went to rehearsal, and when I came back upstairs, there was Richard Nixon sitting in my office.

“I always said, had they put Little Egypt in there, I’d have an entirely different career, and perhaps a lot more fun.”

“It is also very possible that if Hubert Humphrey had turned up in the Douglas greenroom instead of Nixon, Ailes would have ended up working on the Democratic campaign in 1968. Ailes was far less political in those days than he was professionally ambitious,” Zev Chafets wrote in his new biography of Ailes. As Chafets told me in March when I interviewed him on the new book:

Nixon, who famously lost the ’60 — 1960 race, partly because of his poor performance in the debates, said to Ailes, it’s a shame that you can’t win an election without a gimmick like TV.

And Ailes said, if you think TV is a gimmick, you’re never going to win an election again.  At that time, Roger was in his mid-twenties, and it made a big impression on Nixon, who hired him to be his television producer in the 1968 election.  And in that election, Ailes came up with a formula which has more or less been the formula for televising candidates ever since, which is to try to tightly constrict the audiences and to give the candidate as much control as possible over his public appearances, which is very much the playbook that Obama used in the last election.

One of Mad Men’s signature episodes occurred late in its first season, cross-cutting the back story of how Dick Whitman became Don Draper with election night in 1960. Will Sterling Cooper Draper Price produce ads for Nixon in 1968?  (And will Matt Weiner, the show’s creator, be savvy enough to mention Ailes? If only, perhaps, to get in the same sort of sucker punch he delivered to Mitt Romney last year.)

Zarathustra Versus the Right Stuff

1968 contrasted the two American space programs: real-life NASA had to compete for attention with the Cinerama visions of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the top-grossing film of 1968, which smuggled its Nietzschian philosophy into movie theaters via space stations and talking computers, and was a magnificently photographed and scored exercise in liberal fascism.

I don’t use the phrase lightly: arch-leftist Susan Sontag mentioned 2001 in her 1974 New York Review of Books article “Fascinating Fascism,” and the film perfectly fits the template Jonah Goldberg laid out in the section of his 2007 book Liberal Fascism titled “Hollywood Fascists.” It’s worth noting that 2001's special effects, production design, and, in a way, its fascist subtext as well would also be the prototype for George Lucas’s Star Wars in 1977, which itself utterly transformed the movie industry.

In 1966, while Kubrick was shooting the live action scenes that would be bracketed by his film’s revolutionary special effects, Time magazine echoed  Friedrich Nietzsche's firebrand 1882 exultation that "God is Dead," softening the impact only slightly by phrasing the words in the form of a question: “Is God Dead?” To understand how radical a moment this was, it’s worth remembering that Time had been created in the 1920s by Henry Luce, who was the son of Christian missionaries to pre-Communist China, and was still living. (Luce would pass away the following year.)