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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.