Welcome to Arkansas, Mr. President! (Part 9)

Old State House Museum - Monday, May 06, 2019

photo courtesy of the University of ArkansasRichard Nixon could probably be considered the first Republican in modern times who began to truly take Arkansas seriously as an electoral destination on his long march to the Presidency. In fact, Nixon took the state far more seriously than many of his contemporaries in both parties, and through time, it was increasingly reflected in the loyalty of Arkansas voters.

As a young Senator from California who had made a name for himself crusading against communism as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was selected by the World War II hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, as his Vice-Presidential running mate in the election of 1952. The 39-year old Nixon made his first foray into Arkansas shortly after the Republican Convention in Chicago. Upon arriving at Adams Field on the morning of August 11, 1952, Nixon got off his plane and was greeted by an audience of two reporters. On a 20-minute stop on a flight between Fresno, California and Columbus, Ohio, the reporter who recorded the event noted that it was an unscheduled, “unheralded” stop, which was unknown to state and local Republican officials, even the Republican Mayor Pratt Remmel. The writer described the candidate’s physical appearance: “The usually natty Nixon was disheveled and tired. He needed a shave and the benefit of a comb. Obviously fatigued from his overnight plane trip, he still managed a smile for photographers.” Yet Nixon still built solid relationships in time with many of Arkansas’s prominent leaders, particularly the powerful Senator John McClellan, who had befriended the young Californian during Nixon’s days in the House.

This publicity gap was not repeated in 1960, as Nixon, now the Republican nominee for the Presidency, came south in a determined quest for votes that had not been seen by a GOP nominee since Reconstruction. Nixon came into West Memphis on the afternoon of September 27 after several appearances in Memphis. On what was described as a “windswept, rain-soaked athletic field” at West Memphis High School, the Vice President, accompanied by his wife, Pat, GOP National Committeeman Winthrop Rockefeller, GOP Gubernatorial candidate Henry Britt, and other dignitaries (including a later-famous campaign aide, H.R. Haldeman), spoke against a backdrop of campaign signs wrapped around bales of cotton. He urged the crowd of over 3,000 to “look beyond the party label” and argued that the values of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson were better reflected in the Republican Party, which got standing ovations from the crowd. Nixon fought opponent John F. Kennedy a hard race in Arkansas, narrowly losing to the Democrat by 30,000 votes. Nixon would return in May 1965 to speak to the Young Republican League in Hot Springs and urged the attendees to redouble their efforts to elect Rockefeller Governor in 1966.

Another nine years passed, and Nixon was President, and pursuing a full-blown “Southern Strategy” targeting the states that were carried in 1968 by Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, a Democrat running as a third-party candidate. Nixon understood that part of the traditions of the South that united its citizens more was college football, and one of the things that united Arkies was their Razorbacks. The Hogs were members of the old Southwest Conference in 1969, and their long-time chief nemesis were the Texas Longhorns. But one matchup stands out in this rivalry: December 6, 1969's "Game of the Century."

Hailed as one of the best games in college football history, the matchup lives on in both Texas and Arkansas lore. Texas’ fourth-quarter comeback stands as perhaps the defining moment of the program's rich history. Up against the the fact that the game would likely decide the 1969 national championship (Going into the game, Arkansas was ranked Number 2 and Texas Number 1), the game became the focus of the entire sporting world, doing a television rating of a 52.1 share, meaning more than half the TV sets in the country were tuned in. The previous night, a steady, cold rain fell in Fayetteville and an icy fog hung over Razorback Stadium as the crowd awaited the President’s arrival. It had already been announced that Nixon would award a National Championship symbolic plaque to the winner. Marine One landed on the practice fields just east of Razorback Stadium as the game was starting. Into the stadium came Nixon, accompanied by an A-list political who’s who: Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, Senators John McClellan and J. William Fulbright, Congressman John Paul Hammerscmidt, and two Texas Congressmen: Future Speaker of the House Jim Wright and future President George H.W. Bush.

While the result was heartbreaking for Hog fans, Nixon, after awarding the plaque to the Longhorns, paid a visit to the Razorbacks. He made a statement that endeared him to the team members thereafter:

"I would like to say something to the team, because I know how you feel.

"In my field of politics, I have lost some close ones and I have won some close ones. But I want you to know that in the 100th year of football, in the game to prove which was to be Number 1, we couldn’t have had a greater game. Arkansas was magnificent throughout the game, and Texas, in order to win, had to beat a great team.

"On any Saturday, if we were to make a bet, I would say we wouldn’t know which team to choose, whether it would be Arkansas or Texas.

"I also want you to know this: I think you can be awfully proud of the way your fans are with you. I have never seen stands so full of life. The whole State was behind you. There was a spirit there about it, Coach, and that means that your team has done something that is really great for this State."

Nixon’s good will would not end with football. He was honored by the state’s voters three years later by becoming the first Republican Presidential Nominee to carry Arkansas since 1872 in an epic landslide.