“Listen, my friends”: Digitizing the 1968 Richard Nixon Campaign Speeches

Today’s post was written by Allie Mackenzie Roberts. Roberts is an Audiovisual Preservation Specialist at the Richard Nixon Library.

Richard Nixon successfully ran for the presidency in 1968 during a very tumultuous time in American history that included the Vietnam War and its protests, North Korea capturing a Naval vessel, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, and the Democratic convention where a violent clash broke out between protestors and police. Nixon campaigned on the platform of providing new leadership and peace both domestically and internationally. 

Richard Nixon stands in front of a microphone in front of a backdrop of patriotic bunting and a version of the original United States flag. He is outside and there are people to the side of the stage.
Richard Nixon giving a speech during the 1968 campaign. (37-a10-024.315.1.28-p)

The Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum holds the 1968 Campaign Sound Recordings Collection that includes 179 cassettes of Nixon speeches at rallies, schools, dinners, and airports, along with press conferences, television interviews, and a handful of Spiro Agnew speeches and interviews. 

Looking at the cassettes, they seemed to have been poorly housed. Therefore, the first priority was to rehouse each cassette into new plastic casings and see what was on them.

A photograph of 8 audio cassette tapes.  Writing on top left corner is smudged, but reads "REMARKS-RECEPTION CHICAGO 5/16/68." The cassette in the top right corner reads "NBC Calif. 6/2 Side #1" The next row down read "RN REMARKS, 5/16/68 BOYS CLUB BANQUET-CHICAGO" and "MEET THE PRESS 5/18/68." The third row reads "NEWARK 5/17/68 SPEECH" and "Senator John Tower July 19, 1968 I." The bottom left hand cassette reads "RN PRESS CONF. Atlanta 5/31/68 Defective-do not play unless necessary. Do not re-record." The bottom right hand cassette has no writing besides the manufacturer label "RECORDIO instant loading tape cartridge."
A selection of audio cassettes from the 179 tapes in the 1968 Campaign Sound Recordings Collection at the Nixon Library.

The process was very interesting since we had to get creative to ensure the safety of the magnetic tape, but also get the tape out of the old plastic shells and into new ones. As you can see below, we made it work by using a tape deck and other items, positioning the two shells in line with the supply and take-up reels and using the smooth mechanism of the tape deck to gently pull the tape into the new shell.

A Nagra tape recorder is being used to reshell audio tape from an old cassette housing to a new one. The old cassette is positioned on top of the Nagra on the left and the new cassette is on the right.
Staff at the Nixon Library came up with creative solutions to safely and efficiently rehouse the audio tape in new cassette shells.

The other method of reshelling audio cassettes is to open the two shells and to manually move the tape into the new shell.  This method usually works, but if the tape is damaged, warped, or loosely packed the risk of further damaging the tape is increased.   

So, due to the age of these tapes and the poor storage conditions they had been subjected to, we preferred the mechanical method.  It also provided an opportunity to inspect the tape as it wound from one shell to the other and document any physical anomalies in our database.  Thankfully, only a handful of these cassettes had to be completely reshelled by hand. For instance, the tape below had snapped inside the shell and the wind became tangled.

An image showing the inside of an audio cassette where the tape has become tangled and messy and after the tape was rewound into a better pack.
An example of a tape that had broken and become tangled inside the cassette shell. Staff at the Nixon Library carefully rewound the tapes by hand to prevent further damage.

After rehousing, our second priority was to listen and digitize whatever was on the tapes. When I would digitize, I ran three tape decks at a time. For quality control, I toggled between the tapes to listen in and I found some really interesting things. 

During one of the first speeches, a campaign volunteer or friend was recording Nixon’s speech and commented that “he’s very good today” on the tape. We found that hilarious in our lab. I’ve uploaded that clip for you to hear below. 

A volunteer or friend comments on Richard Nixon’s stump speech performance. (Richard M. Nixon, NA68-680127-SRC-1, Richard Nixon Speech at Women’s National Republican Club, New York, New York, January 27, 1968.)

Another interesting moment that was caught on tape was during a speech at Syracuse University. A group of student protestors came in and began singing “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel. What I found amazing about this moment was that Nixon promoted their moment of free speech, allowed them to sing, and, afterwards, used their stance to begin his speech and invite them to listen. I’ve uploaded the clip below. I also uploaded a clip from the televised CBS report of the moment. This recording is also amusing since it was recorded from a stranger’s house and one can hear a woman answer the phone and a dog walking around in the background.

At a campaign event at Syracuse University, Nixon gave time to a group of students protesting the Vietnam War and other issues. (Richard M. Nixon, NA68-681029-SRC-1, Richard Nixon speech in Syracuse, New York, October 29, 1968)
A recording of the CBS news coverage of the same event. (Various Reporters, A10-024-SRC-30, CBS News, October 30, 1968)

Lastly, I wanted to give a small insight into what it’s like to sit and listen to these recordings during the digitization process. As time wore on, I was able to figure out where Nixon was in his speech at any given time because he used many of the same phrases over and over again. Therefore, I compiled many of these phrases for your listening pleasure. Hopefully you don’t hear Nixon saying these phrases in your head for months to come like I did. It’s a truly unique perk of the job!

A compilation of some of Nixon’s favorite phrases in his 1968 stump speech. (Recordings used in compilation listed below.)

And now, “My Friends,” I can say that every 1968 campaign speech cassette tape has a new shell, is labeled, and is digitized for future historians and researchers. 

The photograph shows a hand holding the old cassette shell in the foreground, the new, labeled case on the left, and the audio tape in its new shell at the top of the image. The case is labeled "Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION) 1968 Nixon-Agnew Campaign Sound Recording Collection File ID: NA68-681001-SRC-1 Richard Nixon airport rally in Erie, Pennsylvania and Nixon Press Conference with George W. Romney at the Sheraton Cadillac Hotel in Detroit, Michigan at 11:45am Side A: Erie, Pennsylvania Side B: Detroit, Michigan 10/1/1968 Erie Pennsylvania and Detroit, Michigan A10-024 (addendum, appendix B) ORIGINAL AUDIO CASSETTE"
Same old audio tape, new shell and case! This recording will be protected for the future.

Recordings compiled:

All of the recordings featured in this post are preserved at the Richard Nixon Library. Visit their research homepage to learn more about how to explore these records.

2 thoughts on ““Listen, my friends”: Digitizing the 1968 Richard Nixon Campaign Speeches

  1. This is quite an accomplishment and you and your colleagues should be very proud of your work here. What stands out to me (other than the horrible shape the tapes were in!):

    1. How amazingly clear these old tapes are. Since they were made using analogue gear long ago, and then improperly stored, it is quite remarkable how clear and understandable they are. Also, I doubt any of the equipment (microphones and recorders) were professional grade.

    2. President Nixon was a remarkable politician with considerable speaking skills. He had numerous character flaws and decided lack of respect for the law, but he certainly know how to campaign and give a speech. And remember, he did not have a teleprompter at any of these speeches.

  2. Heh, the repeated campaign promise to “get the rest of the free world to carry its share of the defense of freedom.” Fifty-plus years later people are still complaining about our NATO allies not pulling their weight.

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